I went out for a ride yesterday. It was all on my hardtail 29er mountain bike, but started with 16 miles of pavement. Then I hammered 4 miles on mostly flat trails that are wide, rocky, rooty and fast. Then I rode another 2 miles on pavement back home. There are an awful lot of people who would say that this was a terrible ride. That somehow it wasn’t “real” mountain biking. But I realized three things during that ride that I think are terribly important.
1. I was having fun.
I’ve been struggling as of late to find joy on my mountain bike. It’s not that it’s not there at all, just not in the quantities I’ve found it in other two-wheeled endeavors. Two summers ago, my frame broke and it took so long to replace it that I missed almost all of the season. I did one race and then transitioned into cyclocross. The next summer I spent until mid-August training for sprint-distance triathlons and thus did all of three races on dirt before again airing up the cyclocross tires. This year I was planning on much more fat-tire riding, but wasn’t finding the joy. I was even starting to kick around the idea of selling my mountain bike for a nicer cyclocross bike.
But I enjoyed my ride yesterday. It put a smile on my face. And I’d go do it again.
2. I’ve been trying to adopt somebody else’s definition of “real” mountain biking.
Even at the beginning of this season, with former XC racers Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski and Heather Irmiger transitioning to Enduro riding and racing, the refrain I’m hearing from them (and other commentators, to be fair) is that Enduro is “real” mountain biking. It’s riding downhill, technical trails as fast as you can. It’s about baggy shorts and loose-fitting jerseys and at least some pads so you don’t wreck your body. It’s definitely not the new face of XC racing, cruising around a lap of artificially smooth trails. And if you like that new kind of XC racing — well, you’re just not a “real” mountain biker.
That opinion is prevalent in my local area too. You’re not supposed to like the Ore to Shore, because it’s roads and XC ski trails and (giggle, giggle) the sign for the 40 meters of singletrack. You’re not supposed to like the Deer Chase because… well, frankly, I don’t know why you’re not supposed to like it, but the look of confusion on the guy’s face when I told him it was my favorite local race told me it wasn’t supposed to be. No, you’re supposed to like the Copper Harbor Trails Festival. That’s “real” mountain bike racing. You’re supposed to tolerate the climbing so that you can rail the downhills! You’re supposed to bring your 6″ travel all-mountain bike to kill the Enduro race! And for once, it’s actually sufficiently technical terrain in a race!
My Kona came with handlebars that were 710 mm wide and I was struggling mightily to stop clipping trees with them. When I told the guys at the shop, they said they feel funny on bars less than 730 mm or even wider. And here I was wishing for narrower bars? They happily trimmed them for me to make sure I was happy (and for the record, I have been very happy with the change), but the feeling was still there: I’m doing it wrong somehow.
There were two 100-mile races on the same weekend in late June: the Chequamegon 100 and the Sturgeon 100. The Cheq100 was on miles of prime CAMBA singletrack. The Sturgeon was on miles of gravel Forest Service roads. All the cool kids were going to be in Wisconsin. Nobody in the right mind would be doing the gravel thing.
All season, I’ve been working under that definition. I signed up for the Ore to Shore, but was ready to defend it as a “want to see how fast I’ve gotten in the last 4 years” experience, not a “I’m honestly looking forward to this” experience. I told my wife I wanted to ride Copper Harbor as much as I could so that I could really do a great job at the race. I’ve been spending copious amounts of time on the more technical trails on my home system, trying to get better at riding that stuff. But like I said up in Point 1, I wasn’t having much fun.
Don’t get me wrong. Clearing a new rock garden, making it up that hard-scrabble hill, threading some windy singletrack? Those accomplishments are always worth the effort they require. It’s not that they are hard that makes me enjoy them less. It just that inherently, they don’t make me smile like hammering along, leaning into long, swooping turns and zig-zagging between the rocks and roots. I actually loved settling into that steady tempo for 100 miles of gravel. And while the thrill of going downhill is undeniable, I like earning my way to the top of the hill just as much — if not more. No shuttle runs for me, thank you very much.
Recognizing this is both freeing and encouraging. I think that for the first time since 2006, I’m just not going to ride the Copper Harbor race. Because you know what? I just don’t like it that much. I will say with pride that, yeah, I’m going down to Marquette for the Ore to Shore because I want to kill that race and get a great placing. Maybe next year I’ll shoot for the 48 miler. I can do the races I want to do and not the races everybody else tells me I want to do. Not forcing myself to use somebody else’s definition of fun will actually let me have some.
3. Now I understand why I like ‘cross too.
Cyclocross courses remind me a lot of the kinds of mountain bike courses I like. The “real” mountain biking I was striving for is so much about bike handling skills that it largely ignores fitness. (Please notice that sentence does not say “completely”!) Cyclocross (and the mountain biking I actually like) is more about fitness while still having enough bike handling skills to keep it rubber-side down. While I’m not quite ready for ‘cross season yet (especially the weather), I’m reminded that the kind of cycling I like to do is available to me in spades.
So no more excuses for the rides I go on, the races I sign up for and the ones I don’t. You don’t get to tell me what kind of cycling to like. If you’re completely disenchanted with pro road racing, fine. But I loved watching the Tour this year. You might not “get” cyclocross, but I do and I’ll be out there in the mud this fall. You might not like my idea of a great mountain bike ride, but I don’t have to like yours either.
And that’s what I learned on my ride yesterday.