I met my first serious mountain bike eight years ago in the Tetons. With just a few spins to a Chicago convenience store as my base of experience, I insisted on launching myself and a few friends into the back country. No trails. No guides. No, uh, reason. I got us lost in the Wyoming wilderness, infuriated my wife and friends, and found no grace in a sport where the bike is master and you're just along for a painfully bumpy ride.
I dropped the sport.
A few years later, I took it up again. First as a break from a regular running regimen, then as a replacement for it. In many ways, my evolving relationship with mountain biking -- from novelty to fitness staple -- mirrors the sport's maturing character. In 25 years, it has gone from a northern Californian yahoo pastime to the mainstream, with an estimated 3 million regular riders and a slot in Atlanta as the youngest sport in Olympic history to earn full-medal recognition. Last summer, Volkswagen even offered the first ever cross-promotional package -- a $14,500 Jetta Trek equipped with a 24-speed Trek mountain bike on the roof.
What's driving the sport's mass appeal? Is it the sexy, leading-edge technology incorporated into superbikes that routinely cost $1,500 or more? The nonimpact fitness benefits of cycling? Or the stress-busting relief of cruising through the woods with all the élan of a ten-year-old? The consensus: all of the above.
You don't need a week's worth of tutorials to get going. But at some point, staleness sets in. Advanced skills seem frustratingly out of reach. Expert counsel, rugged terrain, and a little jolt of competition usually solves the problem. In the following pages, we offer an inside look at the country's premier instructional camp, comprehensive guides on affordable gear and where to find the best riding this fall, plus a dirt dictionary so you can talk the talk when you get there. So mount up that dual squishy, you hammerhead, and get rockin'.
William Wright's guts are in turmoil. Nothing has prepared the 33-year-old financial planner with Trans America for this moment. He's standing at the start line of the 1996 Iron Horse Classic mountain bike race. Around him are 150 jacked-up riders, ready to mass assault a 2,000-foot-high mesa called Chapman Hill. Two-story concert speakers pound out Soundgarden's megadecibel snarl. Anodized-finished bike parts flash in the brilliant sun. It all suggests an imminent tribal war.
The Iron Horse, in Durango, Colorado's San Juan Mountains, is one brutal off-road race, much of it above 8,000 feet. Trying to calm himself, Wright draws a deep breath. Into his diaphragm flows a suffocating mixture of wheel-stirred trail grit and oxygen-depleted air. He turns to the rider next to him. "I don't know what I'm doing here," he blurts. Then the gun blasts.
Twenty minutes later, with Wright somewhere up on the course, the first casualty is hustled down on a stretcher. Crumpled up fetal-like, the 40-something rider lies motionless. One hand is folded across his body, trying to shield a shattered collar bone. The sight chills everyone -- especially the rest of us still waiting to race. "Did you see his face?" asks Beth Appleton, the race operations manager. "Whew, he looks bad."
If we haven't already, each of us reexamines our passion for off-road racing. What might we get out of this experience -- personally, professionally -- that could possibly be worth a trip to the emergency room?
In racing, you will fail. (That's how you learn.)
The Iron Horse culminates four days of off-road racing instruction at Dirt Camp : a roving school that stops at fat-tire Meccas from Crested Butte to St. Tropez. Three years ago Rod and Julie Kramer, who outfitted road-cycling vacations throughout the United States and Europe, launched Dirt Camp out of their garage in Boulder, Colorado. Their market: the growing legions of biking enthusiasts who want to spend their vacations riding legendary trails and getting expert instruction from the pros.
On this Memorial Day weekend, Dirt Camp sets up in Durango, the epicenter of off-road racing. It's 10 AM Friday. Our class of ten -- most in their 30s and 40s -- gathers in the parking lot at the Iron Horse Inn for our first "ride rap." Kramer begins by passing out a waiver release. "You can't hide anything on a mountain bike race course," he announces. "Yes, you're alone and yes, you suffer. So what's the upside? Quite frankly, you find out how you measure up."
Jordan Wand is ready to get on with it. He's the 29-year-old director of Polo Sport Design for Manhattan-based Ralph Lauren. Over the past two years, he's advanced from a timid neophyte to a skilled rider. He drinks up the sport, each week calling the Dirt Camp office to keep in touch with a world that isn't exactly the stuff of cocktail party chatter among the runway crowd. While colleagues throw money at getaways to the Hamptons, Jordan's discretionary cash goes to mountain bike trips and a local "wrench," whom he keeps on retainer to fine-tune his $2,000 Dean mountain bike.
"I'm an oddity," he admits. "I ride my brains out on these trips and come back to the office looking worse than when I left." Wand has reached the point in his riding where a big race seems like the inevitable next step. "But I've got mixed feelings about it," he says. "You hear the pros talk and the passion is obvious. When I think about it I get stressed. Given that I'm stressed 90 hours a week at work, I'm not so sure I really need more."
That gnarly trail isn't a land mine -- it's an opportunity to test your skill.
Skip Hamilton is our guru. His Zen phraseology and take on the sport instantly become ours. Not that we're compliant. It's just that his taut, 52-year-old body makes for a powerful resume;. That, and the fact that he coaches several top pro racers and is training for the 3,500-mile Race Across America.
The first morning we work on skill drills in a park behind Durango High School. ("Where it's grassy and you don't mind falling a lot," offers Kramer.) Hamilton emphasizes words absent from most riders' lexicon: finesse, flow, control. Riding with power and fury doesn't produce results, he tells us, only fatigue. "Racing isn't about punks with nose rings bombing down some trail," he says. "It's all about precise bike handling and knowing all that the bike can do for you."
For many of us, what the bike does is fling us over the handlebars. Hamilton is empathetic. After I do it several times he looks discouraged. About the time I bash my butt on my saddle while attempting to hop a log (and bend my seat to a 45-degree angle) , Hamilton ceases to look at me altogether.
At session's end, we've slalomed a tight, Grand Prix-style course, negotiated simulated switchbacks, "feathered" our front brakes to drop speed, and practiced keeping our pedals at three and nine o'clock -- the most stable platform for fast downhilling and springloaded jumps. As we gather for a pre-ride of the race course at Chapman Hill, Skip encourages us to have faith in our skills. "Some of you will look at the course and see only obstacles: loose climbs, scary descents, debris everywhere," he says. "But keep this in mind: obstacles are opportunities. You measure progress by how well you maintain the bike's flow. And nothing challenges flow like a Colorado trail."
If you don't want to ride off the cliff, don't look at the damn cliff.
Our daily trail rides range from two to five hours. They're punctuated by brief clinics at the obvious spots: a tricky water crossing at Hermosa Creek; the wheel-sucking sandpit near the base of Animas City Mountain. "Point the front wheel where you want to go," Hamilton tells us on the approach to a trail-clogging rock pile, "the bike will follow." Simple, perhaps simplistic advice. It works! The same goes for another gotta-have-faith maxim: "To get control, go faster." You and your bike are more stable as speed increases -- as long as you slow up for switchbacks.
Other lessons don't go over as well. Steven Shapiro, director of communications for Denver's Founders Funds, is battling acrophobia. We skirt 1,000-foot drop-offs near the terminus of the Denver-to-Durango Trail. Shapiro white-knuckles the handlebars and tenses all over. His speed drops. His bike handling gets tentative. Hamilton takes him aside. "Don't look where you don't want to go," he stage whispers. Put another way: "You look at the cliff, you go off the cliff."
Shapiro nods. But the disconnect between understanding and follow-through runs deep. As long as he's riding a narrow trail etched into near-vertical rock face, he's not sure he'll ever make peace with "flow." At the hairiest drop-off, he dismounts. "I'm still waiting for my epiphany," he says. "I'll walk it."
On the day of the big race, remember this about pacing: Screw it!
As race day nears, tension grows. We feel a double whammy: the fatigue of successive training rides and the mental drain from spending each hour anticipating extreme physical duress. At the last night's training talk, William Wright raises his hand: "I've heard it's really not that important if you don't sleep well the night before a race. Is that true?"
Ultimately, more than half the group bails out. On the day before the race, Steven Shapiro is 90% convinced he'll go for it. "[Pro racer] Franklin Henry came to me and said it's really something I need to do, so I guess I'll give it a try," he says. But the next morning, he sleeps in. Instead, he does a rugged, advanced ride up Animas City Mountain -- twice. "My penance," he shrugs.
On the eve of the race, I wake up at 4 AM My heart is screaming along at race pace. I try to reason with myself: How can this be so stressful? Owing money is stressful. Pitching a client on a $20-million ad campaign is stressful. But racing? Nah.
No go. Not since sixth grade, when I was lined up for timed sprints, has the potential for naked humiliation seemed so potent. Even so, there is good news. William Wright, who races in the beginner's category, survives the ten-mile course intact. He even finishes in the top two-thirds of his age group. Jordan Wand also keeps his appointment at the start line. His fear of being dressed down on a major-league course turns out to be unfounded. Racing in the intermediate group (18 miles) , he gleefully barrels down a steep, tight singletrack that on another day, in another place, he'd either do awkwardly or not at all.
I'm also in the intermediate group. I figure the leg-slaughtering start up Chapman Hill is a plus. I'm a good climber. I cleaned the Hill during the pre-ride. Chapman Hill isn't an obstacle, I repeat. It's an opportunity.
No, it's an obstacle.
A few hundred yards up, I'm swallowed by a slow-speed crash. The rider pile-up and super-steep pitch make it impossible to remount. My legs feel like concrete. My plan is kaput. And my one dependable strength -- aerobic fitness -- isn't available today. Among my oversights: a thorough warm-up. Distracted by the throng at the start line, I cut the recommended 30-minute warm-up to about 10 minutes. I never came close to attaining my maximum heart rate. Skip Hamilton had mapped out a warm-up that included short bouts at an all-out pace, all to avoid what I am now experiencing: race-pace shock.
At the top of Chapman Hill, my legs are wasted. As planned, I recover on the flat. Not as planned, everybody else flies by me. Fat ones. Old ones. Fat and old ones. Recovery doesn't appear to be in anybody else's game plan. Had I known that some racers who find themselves in my predicament flatten their tires so they can retire with dignity, I would have pulled out my Swiss Army knife.
About a half-hour in -- just when my performance seems terminally anemic -- my legs come back to life. In racing, it's not uncommon: lactate, a metabolic by-product of anaerobic work that knots up the big muscle groups, has flushed away. I start passing people at the end of the first nine-mile lap, then steadily overtake guys in my age group on the final leg.
"You can take another spot, 1519," screams a stranger on the homestretch, urging me past the guy ahead. "Get after it!" I don't catch him. Even so, I feel redemption is mine. I place 22nd out of 60 riders, about 12 minutes behind the leader. William Wright, all fired up, greets me at the finish line. "Great job on the second lap," he yells. "You converted?"
I don't have an immediate answer. But a few hours later, I think I do. I'm reminded of a new theory on training, dubbed No Man's Land. It goes like this: most of us think we know how to train hard -- just work hard enough to get tired. In fact, the optimum training cycle is super-intense work followed by a replenishing period of rest. Most of us are somewhere in between: No Man's Land.
So in theory and in practice, off-road racing makes perfect sense. Nothing in between about it.
Todd Balf is a contributing editor at "Outside" magazine. He lives in Beverly, MA.
"The Dirt Camp Dictionary"
"Resources: Yellow Pages For Bike Camps"
"Gear Up - For Under $750"