One of my friends is an avid trail biker and all-around adrenaline junkie. Windsurfing, rock climbing, ex-parkour aficionado. He’s also very mild-mannered, methodical and safe, totally trustworthy and an excellent teacher, so when he invited me to go mountain biking with him I said yes. I’d never been trail riding before, my bike is over a decade old and has never seen a trail, but I felt that I am in good enough general physical condition that I could at least keep up.
One of the local state parks, which is on the grounds of a former historic sanatorium for Detroit tuberculosis patients, has some great bike trails, and so, with the sun shining on green trees just barely starting to turn their colors, cool and bright and windy, we headed there. Unfortunately, as we discovered, the only trails are yellow-grade, not green, so more intermediate. There was some concern and discussion, some initial coaching, and off we went.
So, mountain biking on an actual trail is terrifying. I don’t know what I expected but it certainly wasn’t that. I didn’t expect steep declines studded with rocks and exposed tree roots, narrow switchbacks and crumbling gravel, sand and mud, inclines that took every bit of muscle in my lower back and legs to push up. Even though we were going at an almost leisurely pace compared to what these guys usually do, the speed was intense. It took constant focus to assess what the terrain was doing and what I needed to do in turn, but no time to make decisions, so for the first few miles, I felt almost paralyzed with fear, just pointing the bike and praying. My friend was behind me, giving me tips, and then we came to a sharp corner. I twitched to avoid a rock in the trail, hit the front brakes too hard on a downhill, and had my initiation into flying over the handlebars.
My friend was very calm, picked me up, brushed me off, and on the side of the trail we did a brief deconstruction of what had occurred. I listened, nodded, tried not to look at the blood on my knee and hands, and got back on.
The lessons I learned from the first few miles and the first fall:
- Right brake is the rear wheel, left brake is the front. Use the right brake more on downhills but feather the left brake as well.
- Know your gears and shift them constantly. I had never known what or when to shift for different things, but at the end of the trail I was shifting all the time, and still not as frequently as my friend behind me.
- Learn how to stand up on the pedals and keep them horizontal on a downhill. Lean backwards and be able to grip the seat with your legs to keep control and keep your center of gravity stable on the mid to back section of the bike.
- Practice. I have to go out on more trails and get more miles in. You don’t have time to think or process so you have to react instinctively and in the moment and that only comes from practice.
- Go with a good teacher who knows what he/she is doing and is willing to watch you and teach you and take responsibility for you out on the trail. My friend didn’t even break a sweat when we were out, it wasn’t even a workout for him, but I could not have finished 6+ miles of that trail without him watching me every minute and yelling instructions when I needed them.
At the end of the trail, my teacher told me that I had done very well, especially for a first-timer, and I was so pleased with myself. I couldn’t believe I’d actually done it. I was so proud of these, because I had totally earned them.
Later, we did some urban biking on the Detroit riverfront. The wind was blowing up some storms and I wish I’d had my camera for more of the trip, because watching the freighter move up the river was amazing, and the Dequindre Cut made me happier than anything.
I already know it was the day that I will look back on and feel was the last, best day of summer, poised right on the edge of fall.