People say that the wheel is mans’ greatest invention. I argue that a machine that uses two wheels is the greatest: the bicycle, specifically the MTB or mountain bike. The dictionary defines the MTB as, “A bicycle with wide tires and horizontal handlebars, often used for off road cycling” (American Heritage, 2001, p.554). This is true, but the problem is the feeling of actual experience is lost with any textbook definition. This is really a definition of the tool used to ride off road, but cannot begin to define actually riding the MTB. Defining an action is much more difficult and cannot be explained or described in one or two short sentences. Sometimes the object or action being described cannot be defined at all and must be experienced to be understood.
Does the dictionary explain the feel of pulling into a local riding spot with a bike locked to the top of the car? Stepping out, the air might be cool and wet with a patch of fog lingering overhead. To the left, a constant sound of rushing water is heard as the drop in temperature touches the skin while moving closer to the river. The gentle wind blowing across its path is almost frigid. But to the right, is the much anticipated destination: the mountain. “A natural elevation of the earth’s surface greater in height than a hill” (American Heritage, 2001, p.554), is how the dictionary tries to evoke its image. This mountain juts out of the earth’s crust begging for some attention.
First, strap on a helmet filled with the odor of stale sweat. Helmets are a must for all forms of biking; especially, the MTB. The chances of falling and causing an injury is greater when riding off of the paved road. Second, slip on a pair of fingerless gloves with a terry cloth patch on the backside. Every mountain biker needs gloves; they protect hands from flying debris and make a good place to wipe any leaking fluids. Last, put on a Camelpak; its bladder is full of cold drinking water that sloshes around as it is being strapped to the rider’s back. The Camelpak is
basically a hydration device. It stores water in a back pack and allows for easy access to the water via a skinny blue hose protruding from its top. It also carries an extra tube, a pump, and a multi-tool in its zipper pouch. These are must-haves on the trail in case of flat tires or mechanical problems. They can be life savers while on a trail twenty-five miles from the nearest road when a tire develops a steady air leak.
Finally, it is time to hit the trail; throw one leg over the seat and put each foot on its pedal. The shoes make a click, then a second click that lets the rider know they are locked into the clipless pedals. Clipless pedals are a great invention that attach the rider’s shoes to the pedals making it possible to pull the pedal up, as well as push it down; this gives a more efficient pedal stroke.
It is hard for a dictionary to describe the feeling of the first 300 yards where legs and lungs must adapt to the change in the body’s oxygen needs. The sound of the gravel road that leads to the dirt trails makes a lot of noise and sometimes the tires will throw a rock up and it will make a high pitched metallic clink as it hits the bike’s frame. Up ahead there is a place where a creek and road must cross. The water flows over the road like the road does not exist. It is important to hit the brakes and proceed slowly through the four inches of water in the path. A swishing sound is heard as the tires displace the cold clear water. The feel of the water splashing onto tired legs feels like tiny rain drops in reverse. The smell of damp leaves and mud fill the air; the smell that finally overcomes the odor from the helmet; the smell that you have been waiting for; the smell that sends the brain a message that climbing and pain is ahead.
Finally, the place where the road ends and the narrow dirt singletrack begins. Singletrack is a term describing the type of trail; it is a very narrow path with small obstacles such as rocks, roots, and fallen trees. It is a more technical kind of riding and takes as much bike handling skill as physical fitness. It is wandering up through the old oak trees and continues up for the first two miles.
The ride is now getting too tough to bear so the rider clicks to an easier gear. The ability to change gears is available though a shifter mounted to the handle bars. It is engineered to use the thumb to go to an easier gear and the index finger to go harder. The chain reluctantly goes up by force. This is the part of the ride that keeps most people from riding these trails. The hard breathing and sharp pain inside the lungs and legs begins to grow. A true rider knows the hurt is worth it because of what lies at the top. There is a maze of trails that wander for miles in these woods. The best part is many of them go down at a sharp angle and allow for high speed descents. There are so many trails that it is possible to come here and ride for hours and hours and never see the same trail twice.
The air is still and quiet. The only sound is the heart beating at its maximum rate. The tall hardwoods that make up this forest provide shelter from the sun. There is a slightly blue-green tint to everything, caused by the sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees. It is reminiscent of some fairyland once seen in a fantasy movie or maybe a dream.
Does the dictionary describe the air blowing through the holes in the helmet and the roaring sound it produces? Sometimes, it will cause watering of the eyes if some kind of eye protection is not used. Sunglasses are worn for a couple of reasons. They protect eyes from wind and mud and of course sunlight. On days when the sun is hidden and light conditions are dim, a set of yellow colored lenses is helpful for protecting the eyes, but also for allowing better visibility.
There is peace when finally deciding to stop and rest a moment. The total silence is overwhelming. The only sound the forest makes is the whisper of the leaves rustling as a faint breeze blows in the treetops; this is a special moment when even the birds are listening. Sometimes riders get lucky and see a deer bounce off out of sight while enjoying the only scenery which is the tall oaks, elms, and conifers. A sparkly reflection of the nearby lake can also be seen; the sun reflected at a thousand different angles.
Standing there with the thoughts of today’s stresses and problems melting from memory, one realizes that the experience just encountered is the true definition of mountain biking.