Into the Woods

After nearly forty years of road cycling, the author explores the joys and challenges of mountain biking. Photo by Dylan Thiessen.


By Michael Schwalbe

My first foray into mountain biking ended badly.

I was visiting family in Wisconsin about twenty years ago when my twelve-year-old nephew asked if I would take him for a ride on a local trail. He knew I had raced bikes, once upon a time, and still went for long rides. So I couldn’t say no, though I feebly protested that I didn’t have a mountain bike with me on the trip, hoping this would squelch the idea. I withheld the fact that I had never ridden a mountain bike.

“That’s okay about the bike,” he told me, “I asked my dad and he said you could borrow his.”

It was supposed to be an easy trail. And so with an abundance of confidence and a dearth of skill, I fell once by catching my handlebars on a tree, again by taking a turn too fast and flying over the top of a berm, and once more by plowing into a log and going over the bars. After the third face plant, I jumped up to assure my nephew that I wasn’t hurt. “This isn’t what I’m used to,” I said, smiling through grit, “but it’s sure a lot of fun.” We had gone less than a mile.

For the sake of life, limb, and dignity, I avoided mountain bikes for a decade. It took that long for the bad memories to fade and the itch for variety in my cycling life to lead me off road again. I tried a cyclocross bike, a gravel bike, and a hardtail mountain bike, selling each in short order. The fun I had hoped to find by merging two favorite activities—riding a bike and roaming the woods—proved elusive. I was always eager, after a trail ride, to get back to riding a light, fast road bike on smooth tarmac. Proper cycling.

Another decade went by and along the way I retired. By then I had lived in Chapel Hill over 30 years and all my road routes, ridden hundreds of times clockwise and counter-clockwise, had become overly familiar. I could envision every stretch of road and every hill on every route—before leaving the house. Again I was feeling the itch for variety. I was also becoming less tolerant of busy roads and bad drivers. Maybe the answer was where I’d looked for it before: in the woods. 

A minor investment in an entry-level mountain bike seemed worth a try. If the relationship didn’t work out, I told myself, I could always put the bike on Craigslist and resell it to a good home. I also thought that if I took things more slowly and thoughtfully this time, I might achieve a better result. Which meant that after watching a few instructional YouTube videos—“doing one’s own research,” as amateur scientists call it—I proceeded to ride nearly every mountain bike trail in the area.

Somehow I managed not to hurt myself. 

I was content to skirt jumps and big drops, and I didn’t hesitate to put a foot down if I came to a daunting patch of rocks. The worst I suffered were a few scratches after riding off the side of a narrow bridge into a bush. I preferred smooth, flowing trails, but also found that I liked grinding up rootsy hills and through punchy whoop-de-dos. I was having fun—enough so that, considering the brevity of life, I bought a better bike. I also decided it was time to humble myself and get a lesson.

Veteran roadie and off-road novice Michael Schwalbe receives a lesson from mountain biking instructor Tamara Sanders. Photo by Dylan Thiessen.

The Lesson

Tamara Sanders, mountain biking instructor and co-owner of Back Alley Bikes, met me late on a weekday afternoon at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Carrboro. I had asked her to give me a beginner’s lesson. “Think of me as an old roadie who wants to give mountain biking a try but knows nothing about it,” I had told her. We first adjourned to the pump track.

Tamara showed me how to position myself on the bike. My road experience inclined me to stay in the saddle, tuck my elbows in, and present a narrow profile to the wind. On a mountain bike, as Tamara showed me, I had to be ready to stand up on the pedals in a neutral position—“keep your head up and the pedals level!”—and let the bike move under me. Other times I might need to crouch lower, shift my weight forward or back, and keep my elbows and knees wide to maximize control over the bike.

It all made sense, based on the scant knowledge of mountain biking I already possessed, but still it felt strange—sixty years after first learning to ride a bike and nearly forty years after taking up road cycling in a serious way—to have someone explain it to me. Humbling, indeed. To absorb the lesson I had to get my age and experience out of the way. 

We moved from the pump track to a nearby trail. My new bike came with a dropper post—a device for lowering and raising the saddle while riding—and Tamara asked me how much I had used it so far. Not at all, I admitted. So she showed me when and how to use the dropper to handle rough stuff. We also worked on braking, cornering (“look, lean, and lower!”), and, again, positioning. It was going to take a lot of practice to get it right, but at least I would have the benefit of Tamara’s coaching voice in my head.

“Let me know when you’re ready to work on jumps,” Tamara said as we rode back to the park. I said that jumps weren’t on my agenda, that I just wanted to get good enough to enjoy trail riding without putting my aging bones at risk. “But you’re already a rock star!” Tamara said. I laughed at the hyperbole, taking it to mean, “At least you’re not a total noob on a mountain bike; you didn’t crash once during the lesson.” I appreciated the encouragement, but had no desire to scorn the road cycling principle of keeping one’s tires firmly in touch with the ground.

Into the Woods?

I’m not sure if I’ll find what I’m looking for in the woods. I’ve found a few good things already: new places to ride, incentive to develop new skills, a kind of riding that will build more upper-body strength, and the quiet solitude of a car-free environment. If I keep at it, maybe I’ll find more to like about mountain biking, satisfactions yet to be discovered. At this point, I’ve barely scratched the loam.

Not that I’m giving up the road. I still like going fast—such as “fast” might be for me these days—on a smooth road with a stiff and light road bike beneath me. This is the experience that draws me to cycling and gets me out the door. I would even say that the pleasures I’ve found in taking to the woods on a bike have made me appreciate the road all the more, except for the part about having to share it with distracted drivers.

The nephew with whom I took that inauspicious first ride followed his dad’s path and became a rock climber. Years later, during another visit, the same nephew offered to teach me basic climbing skills and take me to a place where I could practice doing easy bouldering. “That’s an interesting idea,” I said, trying to look as if I was actually considering it. “But how about we go trout fishing instead?”

Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.

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