spainheader
Beggars Would Ride

Texture/Context

Words Mike Ferrentino
Date Nov 18, 2022
Reading time

Cali pointed across to the ridgeline some miles east, where a thin “Z” was etched into the thorny chapparal, running from ridge before switching back, running more, switching again, then dropping out of sight into the deep canyon below. He told us that this trail, the one we would soon be riding, was first built by the Moors sometime more than 1000 years ago, as they terraced the jagged mountainsides, planting olive groves, then vineyards, and attempting to coax harvests out of this rocky, dry, incredibly sparse landscape. This was also the route that the Moors took as they were driven into retreat by a rising Catholic xenophobia from the same land they had spent centuries taming.

We were in the Sierra Nevada. Normally, being from California, I associate those two words with the 400 mile long granite burrito that runs north-south along the eastern edge of my home state, but those mountains were named, most likely, by homesick Spaniards. This Sierra Nevada was in Spain, and we were on the south flank of it in Andalusia, following aqueducts, climbing rutted ancient paths and railing dicey-loose singletrack between whitewashed villages. And every single trail we set our tires to, along with the villages we stopped at between trails, had a history that predated mountain bikes not just by decades, but by millennia. There were no berms. There were no sculpted jump faces. It was awesome.

spanishtrail

That faint little zigzag of singletrack, six or seven hours into a long day, was old before the "discovery" of the Americas, old before the Spanish Inquisition, old before wheels and pedals. Knowing that, paradoxically, did not make me feel any younger.

Descents were fast and loose, gravel to fist to head size rocks floating around in a bed of not-quite-so-loose rock and soil; sometimes the trail bed would be a couple feet wide, other times the line was not much more than a few tire widths. Riding these trails for the first time, at speed, trusting and hoping that the locals we were following were good with their line choices, dictated some degree of necessary caution. But caution is all relative, right? Even though these trails weren’t in the same Sierra Nevada that I’ve ridden in for the past 30-some years, they felt at times very similar. There’s a learned braille that comes with riding this janky stuff. It doesn’t come naturally, but once you get used to surfing loose rock it becomes familiar enough to be fun. For me, it feels (for lack of having any other way of describing the sensation) like home. So, we let it rip a bit on the descents between plates of Jamon Iberico, in between climbs that were similarly chunky and far less fun to go up than they were to rail down.

This, the sensation of seeing a new place, of riding a new landscape, of reading new trails on the fly, this is what hooked me on mountain biking in the first place.

Modern equipment makes the ripping of primitive janky terrain a whole lot more fun than it used to be. But even then, on rigid bikes with woefully inadequate cantilever brakes squeezing rims in their very questionable attempt to turn velocity into heat, this was where the draw of mountain biking was for me. Not knowing what was off the edge of the trail, what may be around the next corner, speed-reading the landscape with rattling eyeballs and hoping to choose the good line in a series of split-second decisions, riding blind and totally in the moment.

Now, with brakes that actually work, suspension that at least slows the onset and diminishes the severity of arm pump, and geometry that forgives a whole lot of poor decision making, trails like these – these centuries old wrestling matches between gravity and topography never once envisioned as a playground for wheeled contrivances – are more accessible and so much more fun to play around on than “back in the day”. And their character, their texture if you will, remains robustly intact and more than ready to serve up hard lessons for any split second of indecision or hubris.

IMG_7847

My happy place: surfing shale on primitive dirt about as fast as I can comfortably see on a trail I've never been on. A little before this, I was in my dying place, on a climb that felt endless but was really only a half hour or so of sunbaked misery. Photo thanks to the GoPro talents of Jeffry Goethals

Whether it’s the loamy dank of the Pacific Northwest, or the rock/sand/rock/thorn brutality of arroyo biking in Baja, the thing that I remember most of the places I have ridden is the texture of the ground. The learned language of a place; where the traction can be found, where it can’t; how much drift is acceptable, how just a tiny bit more is very bad; how this line will hold and how this other one will almost certainly lead to regret. Mud, sand, blue-groove hardpack, ledgy sandstone, grass, wet grass, kitty litter over hardpack, gravel, bigger gravel, rock gardens full of babyheads, scree fields, slippery ropes of tree roots, the muffling cushion of soil and decomposing vegetation that we cherish as loam, all of it read through the telegraph of tire and handlebar, translated between hands and brain and fed back into hands and hips and feet in a conversation between the ground and me, with the bike serving as translator.

The luddite in me argues with the progressive in me when it comes to how best to carry on this lifelong conversation. The luddite says “feel it all” and would prefer that I ride a rigid singlespeed with skinny tires. The progressive takes note of the personal odometer and suggests that given the relative antiquity of the pilot, some measure of comfort is a good thing. The 17-year old kid in me wants to go fast, regardless of consequence. The 57-year old that I am dictates that a more prudent course of action may be warranted because hip surgery is something we would like to avoid for as long as possible. Any surgery, for that matter. But regardless of how I translate that conversation, I want to be having it, and I want it to be broadly textured.

The inner-luddite and the inner-progressive both struggle with the idea of trails built specifically for mountain biking. It feels almost like this is a new language, or at least not the same language I have spent so many decades learning. There’s a certain homogeneity that creeps in with bike-centric built trails, and at the same time there is a whole new language to explore, and a whole galaxy of ways that language can be implemented onto a landscape. So it’s not boring, but it is different. There are patterned responses to cues built into the trail, but the trail, being built primarily for bikes, loses some varietal spice and unpredictability, and that spice and unpredictability is cornerstone to my personal “why” when it comes to mountain biking.

texturewall

It wasn't just the trails that carried the language of rocks. Everything, cobbled streets to stone walls to slate roofs, reminded you that this place is, ummm, a bit rocky.

Would I have been bummed out to find a flow trail snaking berm-to-jump-to-berm down into that valley in Spain? No. I would have loved it. I would have hooted and whooped and reveled in wheels leaving ground and the heavy compression of those banked turns. But I wouldn’t have felt like I was absorbing a place. I wouldn’t have sensed the generations of backbreaking sweat that went into this land, nor the blood toll exacted. I wouldn’t have realized that the slate tinkling under my tires is the same as the locals still use for their roofs, or that these trails are made of the same rock as those houses. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. Maybe it’s the jetlag talking. Maybe if I concentrated on riding more than getting caught up in some romanticization of all that came before I’d be a better rider.

But that’s not why I ride. We all have our various motivations. Some of us want to “tear down the sky” to steal a phrase from Alberto Tomba. Some of us want to turn ourselves inside out, exorcise/exercise our demons. Some of us are happier in the air than on the ground.

I ride to be immersed in a place, even when I am getting beaten to a pulp by it and its primitive, not always very bike friendly trails. I don’t want the trail in the deep south of Spain that I’ve never ridden to feel just like the trail in Central Oregon that feels just like the trail in Bentonville, Arkansas. I want to be surprised by the differences, and amazed by the similarities where they occur. Immersion. Texture. I’m pretty sure the Jamon Iberico tasted all the better for that.

spanishham

Mmmmmm, ham. There is no small irony at work here - right as I was taking this photo, back in California, a pack (passel? sounder? herd?) of feral pigs was completely rototilling the shit out of my front yard. I walked out of the restaurant, sat down to a plate of salty greasy piggy goodness, and received a barrage of panicked texts from the ranchmate showcasing the damage. So, I ate an extra few helpings. Revenge by proxy.

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Comments

imnotdanny
imnotdanny
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+14 Timer tmoore Niels van Kampenhout taprider kcy4130 Andy Eunson Mike Ferrentino Perry Schebel bishopsmike Pete Roggeman Velocipedestrian BenZ Raymond Epstein Craig Ellis

I really like how a lot of the writing on this site is either in depth, valuable reviews or thoughtful, relevant articles like this. I very much enjoy reading these and looking at this sport from other viewpoints and considerations. Thank you.

Reply

andy-eunson
Andy Eunson
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+7 Mike Ferrentino imnotdanny Pete Roggeman shenzhe Velocipedestrian Zombo Craig Ellis

What articles like this do for me is cause me to think of my own experiences, think about what other people have said and compare and contrast these experiences. I become less rigid in my thinking and more open to other ideas. And that’s a good thing.

Reply

cheapondirt
cheapondirt
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+8 T0m taprider Mike Ferrentino Pete Roggeman ZigaK BarryW Grant Blankenship fartymarty

That's masterfully descriptive and makes me want to try... riding in more new places, but also writing about it.

Last weekend I rode a trail that hadn't been ridden for two weeks prior, since the first winter winds after a calm summer. Sections were buried under maple leaves: some crunchy, but many still yellow and soft thanks to a warm autumn. These were padded by pine needles and punctuated with the staccato snap of sticks. I imagined I could feel tire knobs individually tearing through leaves. The trail briefly joined an ATV track where damp fist-sized rocks jumped away from my pounding tires, then it cut back into the pines. Sudden quiet, needles isolating rubber from dirt. Roots added rythmic thumps. One last wood feature, its rounded slats rumbling, and I was ejected onto a gravel road and into mundane life.

This was 30 minutes from home, but it was a different place. Thank you for inspiring me to savour its texture.

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
Pete Roggeman
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+1 cheapondirt

Nice effort, cheapondirt! Enjoyed the textures and sentiment in there.

Reply

Timer
Timer
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+7 T0m taprider Andy Eunson Mike Ferrentino Pete Roggeman BarryW Craig Ellis

I like your take on trails "made for mountain biking". They can sometimes feel a bit samey even if located in different landscapes.

However it is a bit surprising to read it on NSMB of all places.

I always felt that the made-for-MTB trails on the shore are very different from those anywhere else. At least the older, jankier ones. I can't really think of anything comparable anywhere else in the world?

Reply

mikeferrentino
Mike Ferrentino
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+3 Andy Eunson Pete Roggeman Craig Ellis

Absolutely. And the trails on the shore today are probably a lot different than the trails on the shore 22 years ago. There can be a huge variety of expression within the paradigm of "built for bikes", especially when you take into account the differences in terrain and topography that builders encounter/utilize/get flummoxed by. At the same time, you mentioned how many trails can "feel a bit samey even if located in different landscapes", and that is absolutely happening all around the world.

Reply

velocipedestrian
Velocipedestrian
2 weeks, 3 days ago
0

There's a flow trail local to me that was built in defiance of the geology of the hill it's on.

Peak Flow is made of crumbly rock, which when taken on its own merits makes for great riding. In this use however the shapes of the trail ask the rider to go fast, boost, and trust the berms... All good things on tacky dirt, but much less so when the surface wants to send you off the side of the hill.

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
Pete Roggeman
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+1 Timer

I would totally agree with you that the made for MTB trails on the shore are unique. That's certainly one reason I still love them the most. We like to use our home as a filter for our experiences elsewhere - we ride here and write about the riding here, but not only here. Mike has ridden here, of course, but doesn't live here. Maybe this is just another reminder about how lucky we are to have such unique builders and trails here.

Reply

Nicholasmha
Nicholas Haig-Arack
2 weeks, 3 days ago
+4 Mike Ferrentino taprider Grant Blankenship Ed Doherty

I was out on one of my local dirt loops earlier this week, warming up my post-covid lungs and legs, riding a drop-bar rigid bike on overgrown mixed-use trails, and I thought of you, Mike. I've been reading your work for as long as I've been riding mountain bikes. Lately I've been feeling some alienation from mainstream mountain biking, as it all seems to be heading in the direction of purpose-built, sanitized trails and bikes that take the edge off. I like the edges! That's the fun part! 

Thanks for always keeping it crusty. I'm grateful to know that I'm not alone.

Reply

Fasta_Pasta
Scott Jamieson
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+3 T0m Pete Roggeman Adrian Bostock

Maybe we've reached a time in our history where there are trail builders, and trail constructors

Reply

Joe_Dick
Adrian Bostock
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

one of the issues with modern trail building, to quote Douglas Adams out of context. "The trouble with most forms of transport, he thought, is basically one of them not being worth all the bother...particularly when the place you arrived at had probably become, as a result of this, very similar to the place you had left"

Reply

just6979
Justin White
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+2 Mike Ferrentino Pete Roggeman

The luddite, in all of us, needs to be reminded that you can still "feel it all" even with suspension. Even the best suspension isn't completely eating the terrain, because the bike weighs so much less than the rider.

I might also remind that crusty old unwashed (because soap is technology, right?) mind-hermit that full rigid actually means you feel less because it'll be both intentionally and unintentionally skipping across and over that ancient terrain.

But, they probably won't listen (do they ever?), at least not until you listen to them and end up wrecking yourself when those skinny tires and your arms fold under the full rigid experience. Because you can't feel anything of the trail from sitting on your couch recovering.

Reply

mikeferrentino
Mike Ferrentino
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+1 BarryW

The luddite in me is mostly hypothetical these days.

Reply

just6979
Justin White
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+2 fartymarty Ed Doherty

Same, mostly. Sometimes when I'm buying another air-can service kit, or bearings, or even fork seals, it'll try to speak up. But really it's pretty much been muzzled by the progressive's daily reminders of the "antiquity of the pilot" (classic!).

Reply

fartymarty
fartymarty
2 weeks, 3 days ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

There's progressive and then there's progressive.... I like being just progressive enough but not to progressive to scare the sh!t out of myself if I was truely progressive. 

(What im trying to say is 160/140 works quite well for nearly everything).  Any more travel and I'm sure I would wreck myself on a regular basis.  

The luddite is always present in the back of my mind, sometimes he wins but it's less often these days.

Reply

zigak
ZigaK
2 weeks, 4 days ago
+2 Stihlgoin Mike Ferrentino

It's the moops!

Reply

T-mack
T-mack
2 weeks, 2 days ago
+3 Mike Ferrentino ZigaK Ed Doherty

Came here to say the same thing! It's the Moops!

Reply

taprider
taprider
2 weeks, 2 days ago
0

moops?

urban dictionary says it's "a morning poop"

Reply

zigak
ZigaK
2 weeks ago
0

It's a Seinfeld reference, Bubble boy episode.

Reply

taprider
taprider
1 week, 6 days ago
0

thanks, and I even saw that episode

Reply

GB
GB
2 weeks, 3 days ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

Texture from entropy and texture from the tamping of a shovel . Both are beautiful.  The idea of using our own strength and the ingenuity of our bikes for adventure . The simple pedal bike has evolved into a sophisticated clever machine.  I for one always admire and appreciate the texture s, colors , smells. 

Well written . Thank you .

Reply

lamar454
Peter Appleton
2 weeks, 3 days ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

the terroir there is no joke, i remember riding it some 15 years ago and it really can test you, especially as speed when braking and cornering, not the sure footing we are used to with lots of upper level humus

Reply

LuisCR
LuisCR
1 week, 5 days ago
+1 Mike Ferrentino

Sierra Nevada used to be my backyard. A singularity in "The Alpujarras"  I think is worth mentioning.

https://youtu.be/faAJBBpNBiQ.     

This book is kind if a gem and explains It in depth: "Manual del Acequiero". 

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.juntadeandalucia.es/medioambiente/portal_web/agencia_andaluza_del_agua/participacion/publicaciones/manual_del_acequiero.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwjauKmX3Mb7AhUP3aQKHUbaCc8QFnoECBEQAQ&usg=AOvVaw0ppgQ_x5PByD8vLkr9orhE

Reply

mat8246
mat8246
2 weeks ago
0

This so perfectly articulates the core appeal of mountain biking to me.

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