Beggars Would Ride
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.
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.
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.
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.