Easy Riding is Boring—Long Live Hard Trails

‘Tis but an hour past dark and the rain that began moments ago is already turning to snain on its way to becoming snow. Three or four inches in the overnight forecast. Given that our summers in the Southwest are about eight months long, I always, always look forward to this change of seasons.

Knowing that weather was coming I came in early to get today’s work done, and am now back in the shop getting yet more done. But in between, this afternoon, I stepped out for the last real dirt ride of the season.

We often joke about the last ride of the season because there’s a certain element of truth to it: We’ll continue to ride all through the winter, but once there’s snow on the ground—effectively this very moment—the tenor of every ride changes. Fall is gone, winter is here.

No one ever shouted at the top of their lungs in celebration of riding around a mid-trail rock or up an engineered ramp.

Without question the snow that falls tonight will mostly melt off immediately. But some small amount will stick in the shadows and on northern exposures. That little bit fundamentally changes the way you look at the trails: You’re not going to commit to laying it over into a corner at speed if you aren’t 100 percent sure that that corner is clean. Even the slightest skiff of snow on a slab will put you down faster than you can say hematoma. Take that sketchy corner too fast near an edge and you’ll have time to mouth the word catastrophic while kicking the bike away and bracing for impact.

And – of course – there’s more snow in the forecast for later this week, along with dropping temps.

Knowing that the change was going to happen between sunset tonight and sunrise tomorrow, I positively wanted one more ride, one more opportunity to attempt a few moves that have stymied me more often than not this year. I’m getting older, losing strength and agility, fitness and coordination. Just like you. I accept this as the natural order of things.

But I also take opportunities to push back. Tonight would be my last chance this year.

There are a seemingly infinite number of moves that I used to clean with regularity that are now questionable from ride to ride. Might have made that one back in June, but not since. Got this one yesterday, but today? With every new day there is fresh opportunity to set things right. This mantra does not only apply to bike rides.

The specific loop I rode tonight isn’t important, other than that the local nazis have taken whacks at it—large and small—in attempting to systematically remove any technical challenge. Through the years “they” have fabricated a number of reasons for their desire to dumb it down, from repairing erosion to making the overall difficulty of the trail consistent, to removing safety hazards. There is a grain of truth to each of these justifications but zoom out and it’s difficult to conclude that their justifications are the whole picture. Undeterred by facts or evidence, they push and push and push to remove challenges from more trails—even expert trails—every year.

Building rock ramps up previously difficult climbs seems to be the technique they prefer over all others. And they’ve built a lot of them the past few years.

The trail toward which I rode as the sun descended used to have a ramp up its crux move. Some well-meaning trail vigilante actually tore that ramp out shortly after construction was complete, and the move has stayed more or less the same ever since. I don’t know the person who ripped that ramp out, have never heard their motivations, but each time I get the chance to test myself against this particular move I silently thank them for taking a stand. Without their actions the move would be forever lost. But because of their actions, we can all clearly see that the ramp was never needed to begin with. All these years later and the move hasn’t changed in any meaningful way, still there to confound and delight.

I hadn’t ridden this trail in more than a month, so as I approached the move I took it slowly, with no intent to actually put in an effort until I verified that it was safe. Sometimes people stick cheater rocks in, which tend to move in unpredictable ways when your wheels touch them. After seeing that the move was clean and attemptable, I backed up, shifted into the gear I thought made sense, and took a run at it.

And failed.

Second try was a failure also, with the added excitement of almost coming off the move backward, while still in the pedals. Grabbing a nearby juniper prevented that from happening, allowing me to go back for a third try. While catching my breath I noted the last light fading from the sky.

On the third attempt, I made it. Clean. First time in at least three months.

The achievement wasn’t newsworthy. Not worth calling home about, nor even mentioning to a friend unless they happened to be there with me.

What was exciting about it was having the chance to try, and to fail, and to learn, and then try again. That gratification had been delayed for literal months, with anticipation building each time I tried and failed. It had built and built and built and when finally it was released resulted in an intense, personal, mostly indescribable euphoria that washed over me and erupted out in the most satisfying laughter I’ve felt in recent memory.

The people that would build a ramp over every challenging move needn’t be named. They know who they are. What I want them to understand and eventually acknowledge is that people aren’t inspired by milquetoast trails. No one ever shouted at the top of their lungs in celebration of riding around a mid-trail rock or up an engineered ramp.

Challenging trails give people the opportunity to step outside of our predictable, mundane lives and actually experience living. Sometimes there’s failure, but eventually, with enough persistence, there is euphoria.

May it ever be so.

As I closed the loop at dark:thirty the temps dropped sharply and by the time I’d removed my sweaty shirt inside I could hear the rain drumming down on the roof. Season over.

How I wish that that were the way the story ended. Instead I am certain that during the long darkness of this impending winter meetings will be held and plans will get drawn for newer, bigger, lower gradient ramps to be constructed come spring, turning once-great trails into mediocre routes that look and feel and ride just like mediocre routes in other mediocre places, giving mediocre riders no reason to aspire to be better. At riding, or parenting, or life, than they currently are.

We used to have a world class trail network that challenged, humbled, and inspired. With every passing day and each new ramp it feels and looks and rides like pretty much everywhere else.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Words by Mike Curiak. Read more at LaceMine29.



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