Why I Got Back to Mountain Biking, and How You Can Too

Specialize Stumpjumper
Photo: Bradley Hughes/Element.ly

I have been what the community calls a “Roadie” since 2001. That was the summer the entire country watched Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France for the 3rd time. I was in awe. Cycling was just beginning to have it’s time in the sun in the U.S. I traded my Rockhopper for an entry-level road bike and never looked back. Boy what a mistake that was—I was too young, no one had taught me the n+1 equation yet.

I’m older (and wiser?) now, and have learned that balance is important. Road bikes on Saturday, dirt church on Sunday. In the spring of 2012 I got my grubby hands on a sweet new squishy bike through the fine folks at Scott. I rode that piece of plastic as much as possible for the two years I had it. Raced it into the dirt. Tore it apart in the most abusive ways imaginable (I was relearning how to mountain bike, which can get a little messy). I got really comfortable on trails again. I cursed that younger version of myself, for what seemed like stripping away years of adventure and thrill seeking in the woods.

I enjoyed that bike every day up to the one where it was stolen from my garage. Greedy bastards. They stole my adrenaline fix.

Bikes are expensive, and I was low on cash, so I simply resorted to riding road bikes again to fulfill my need for speed. I won’t go into how burnt out I got riding roads over the last couple years, but if you’ve biked a fair amount, you can probably imagine. I unknowingly missed the woods. I wanted to stay in bed and sleep rather than go out for morning rides with my club. It was time to get back on the trails again, and so here I am doing just that.

Specialized Stumpjumper
Photo: Bradley Hughes/Element.ly

Here’s a few things I’ve learned going through this process.

The fitness benefits are superior.

I struggled for a long time to gain back the level of fitness I had that summer. I wondered why I was so fucking slow. Where had that effortless zip gone? I had been riding road bikes a lot, putting in hours, trying to stay fit. But I was still feeling sluggish, heavy, slow.

Then it occurred to me that it was because I wasn’t riding trails. The ups and downs—the intervals—that’s what was missing. Mountain biking gave me that adventure I’d always been looking for and a much more intense workout—a combination that was more powerful than anything I had found road riding. I enjoyed the intensity, the thrill of the downhills we’re great, but I was just as into the work put in to get up there in the first place.

When I was riding dirt, my brain shut off and my body went to work. It was fun, and I rode as much as I possibly could. All these things allowed me to reach a peak level of fitness—without ever checking my heart rate or chasing a KOM.

Buy a fun bike.

It’s important that you kickstart your way back into the sport. Test ride a lot of awesome and ridiculously expensive bicycles. Make it a fun project—over do it. This will give you a sense for what each bike does well and how each of them is suited to your interests. Then you’ll be able to make a good decision. Make sure you take the time to find what’s right for you in your price range.

Lately, I’ve been riding the 2014 Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Expert. This is the Evo model, which in my opinion has far too much travel for a trail category bike. Unless you are Gee Atherton, you have no business floating on 150mm or more of travel. You’ll just get lazy.

Having a bike that will roll over just about anything is fun, but it doesn’t allow you to practice a ton of technical skill. I ended up locking out the suspension often. I didn’t need all that travel—even on the more technical trails. And I swapped the stem for something more angled which brought my riding position and center of gravity down a bit. It’s not the most elegant climbing bike, but a little customization helped me climb better.

Overall, this bike is a blast. It’s not the right bike for me, but I believe downgrading the suspension on a standard Stumpy model would do the trick just nicely. And that bike is a crowd pleaser.

The idea here is to find something that will allow you to fall back into the sport easily without presenting too many technical or mechanical challenges. Get the right bike for you, so you can focus on the ride.

Roadies are boring.

Ok I can say this, because essentially I am one. And when I say “Roadies” I mean it in the true classical sense. You know that guy, you’ve seen him. If you are out there seeking course records or some magic number on your watt-o-meter, you are seeking the wrong thing.

Next time you are out on your bike (no matter road, cx, mtb), take a different turn. Shit, take the wrong turn. Go somewhere you’ve never been before. Ride a fire road or hike-a-bike to some new and unridden place. Seek something more than getting in your workout before you have to go sit in your cubical for the rest of the day.

I think this is the most important lesson I’ve learned along the way. I got in a rut so to speak, because I lost track of why I was out there in the first place. If you incorporate adventure and fun in your rides, they will always be rewarding.

Specialized Stumpjumper
Photo: Bradley Hughes/Element.ly
  • Thanks for this post, the way you described the feeling in the morning of not wanting to ride is bang on…I used to ride heaps of MTB but then kids got in the way. You’ve got me re-energised! Might have to look for a new bike.