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

Review: The Yeti SB5c Saved My Winter

Yeti sb5c.

Who else gets offered to test a brand new Yeti SB5c and thinks, “Why now?”

I’d just gotten an email from Element.ly founder, Jim Merithew, asking me to pick up the Yeti Sb5c for some testing, and I was actually a little bummed. Sure, after obsessively reading a bazillion glowing reviews on the Yeti’s turquoise wonder bike, I definitely wanted to get some time on it, but it was early November. Snow had already buried my favorite high-country trails. Fresh Powder magazines were in heavy rotation on the back of my toilet. I’d just bought new ski wax, and after three dismal winters here in California, I was really looking forward to spending my weekends backcountry skiing in Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra. Between work, family and the holidays, where would I find the time to ride the Yeti?

As November rolled on, small storms rolled in, over-saturating my regular trail network. But they weren’t cold enough to drop any real snow in the mountains, dammit. I was relegated to riding the nearby, decomposed granite trails that are typically populated by families and spandex-clad xc racers on hardtails. The SB5c was way too much bike for this. My personal bikes were totally clapped-out after Northern California’s never-ending summer, so I didn’t have any choice.

Yet the Yeti surprised me. The climbs and descents were way too short and punchy to be slinging any switches on the suspension, but the Yeti didn’t need it. I could hammer out of the saddle with the shock in full-open/descend mode and it just gripped the trail, driving me up climbs with barely a bob. The slack, but-not-too-slack, head angle carved up the twisty singletrack, leaving me hooting and hollering all the way back to the car.

The day after Christmas, I was dying to get out of the house. Nonstop work had rolled right into hosting a houseful of relatives. I needed escape. A nasty night-riding wreck years earlier had left me with a smile that was now mostly porcelain, so it had been years since I’d gone on a proper nighttime trail ride, but that’s all I could squeeze in.

Minutes into the ride, my handlebar-mounted light blinked out and I was left with one meager helmet-mounted light. Fuck it. I needed the ride. My eyes drilled into the night searching for every rock, root and corner. My mind felt like it was either on meth or melting with the effort of concentration. The Yeti’s neutral handling saved my ass numerous times as I blew through corners and into unseen rock gardens at ridiculously inappropriate speeds.

Yeti SB5c

New Year’s Day dawned with me driving to Santa Cruz’s Demo Forest to slide around trails there rather than the icy hardpack that was barely coating the slopes of Tahoe. Demo rides the high line of the coast, with dusty ridge top sections that twist through Manzanita before diving down into tacky redwood speeder-bike territory. Here, the Yeti found it’s true home. The tweener, 27.5 in wheels, whipped through the tight corners, and the Yeti felt incredibly balanced while sending it off root drops and rollovers. It made efficient work of the steep, grinding, fire road returns to the top.

By the end of February, I’d entirely given up on skiing. My one day in the backcountry had been more about slaloming rocks than slashing powder stashes. Even the few lift-served days had been just depressing. On the other hand, I’d put some serious miles on the Yeti. It had developed some creaks, but otherwise, had been trouble-free. A friend and I decided to tackle a pretty mean version of our local trails, essentially riding every trail in one day. I’d done it once before, but many other attempts had ended in early bailing – typically from mechanicals or a lack of motivation. Early on, I had a slow-speed crash, bending the Yeti’s rear derailleur hanger, leaving me with only a few gears that didn’t clatter and skip crazily.

Midway through the loop, I found the Yeti’s weakness on a pair of steep, rocky, loose moto trail descents. The smaller wheels combined with not the slackest head angle forced me to tiptoe through drops and ruts that I blasted through on my personal 29 in. trail bike. The somewhat pinner rear tire, a Maxxis Ikon, was quickly slashed on the first chute. Later, while fixing another pinch flat, my phone chirped with an email from Merithew, telling me Yeti wanted their bike back. This time, their timing was perfect.

Check out the Yeti SB5c on CompetitiveCyclist.com.