I think I pitched this as a parody of a bestselling book by the radio talk-show host Dr. Laura, but once I started writing, it became something else. At the time, I was writing full-time, no job, a new baby and I was just starting to figure out how I wanted to write. There are excesses and outright mistakes in here that make me cringe, but I think it has enough nice moments that I reread it sometimes . . . maybe just to recapture for a moment that innocent energy for creation I had back then. And the advice isn’t bad, after all.
1. Avoid Racing.
A big, glossy mainstream magazine asked me to explain mountain bike racing to its readers once. It’s like a ballet in a mosh pit, I told them. They didn’t get it, and I was somehow glad when they didn’t publish the article. They’d never raced bicycles and never would. They didn’t deserve to know.
Bike racing changes you. It makes you faster, and it makes you harder, and it gives you better stories and it finds you new friends. It teaches you new skills and it makes you less likely to complain when the temperature in the car isn’t just right or you step in a puddle on the way to work. Lots of kinds of racing do that, though. What’s special about bike racing is, of course, the bike. The machine is perfect for what you ask it to do and where you ask it to do it. You’ll never completely understand bikes unless you race. You don’t have to become a racer. But you have to race. At least once.
2. Mistake Racing for Cycling.
A field. Somewhere. Somewhere green. And you, on you back not because you wrecked but maybe because you’re wrecked. You’re lying there, your back against green, staring up at blue and white and yellow and you close your eyes.
Woods. Woods like thick flannel blankets. Comforters, I think they’re called. That’s just about perfect, isn’t it?
Water. Sand. Mud. Hills. Mountains. Red rock. Rabbits. Bears. Squirrelschipmunksmice. And all alone: Hawks. And all alone: Bikes.
A trail that curves, and curves, and curves, and curves.
3. Never Ride Alone.
For a long time when I began mountain biking I always rode with other people — I didn’t know the trails and, anyway, those riders were better than me and my pitiful self needed all the help it could get. I got better pretty fast. Within a couple months I no longer thought of myself as a beginner. Then one day I went out alone. I sucked.
I’d become a great follower, an exceptional copier. A lousy mountain biker. I needed to learn why we shifted three clicks for the steep long hill, one click for the longer hill that starts shallower, and no clicks for the head-high hump before the hop over the rock. I needed to get out of control and feel brake feathering pull me back instead of feathering merely to stay behind the controlled wheel in front of me.
There’s something besides skill, too. When you get to the top of a solo climb, there’s no waiting-group banter. The only person you have to listen to is yourself.
4. Make the Mountains Rideable.
I don’t know for sure when this trend started but I curse every lousy bastard who’s ever had any part in it. I mean it. I hate every one of you miserable shitworms. I hope I catch one of you at work once. A few years ago my favorite trails began being simplified. The fun rocks were rolled away. The big, challenging, fun 2-1/2-foot logs got ramped on both sides by stacks of littler logs so you could just ride over instead of having to lunge up. Double blowdowns with a gap shorter than the length of a bike were turned into singles. Doubled log hops, gone.
I got into the sport to ride the mountain, not to make the mountain rideable. If you don’t feel the same, get out.
5. Ride Too Cautiously.
Here’s how I got into this habit: If I’m working on a story and I crash out, the story’s crashed out, too — unless I do a wreck story and those are all the same. So I’d find myself in spectacular places I’d never see again, riding like a crossing guard. Maybe you don’t want to waste your vacation, or can’t afford to get so gnarled up you miss work or school or another sport. Maybe you’re telling yourself 80 percent of the fun (or whatever) is worth 40 percent of the risk. Maybe you’re just afraid. Maybe you don’t even realize you no longer know what the edge of your skill feels like.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I know I cheated myself, though.
6. Buy Skills.
I bought my bunny-hop. Couldn’t do it with flat pedals. Bought clipless pedals all those years ago and hop like a fool now. Exactly like a fool: I pull up on the pedals.
I look at the real hoppers and I see them press down, press back against the pedals, leap up looking smoother than I never will. I can’t bunny-hop. My pedals can. There’s a difference, and I know it.
7. Become Retro.
If you like thumbshifters because you like thumbshifters, that’s cool. But if you like thumbshifters because you’re part of that abstract social-political-emotional-cultural movement known as “retro,” that’s stupid. When you go retro you regard products from a stance instead of evaluating how they help you ride. You never bother to find out if the shifting is better, or worth the extra cost. When you’re retro you ride rigid bikes because they’re rigid, not because they have their own set of lessons and brand of fun to experience. And you can’t admit how much more fun things like new suspension systems make the sport.
None of us are immune. We’re all constantly on the edge of going retro — some of us blowing off the idea of full-suspension cross-country bikes, disc brakes for everyone, 2×9 drivetrains, semi-slicks, who knows. It’s all new, it’s all unfamiliar, it’s all totally unnecessary but see if it’s more fun.
You can love old stuff without being retro. I miss the days before index shifting, when finding a gear was a skill. But I can’t imagine cycling without index shifting. I know it would happen, and I know we’d adapt and still have fun. But I’m glad we have our little clicks.
8. Baby Your Bike.
It’s not a baby. It’s a bike. I have one of both, so now I know.
9. Neglect Your Bike.
You don’t have to do much. Lube the chain (not as often as we recommend.) Watch for rust. Lube the moving parts when they squeak. Tighten the things that were tight when you got the bike. Clean the suspension stuff (not as often as the manufacturers recommend.) Total time: Let’s say a couple hours a month if you’re really Spartan. If you can’t manage that, you shouldn’t be riding. You don’t deserve your bike.
10. Trust Magazines Too Much.
Look, there are three kinds of us in here. Some of us know where to put the commas, and some of us know everything there is not know about parts and some of us make friends with pro racers. That’s who we are. That’s all. We love cycling as much as you do, but not more. We’re wrong sometimes, and we’re preachy too often, and we’re jaded about Moab, and the fork that we think is fantastic this year will be regarded as crap once we can compare it to next year’s fork. There’s no rational or real explanation for that. We do love mountain biking, though, so forgive us.
Originally published in Mountain Bike magazine, June 1999