Why Mountain Biking Matters

One day in Colorado you accidentally ride off the front of the group, everything clicking as you climb a long arc of singletrack that hangs like a scaffold on 10,000 feet of mountain face.

You roll over the top and follow the flow of the trail down to a distant green dot that becomes a meadow. You realize you should wait for your friends so you stop, pull your water bottle from its cage, brace your bike at a slant, and sit on the top tube, one arm resting on the handlebar, the other on the saddle.

You look back up the trail and think about how honed you felt, and you laugh. The sound echoes back at you, and that’s when you finally look at the mountainside just a few feet in front of your face. The cathedral of rock you just descended stretches into the clouds. Beyond the clouds. Beyond anything you can understand or imagine.

You hadn’t been aware of the background chirruping of insects and birds, but as you stare into the sky you notice its sudden absence. Your hand stops drumming the water bottle against the frame. Breath comes soundless into your lungs. In that silence, you swear the mountain takes a step toward you.

I know that can never happen. I know if it appears to happen it is really just a trick of the clouds in the breeze against an immense solidity. It can never happen. But I saw a mountain move. It happened to me.

Such things don’t happen only to me, because mountain biking matters. Beyond fitness and adventure and self-esteem and whatever, mountain biking is about something. Everyone who loves riding discovers this.

Pro downhill racer Dave Cullinan knows. “There’s this downhill jump at Lake Isabella, near my parents’ house, that I absolutely love,” he once said. “You get forty feet of air. You launch off this drop-off, and you’re airborne. One of the best things about it is that you don’t know where you’re going to land. It took me long time to get my huevos together to actually do it. When you’re in the air, your mind completely empties and you’re just doing it. It defines everything I love about mountain biking.”

If you get out there, you will find your moments. Mountains will envelop you or diminish you to nothing, then raise you higher than the sky. As you search for those feelings you will become more fit than you’ve ever been, you will understand the earth and learn the names of plants and animals most people never notice, you’ll discover which limits you created for yourself and which ones are real.

Mountain biking is not a spiritual quest. It’s fun. It’s play. Sport. But even without your intent — or consent — mountain biking will lead you back into yourself then out into the world. It’s not just the scale of the mountains that does this, or the intimacy between you and our bike. It’s the scale of the mountains versus the intimacy of the bike.

When you are out there on a mountain bike, sometimes you think of nothing but riding — shift, cant the pedal, lift the front, slide forward — and that total immersion washes your mind free of the residue of daily life. Sometimes when you are you there, you think of nothing — and those are the times you ride best.

But sometimes you think about mountain biking itself. Those are the times you’re closest to the thing we’re out there chasing.