Outside: Riding High

If there’s an absolute about mountain biking on a vast array of trails surrounding Missoula, Montana, it’s this: You’re either struggling uphill in a state of leg-grinding and lung-burning misery, or you’re rocketing downhill in semi-controlled bliss.

That sank in last summer as I started cranking up the south side of Mount Sentinel. In fact, I wasn’t 200 yards up the trail and already I was out of breath. My legs, which had become dreadfully weak due to inflated desk time and inactivity, told me they couldn’t perform another revolution. But my ego told them they had to.

That’s because just off my rear tire, cackling away as if they were being drawn in a rickshaw and not cranking their bikes straight up a mountain, were three young, athletic women — part of a local biking group simply called, Thursday Night Ride. If I’d suddenly stopped on the trail these women, I was sure, would have carved tire tracks into my back.

That wasn’t something I’d expected when a guy at a bike shop said there were a couple local mountain biking groups I could join. One, he said, was comprised of hard-core riders, all men, who lived for mountain biking and could ride up Kilimanjaro and back down without breaking a sweat. When they got to the bottom, he added, they’d rehydrate by spearing a zebra and drinking its blood. Afterward they’d use the carcass to lure in and slay the village’s man-eating lion. The other group, he added, was pretty chill, a mixed party of men and women who met once a week, welcomed all-comers, and drank pitchers of beer after their trail time.

“That’s the group for me,” I said. But now it was Thursday and I had these vixens on my tail; anything but my expectation of a leisurely early season ride where we’d stop every 10 minutes for water, nibble on pine nuts, introduce ourselves and then spend a little time taking in and discussing the sweeping views. Nope — these people were hell bent on getting somewhere and getting there quickly, without consideration for the newbie in their midst.

But after negotiating, oh, let’s say, 30 switchbacks and at least a couple thousand feet of elevation gain, we reached a promontory over the Clark Fork River, a position from which we could see far into the pristine Rattlesnake Wilderness and also west nearly 100 miles through the greening Missoula Valley. By this time my legs were loosened, my lungs had reached equilibrium, and my sense of achievement was grand — I hadn’t suffered a heart attack! I felt so good, in fact, so high on endorphins and eager for the ride down, I issued a little war whoop and then said to a fellow rider, “That uphill nearly killed me but this ride down is going to be epic.” That’s when she hit me where it hurts: “We’re not heading down yet,” she said, pointing a finger toward heaven. “We get to ride up there!”

Up there was a moonshot to the top of the mountain, another 20 minutes or more of uphill grind and yes, admittedly, a little pushing, before we crested Sentinel and took in an even broader view. With everyone exchanging “good jobs” and invitations to ride again, and after feeling like such a wimp on the way up that mountain, I now felt like stealing a line from one of Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance speeches when she said dramatically, “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect … and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now you like me.” But it wasn’t until after the ride down — an exhilarating, breakneck affair with wildflowers passing in a colorful, yellowish blur — that I was convinced I would ride again.

I spent the following week testing trails in the Rattlesnake corridor, where fat-tire aficionados find hundreds of miles of challenging, yet appealing single-track routes, an area that many seasoned riders consider to be some of the best mountain biking in the West.

These trails range from out-and-backs on old homestead roads (up to 30-plus miles in length), to massive undertakings, like the Rattlesnake trailhead to Stuart Peak ride, which measures more than 20 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of about 4,000 feet. A grinder for sure. There’s even a section of single-track called The Trail of Tears, for obvious reasons. It should be equally obvious why I’ve never attempted that section.

Massive uphill climbs aren’t my deal, so I spend most of my time on a loop that holds just the right amount of grind factor and downhill thrills. This ride starts at the Rattlesnake trailhead, then cuts sharply left up Spring Gulch, then meets the Curry Gulch trail, which slices southwest and meets up with the Sawmill Gulch trail, which leads to the unbelievably entertaining Ewok trail, a mile-long thread that offers numerous sharp turns, little jumps, speed-demon straightaways and even a few modest highwalls, all with trees and brush passing in a blur, merely inches from the shoulders.

Ah, highwalls. That’s the term some riders use to describe places where bikers rocket up steep banks in half-moon arcs. I discovered these highwalls on the Sawmill Gulch trail and finally raised the nerve to tackle one. After that I was sold, the appeal being held to the mountain by speed and gravity, with the bike and body, momentarily, almost parallel with the trail.

One day I was discussing highwalls with another biker and admitted I hadn’t the nerve to try one particular highwall, which required splitting two large trees, negotiating a root-wad, then returning to the trail at speed. He said I could do it and, what the heck, why not take a perfect stranger’s opinion, a person who’d never seen me ride, didn’t know that I was raising two little girls, and that my health policy carries a $7,000 out-of-pocket tag. He said, “Go for it,” so I went for it, with eyes bulging and teeth clenched, and I did it. I was so enthused that I tried it again, on the next ride, after saying I wouldn’t, only to change my mind at the last second and launch up this thing. I split those trees, but the root-wad spun my tire to the right so that in an instant we  — the bike and me — were completely airborne and headed for terra firma. The front tire hit first, I sailed right over the handlebars, then smashed into the dirt with my left cheek and shoulder. I determined myself to be still alive, jumped up, brushed off the dust, rearranged my handlebars, and rode off — only one hand on the grips because I carried my left arm like a robin dealing with a broken wing.

I’d made only a few rides with the Thursday night crew before I realized I was riding with magicians, chief among them the amazing Alden Wright, a University of Montana professor and 65-year long biking enthusiast who, at 71, puts me to shame on the mountain. He’s gray bearded and lean, his voice is high-pitched and sounds a little weak. If you saw him downtown sipping tea you might think his greatest adventures would be playing with the grandkids and whipping ass at the bingo lounge. But this guy cracks the stereotypes in half and if there’s something to take away from my Thursday night rides it’s this: Mountain biking is a method to stay active, involved and healthy for life. I consider Alden — every time I’m eating dust from his rear tire — to be proof of that.

There are other amazing people in the group and part of their success is related to diet, which all mountain bikers understand as being vital to success. Diet, too, is at the heart of this moniker, which I heard one Thursday when I pointed at my hardtail bike and told a fellow rider, “Yea, I think this uphill would be a lot easier if I bought something with a carbon-fiber frame.”

He smiled and said, “Technology isn’t the answer. You don’t need a lighter bike. You just need to lose weight.”

That dude is in his late 50s, but looks no older than 40, and he just chews up the trail with his carbon-fiber bike. Despite that lightweight bike, I have trouble understanding how he makes it look so simple and barely loses his breath on uphill grinds. I suspected performance-enhancing drugs, but I got a little window into his ways one day at Frenchtown Pond, a local swimming hole located just west of Missoula. He’d arrived with a new paddleboard, after having ridden, like, 4,000 miles on his bike earlier that day. After he launched onto the lake I approached his daughter and said, “Your dad is amazing. Great rider. How does he stay so lean?” I expected to hear some scientific ratio between good carbs and lean protein. Instead, she merely said, “He doesn’t eat anything but Clif Bars.”

As I pen this article, the Missoula mountain biking season has just begun and I have 10 rides under my belt, which is 10 more than I had last year when I first met up with the Thursday Night Ride. Still, just yesterday, I was riding the Sawmill loop when an older dude startled me by saying, “On your left,” and then as he passed he barked, “First ride of the season?” I took that as a direct insult and wanted to say, “Holy balls, you scared the piss out of me, tough guy,” but that would have announced that I’d spent too much time in an Irish pub this spring and too few hours on the Rattlesnake’s single-track trails. In addition, I try to keep the peace with all riders because one of these days, one of those dudes could find my carcass on the trail and I’d like to think they’d offer CPR or, at the very least, contact my next of kin.

Speaking of death. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I failed on that highwall, but never with the fascination of a chronically depressed and bitterly divorced 40-year-old friend of mine who says, “I’m looking forward to dying. It’s just part of life. And I think it will be interesting to see what it’s like.”

“Dude,” I’ve responded, “there’s an app for that!” Or, at the very least, medication.

But he won’t listen. He’s on his way to wherever he’s going, and so am I, and so are the rest of you. But I’m not throwing in the towel and each time I see Alden cranking up the Rattlesnake ahead of me this year, I’ll secretly promise to ride more often, to eat less frequently and to lay off, for the most part, those microbrews. But I will draw a line in the sand: I won’t, I simply won’t survive on Clif Bars, no matter how much easier those long, uphill grinds might be.

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