Opinion: Two Trails and the Power of a Bike

Feb 27, 2014
by Richard Cunningham  
just sayin RC header pic



"How old are you?" The question came from a super fit, silver-haired XC rider on a Giant Anthem who had stealthily pulled up behind me on one of the harder climbs on my home trails in the hope that I could lend him some local knowledge of the area. We had stopped to size up some wooden features that were recently added to a popular downhill.

"Sixty," I said without looking up. My mind was in a different place. I was pushing back up the trail, preparing to make a serious run at the ramp aboard an unfamiliar, 120-millimeter-travel test bike.

"I thought people were supposed to get smarter with age," XC Guy said.

"I am," I laughed. "Now, I take a look at features before I give them a go."

Like most first-time jumps, the anticipation was far more dramatic than the short flight to safety. When I slid to a stop, I was pleasantly surprised to catch Mister XC sending the ladders as well. He had good style - an unexpected performance from a spandex-clad no-body-fat 29er pilot riding skinny, semi-slick tires. We exchanged names and it turns out that John's son, J.D. Swanguen, is a local DH hero. Apples never fall far from the tree, it seems.

Turning at the bottom of the trail for the return trip to the ridge, it became clear that John and I were in different leagues as climbers. Both of us were riding big-wheel bikes with one-by drivetrains. Mine was a SRAM XX1 with a 30-tooth chainring and a big, 42-tooth cog out back. John's was all Shimano, with a taller-geared, 36-tooth sprocket driving an 11 by 36 cassette. He bid farewell and by the time I reached the half-way mark of the 900-foot ascent, John was dissappearing over the summit. Note to self: "Add intervals and hill repeats to early season training."

Like John, I was also on an exploratory mission. Recent storms had softened the dirt, and diggers had been working furiously to carve lines and mold features before the red mixture of decomposed granite and clay dried and began to crumble with each blow of the mattock. The plan was to meet Greg, a respected builder and gravity rider, and put first tracks on two new additions to the trail network. Greg, who had joined up with John and I while we were sessioning the new ladder jumps, rides a six-inch-travel Pivot Firebird and climbs at a much more leisurely pace, which turned out to be a much needed leg saver as the ride progressed.

bigquotes Only a dozen pedal strokes were needed to realize that this team was carving its way across the landscape with a great deal more enthusiasm than planning.

Both trails were connectors that climbed opposite sides of the same canyon to intersect a fire road at the top. We rode the line that Greg had been working on first - a flowy climb, comfortably wide, punctated with rock features and slightly bermed corners that, though unfinished, promised to be a ripping descent as well. When Greg's trail ended, we explored the flagged route ahead until dense brush blocked our path and then hiked across the canyon to sample the second line.

Only a dozen pedal strokes were needed to realize that this team was carving its way across the landscape with a great deal more enthusiasm than planning. Narrow and off-camber, the trail dodged left and right around and over boulders until the canyon walls closed in, leaving the builders with no option except to climb out. And climb they did, with a series of vicious leg-burning switchbacks, some so narrow that my front tire was skipping off the trunks and stems of trailside bushes to round them. Gasping for air, I topped the ridge, not sure if I should celebrate that I cleaned almost all of the climb, or diss' on the builders for the hack job they did on the switchbacks. We will never know - my thoughts were cut short by a familiar voice.

"Where are you guys riding from here?" John the XC guy appeared out of nowhere, looking fresh as ever, but a bit lost. It seems that he had done a little bushwhacking in a failed attempt to find an alternate route off the mountain.

"Down," I said, pointing to the no-flow trail. "This should be an interesting descent."

With gravity doing most of the hard work, the trail's tight turns and unpredictable grade reversals seemed more like challenges than chores. There was nothing super technical, but you needed your A-game to stay on point. The level of concentration was palpable. Few words were exchanged as the three of us made our way down. I made my share of mistakes, but I also pulled off some hero moves. I was feeling the love. The dirt was good, my tires were hooking up, the bike was working for me, and somewhere in my head, Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing "Texas Flood." It was a good time on the bike.

The descent was an altogether different experience than I had predicted. I waved my friends off and pedaled towards my car with Stevie Ray's blues riffs still stuck in my head and I was reminded once again why I love this sport. Like music, Mountain biking can never be mastered, so no matter what your style, or how well (or poorly) you perform, at some level you will always be part of the show. Perhaps more important, is that by nature, both are transformative experiences. A musician becomes part human and part instrument. A rider is part human and part machine - it can't work any other way and the synergy created by that bond can be immensly empowering. No man can run as fast, nor jump as high. I feel like a completely different animal when I am on my bike - it certainly doesn't feel like sixty.


65 Comments

  • + 94
 Excellent article RC. I hope to be riding as much as you when I turn 60. I love this sport.
  • + 43
 The BIG 60 And Pinkbike never mentioned it Well Happy Birthday RC I've been reading your stuff since I first got into mountain biking And still love to today Always a pleasure You the man
  • + 32
 "Like most first-time jumps, the anticipation was far more dramatic than the short flight to safety."

Story of my life. Great article RC!
  • + 19
 my dad will be 70 this year and is still out there killing it- this is a lifelong sport. He's probably healthier than most 40 year olds too.
  • + 13
 Nice article. Being 42 and about middle of the pack speed and skillset-set wise, this article hit home. I recently took a ride with a guy who was a bit younger than I and had no idea of my age. He said he was tired of XC races and being beat by 40 year olds so he was going for more AM rides. After a lap at City Park (Austin, TX) we took a break before another lap and I took my helmet off. When he saw all my grey hair, he got a little disgruntled (not assholish, but more pissed at himself) that he couldn't get away from the "old guys who kick his ass." I didn't blow him away, but I definitely had to wait around a couple of corners for him. He had me beat on hucking obstacles that were over 2 feet high and I had him beat on climbs and techy downhill runs. He had more lungs than I but tended to burst in speed instead of riding steadily and economically. Plus he tends to point and shoot down really techy downhill runs instead of picking a smarter line and sticking to it. He relies on his equipment too much instead of riding intelligently. I've since offered to coach him a bit on what I am good at while he is helping me with my confidence on larger drops that I know I can take but hesitate on.

I had just met this dude on a local forum and decided to meet up for a spin or two as we have similar odd work schedules. It's always nice to meet up with someone in the community that is willing to be cool about his or her shortcomings and is willing to teach what they are good at.
  • + 8
 A lot of younger riders don't realise how fast 'old' guys can be. I've noticed at our local XC races that the Masters (40-49) often have faster lap times than the juniors and the veterans (30-39). I think it is because the 30-somethings are raising young children, but by the time they are in their forties, the kids are old enough to look after themselves and get their butts to school, and so the masters are back out training harder than ever, making up for lost time. And I think we (masters) are often faster than the juniors on technical trails, as you say, plus, as you say, we race a lot smarter.
  • + 4
 I think the techy stuff just comes with decades of experience and having at least 10-15 of those years being on bikes that are worse than the bikes at the big box do it all stores (walmart here, big w or the warehouse there). You tend to be much better at focused technique if preserving your ride depends on it. I went through a divorce a couple of years ago and had no bike and no money at the end of it. I went and got a p.o.s. Jamis from craigslist and just upgraded what I could until I wasn't afraid of it on a daily basis. I recently got back onto a quality bike and my technique had improved markedly from having ridden a shit bike that didn't cover for any bad riding and punished you for the slightest mistake. This was a mid level bike from 2007. Think about the comparison from that bike to now and from the early 90's when I started riding to now. Cantilever brakes, 3x7, Cannondale head shocks. All that stuff was the bomb back in the day but near unrideable now. Translate the skills needed to ride those bikes well to a Yeti SB-66 or a long travel hardtail and you've got a fast as shit rider.
  • + 12
 Great read. I'd love to think I'll still be ripping at sixty. Also points out the sense of community in the mtb world, great stuff.
  • + 11
 Really good article, being at 36 and just feeling the years over my sholders, this read make me realize how young am I Smile , just a shoot of energy to the brain !!!
  • + 8
 I hope to be in your shape as I get older. Getting passed by 50-60somethings on a single speed is both humbling and motivating.
  • + 8
 Good to know. I'm coming up on 40 myself and it doesn't feel like it. Biking keeps us young!
  • + 5
 I hope to be riding when I'm sixty another twenty years is a long time.
What will our trails look like and what will we be riding?
Things are very different from my Scott Teton the and my Scott voltage now.
The fun is still the same though and having communities like pinkbike is great as we didn't even have the internet when I started riding.
  • + 5
 57, will be 58 in a couple months, riding 5 times a week, about 20kms each time out on the bike. Steep bloody hills to, even the fittest guys keep it in the granny ring for one 16 minute no-stop section. Started riding when I was 56 (to help leg strength for tennis) now finiishing 30km races in top ten position at worst. I love riding, but no doubt boring to read what an old fart like me writes in mtb website forums....I'll stop now, better for everybody if I do ..........
  • + 1
 No way sounds like you're rocking it man. But tennis, really!?? Just playing. Keep it spinning.
  • + 4
 Great read!! Let me tell you, nothing feels better then passing a young guy riding a nice and lite carbon bike when you are old (I`m 53) and riding a big and heavy downhill bike. Most of the guys I ride with are older then me, but we push each other. We tailgate the hell out of each other. You slow down, you get ran over. It keeps us young!!
  • + 6
 Nice writing RC! at 60 you know… every 26r will become a 29r some day...
  • + 3
 Great story! I bought one of the first mtbs sold in our area in the early 80s. Fell in love with the sport, and rode any chance I could, usually encountering no one. Have kept going over the years, and remember thinking "I hope to keep riding till I'm 50"...just turned the big five-oh in Dec and I still bring it! Doing 3hr rides 4x wk, and fully expect to keep going until I'm 70, maybe 80! Not to shabby for a middle aged woman haha!
  • + 2
 Over the last few months, I've had the distinct pleasure of getting to know one of you 'old bastards' (who is also a PB member; if they see this, I'll be mortified).

And I'll be damned: Y'all are FUN. As some 'young hotshot, overhyped local pro', becoming friends with this member of the masters community has been a true gift. Never have I had so much fun trading insults across the table than with someone who doesn't give a damn about kissing my butt and instead, just wants to be friends and riding buddies.

I've learned far more and laughed a lot harder because of my new friend in 90 days than what I've gleaned from my current riding buddies in a few years. Thanks for hanging in there, RC, thanks for putting up with all of us (mostly) clueless kids, and thanks for writing articles like these. You are a gift to our community. Smile Happy Birthday.
  • + 2
 happy belated B-day to you RC. I,m a little slow , I just caught your article and started reading it and immediately started cracking up. I thought it was totally awesome and very funny. I thank you you for the plug for both JD and I. I'm waiting to hear from him so I can tell him about my fun time riding with you and Greg. John Swanguen
  • + 4
 Love the article. Nice to see something different than the normal Pinkebike bike porn. Happy Birthday and keep thrashing the young punks!
  • + 6
 BRAVO. "MOAR" like this, please. Miss this...
  • + 1
 Yeah great write. I still have a good laugh at the local bike park when I pull off my full face and goggles and the wee ones see my gray hair. I'll be 50 in May. Still taking all the jumps and drops the place has to offer and don't plan on stopping anytime soon.
  • + 1
 RC Happy Birthday man! Article made me think about one of my first trail rides. I was out of shape and felt totally awkward. This guy came riding up, legs like pistons with white hair, I'm guessing he was about 65. As he passed I noticed his calves, looked like the Hulk's fists punching through a brick wall. I thought to myself, I wana be that guy. One of the best things about riding is it makes you younger and you can kick ass at it when you're old. Hell yeah!
  • + 3
 Body fat gets you home. Learned that in my thirties. Nice read Mr. Cunningham, as always.
  • + 3
 Well played, sir. I intend to follow your stellar example. Slow down and let me catch up.....
  • + 1
 "I made my share of mistakes, but I also pulled off some hero moves."
And that's the kind of thing that keeps me happy at work, days after a ride. Well said and a great read. Cheers.
  • + 1
 this is a great story. I too hum Stevie when I ride. It is usually little wing or sky is crying. It is so peaceful. Since there is too much snow for the bike i guess Ill pick up my guitar instead.
  • + 1
 Couldn't Stand the Weather
  • + 1
 A nice read as always RC! Between having a scapho-lunate ligament reconstruction and a partially torn ACL-- it leaves me thinking if I would be able to still ride when I reach the big six-o.
  • + 4
 At last. A well written piece. Thanks Richard, a great read.
  • + 3
 You sir, are an inspiration. May you see another 60 years.
  • + 4
 Get off my lawn!
  • + 1
 Great article. I'm 45 this year, but my bike is a time machine when on it I leave the moaning old man behind and for an hour at least I'm a 16 year old ripper.
  • + 1
 Happy B-Day!
Nice write up, summing up what's it al about in MTB and more than that.
I hope to stay on my bike till Ia turn 60Smile .
  • + 2
 Happy birthday Richard Love to know that you are well. Red it as a deep story. You are great
  • + 3
 Love this stuff! Happy birthday sir
  • + 3
 Awesome column. I really hope there are more to come!
  • + 2
 Good read , road w JD at my buddy Larz's house a few summers ago cool dude
  • + 2
 JD is a super nice guy. Ran into him at a DH race at Windrock, TN. Cool dude and really fast.
  • + 3
 Kudos to you Mr RC!
  • + 2
 And this is why we ride bikes!
  • + 1
 Great article RC! Keep your wheels in the dirt! I hope I too can ride like you at 60.
  • + 2
 Steve peat 40 years young Smile
  • + 1
 I just love reading his articles.. They are so well written and with a kicking story or they widen your horizons.
  • + 2
 Read till the last line ,very captiviting and well written !
  • + 2
 Article which made my day. Live to ride.
  • + 1
 Nice analogy with the guitar there, keep on riding and writing, RC.
  • + 1
 Great Stuff- Happy Birthday RC!
  • + 1
 This piece was a piece of art. Thanks.
  • + 1
 Im 33 and fat. Happy Birthday!
  • + 3
 fatness is not a fat ality
  • + 1
 Happy b.day bro thats y we love mountain bikes.
  • + 1
 Well said, oh fellow graybeard!
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