I've started, stopped, and restarted mountain biking several times in the last 25+ years. I never have a good reason to quit. But I always have a great reason to come back to the sport. At age 47, I'm on my fourth rekindling of my love of riding bikes on trails, and I've put some thoughts into why I keep coming back. Why does the passion remain even though the legs get smaller and the belly gets bigger?
I determined that it's mainly due to three things that mountain biking has that few other sports -- maybe NO other sports -- combine:
Before I explain why those three things are so unique to mountain biking, I need to describe how I first got interested in the sport. Maybe those three aspects are unique to me?
My first true passion in life began in 1975 at the age of 10 with skiing. I grew up an Army brat and spent 6 years living at West Point where we had a tiny, tiny little ski slope on post. As tiny as that slope was (or is...if it's still there), it got me hooked on skiing and being able to ski 60+ days a year made me a pretty good skier. That passion stuck with me through high school (in Europe) and college.
As an ROTC cadet, I was fortunate to do well enough to have my choice of duty stations. When all of my peers were begging to go to Germany to defend Western Europe from the Soviets, I chose the worst, lowest priority, poorest equipped combat division in the Army: The 4th Infantry Division. Why? Solely because they were based, at the time, in Ft. Carson, Colorado. Forget living in the turret of a tank guarding the Fulda Gap in the Cold War. I lived at the base of Pikes Peak and skied 8 months of the year.
What's this have to do with mountain biking? I'm getting there...
So living in Colorado was a dream come true. I skied all winter and ran trails with my future wife all summer. I hate running but my wife is a crazed marathoner and she convinced me that running trails was great dryland training for skiing the bumps on Mach 1 at Breckenridge. She was right.
So on a trail run high above Manitou Springs, CO, in 1988, my life changed. As my wife and I plodded up a steep trail carved into the side of a nameless peak, I heard a sound that caused me to stop dead in my tracks. Something was around the next bend and coming at us at a high rate of speed. We both stepped off the trail as two guys on mountain bikes came flying past with grins on their faces that I haven't seen off a ski slope.
When they passed, my wife looked at me and asked, semi-shocked, "What the hell was that??" I had heard of these crazy people who rode bikes on mountain trails before. "That's mountain biking!" I told her. "How cool does that look?!?"
The next weekend, we rented two mountain bikes: steel frames, rigid forks, and thumbshifters. We managed to take them apart and fit them both inside my Mazda RX-7 (yes, I'm serious) and rode the fireroads above Colorado Springs.
I was hooked. My wife enjoyed it -- she never got hooked like I did but she has ridden on and off over the last 25 years as well.
So that introduction to mountain biking explains why I feel that it's the best sport on the planet. It combines all the things that get me excited to go out and play:
As I age, I'm no longer able to eat what I want and do what I want without gaining weight. I need to work a fitness regime into my lifestyle regardless of what else I'm doing. If I can combine fitness with something fun, epic win!
Additionally, and this is a bit arrogant, I like that some level of fitness is needed to filter out the posers. The guy with the best gear isn't necessarily the best mountain biker. Part of me truly enjoys passing a guy on a climb whose bike is worth 4x my bike. Now, that being said, as my fitness drops and my income climbs, I'm more likely to be the slow guy on the expensive bike than the fit guy on the cheap bike like I was in the 90s!
But being an endurance sport sets mountain biking apart from other sports like skiing, sailing, surfing, etc. There is a price to entry. There is a commitment. There's also a brotherhood of people who know what it's like to suffer.
Mountain biking has it.
Being an endurance sport isn't the only thing that makes mountain biking great. If it were, we'd all be runners or road bikers or swimmers. What mountain biking has that those endurance sports don’t have is thrill. You can just as easily group mountain biking with skiing, whitewater kayaking, rock climbing, and other thrill sports as you can with running or road cycling and other endurance sports. The thing running and road riding don’t have is that “Oooh, I love this part coming up!” feeling. There is no anticipation in a pure endurance sport. Runner's high? Pfft...that's a defense mechanism not a thrill!
On every ride, regardless of the trail, there are several sections that I look forward to. Some are technical climbs, some are fast descents, some are rock drops or bridges or whatever. But there is SOMETHING that makes me love a portion of every ride. I don't get that on a run or a road ride.
It's the adrenaline junky, X-games, GoPro-on-your helmet moments that makes mountain biking different from pure endurance sports. The fact that it happens outside, in the woods, and usually in some of the most beautiful locations on earth doesn't hurt. The thrill is what brings new, youthful energy to the sport.
Mountain Biking has it.
There are endurance sports that require no skill. There are skill sports that require no endurance. There are many that aren't very thrilling. Mountain biking is one of the few that requires all three to be successful and maximize your enjoyment.
"Can you do THIS?" is rarely uttered in the middle of a half marathon. You also don't see many people posting questions on the Triathlon message board about how to jump this or negotiate that.
A skill sport gives us something to strive for. It gives us goals. Can I clean that log on Ringbreaker? I'm going to run this ladder until I get it right! There is NO WAY I am going to try that jump...today.
Skill sports like skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, kiteboarding (my goal for the summer), surfing, even golf, give us something to strive for. They are physical puzzles that challenge the mind and body. Spatial awareness, center of gravity, momentum, friction, torque, and ten-thousands-of-an-inch accuracy can mean the difference between "I nailed it!" and "Uh oh..."
Mountain biking has it.
Endurance, Thrill, and Skill. That's what keeps me coming back. Sure, there are other things. Mountain biking is a gear sport and some people, myself included, love to tweak equipment and gear, constantly upgrading. In fact, there's a thread in this forum specifically addressing how addicting upgrading can be. But it's those three things that keep me coming back.
I'll be thinking about this while I'm jogging on the treadmill in the hotel I'm staying at tonight!
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