I am not a religious person. Yet, I come pretty close to proselytizing when I preach the virtues of mountain biking.
I feel strongly about it because at one point I thought I wasn’t capable of it, but little did I know: there are these things called gears that make it easy to crawl up hills on two wheels. The feeling of racing along a path on a bike is, for me, a high.
Still, my path to fully embracing mountain biking was rocky. Literally rocky.
My lowest low with mountain biking was in my early 20s. It was my second time on a mountain bike. It was ill-fitting, and I didn’t understand how clip-in pedals worked. I was riding with a boyfriend through a network of trails near a saltwater marsh in Massachusetts, and we got lost. The path was full of boulders (giant in my memory, but probably actually not that big) and I wasn’t adept enough to navigate them so I had to walk my bike.
Given it was a sticky, midsummer day and we were in a marsh, the mosquitoes took notice. At one point as I pushed my bike toward what I hoped was the car, a mosquito clung to my eyelid. My eyelid!
I remember screaming in frustration. When we eventually made it back to the car, I swore off mountain biking. It was too hard; it was one of those outdoor activities that other people were capable of, but not me. I’d stick to the slower activities like hiking, running and swimming, thank you very much.
Fast forward many years later to Alaska, where the fat-tire bike was gaining popularity. I eyed these bikes suspiciously at first, but with a secret thrill. Sure, I thought the people that rode them around the urban trails of Anchorage in the summer looked ridiculous. Why do you need all that tire to ride on pavement? Are you just showing off? Then again, it seemed amazing and magical to float on snow in the winter.
I rented fat bikes a few times with friends and, especially as winters ceased to sustain my favorite activity, cross-country skiing, I finally made the leap to buy one.
Here’s the thing: a fat tire bike doubles as a mountain bike in the summer.
Yes, there are bells and whistles on “real” mountain bikes that the fat-tire bike doesn’t have: full suspension, for instance. But my bike, a Salsa Mukluk I picked up during an end-of-season sale at the Bicycle Shop in Anchorage in 2016, has served me just fine for three full summers and counting.
I’ve ridden the Denali Park road to Wonder Lake, fully loaded with gear for three nights of camping. I rode Devil’s Pass to Resurrection Pass and out to Cooper Landing on an electric fall day; shuttling back to the car with a friend.
Kincaid, Far North Bicentennial, Mirror Lake, Matanuska Lake and Government Peak Recreation Area have amazing trail networks, and the latter two in particular are my go-to trails here in Palmer. I’m excited to head into Anchorage this weekend to try the new Hillside trails.
I know my limits. I’m still not great at the technical sections of trails, where things get too rocky or steep. A friend encouraged me recently to practice sitting backward behind my seat to balance my weight properly for steep drop-offs, and I realized that maybe that’s where I am OK with my expertise ending. Like downhill skiing, I think I’m fine being a blue-square-trail person, not a black diamond. I get thrills from whizzing through the woods, not the adrenaline rush of flying downhill. I’ve always been like that. I’m OK with it.
Sharing that personal limitation here is part of my plea for other would-be mountain bikers to give it a try. I spend entire sections of my rides thinking about the people I love, near and far, and wishing I could share part of the feeling of mountain biking with them.
I always thought the bar was too high for me to ride a mountain bike. The term itself is intimidating. I assumed I’d need sausage-thighs and aggressive gear. A solid mountain or fat-tire bike (I’m biased against hybrid bikes, which I think are compromise bikes and perform on neither road nor mountain particularly well) is designed to enable its rider to, well, ride trails.
Even someone like me — lacking in grace, balance and poise — has eventually learned how to navigate trails with more confidence. It is absolutely thrilling to see how far I’ve come on the trails I ride frequently, based on what I couldn’t do before that I can now.
The draw is a mini-vacation wrapped up in a bike ride. When I’m on the trail, my focus is taken up by powering myself up and over hills and taking in the amazing scenery. I find myself focusing on how fortunate I am to be healthy and alive, to be outside and capable.
Yes, the experience is intense, but that intensity matches the rest of my life and pulls me back into myself when I’m feeling stressed or consumed by other factors. This summer, for me, mountain biking is respite. I write this in hopes that others will also give it a try; the experience is meant to be shared.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.