As a regular back-packer, my original perception of cross country Mountain Bikers was of arrogant punks who wrecked both the silence and the trail.  And the Down Hill bikers were even crazier – they get driven to the top and then fly down cliffs wearing bizarre armor.  To me, they were in the same category as the hot-dog skiers who jump off cliffs — who strike me as slightly insane no matter how amazing the photography.

Yes, I’m a bicycling advocate and an avid cyclist.  I restarted bicycling about 15 years ago as a form of exercise after my back and knees made running too problematic.  And then I discovered the usefulness of bike commuting and the joy of multi-day touring. But it was all about the roads – and thin tires.

So last month I was a bit nervous when former Boston Bike czarina, Nicole Freedman, invited a few of us up for some trail cycling in the amazingly beautiful Western Maine region around the Bigelow Mountains and Flagstaff Lake near the Sugarloaf ski area.  (Nicole now directors the growing Maine Huts and Trails program that is creating an amazing 160-mile, hut-to-hut skiing and camping route from the Mahoosuc Range to Moosehead Lake.  They’re about to open their fourth hyper-energy efficient hut and beginning to support bicycling trips as well – hence our invitation.)

My concerns were unwarranted:  mountain biking turned out to be fabulously fun!  And a lot more work than I expected.  A lot!  On the road, every turn of the pedal brings a bonus of many feet of additional coasting.  In the woods, every foot of travel takes effort to keep your balance while you power those fat tires over the bumps and roots and fallen branches and rocks, or through the mud or bogs and piles of fallen leaves and brush.  Going downhill, even on modest inclines, is almost as strenuous as going up, with a greater chance of caroming over the handlebars.

But it was wonderful!  Being outdoors is its own pleasure.  The air is forest fresh.  The fall foliage was at its peak, so the trail was blanketed with shining yellow and orange leaves that make everything feel bright even when the clouds covered the sun.   We saw tracks, but no moose.  The constantly threatened rain only arrived once as we rode back to the hut late one afternoon – giving me a renewed appreciation for the difference between water resistant and water proof.

Equally important was the advice I got that “it’s never embarrassing to walk when mountain biking.”  There were a couple of hills that I simply couldn’t get up; a couple of puddles that I couldn’t push through; and a couple of level areas that had those hidden holes where my front wheel suddenly dropped and I had a hard landing on a vulnerable part of my body against the bike frame.     But once I figured out how to keep my balance the sport became a total pleasure. Gearing down even below “Granny” level is part of the trick – there were stretches where we moved at about walking speed.  However, the overall experience isn’t slow:  the cycling combines the intensity of a pogo stick with the air-borne joy of diving into a pool.  I loved it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t lose any weight from all that exercise.  The Main Huts-and-Trail staff prepares enormous amounts of absolutely delicious food, and the more active we got the more we ate.  It’s an unfair dynamic!

Now, I’m looking forward to returning for a cross-country skiing adventure this winter.  But on bike or skis, I’m still not willing to jump off any cliffs.


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