The thrills and spills of mountain biking
Remote access .. a mountain biker's view of Lake Taupo, New Zealand. Photo: Michael O'Reilly
One of my least favourite things? Falling off a bike. It's not just the bit where your body hits the ground, it's that quite often the bike turns on you, seeking revenge for all those hours of being sat upon. The handlebar takes a stab at hara kiri, the chainrings bite you in the calf, the crossbar seeks to cruel your love life.
I was attempting to push these thoughts from my mind in New Zealand last November, while getting ready for my first proper experience of mountain biking.
Instead of being terrified, I found myself laughing like a maniac fool.
The day before, I'd taken part in the 160km Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, the biggest cycle event in Kiwiland. What better way to warm down than to spend a couple of hours winching myself along winding paths through verdant hills?
I've done a bunch of road training and events, commuting, full-pannier touring, I've even given tandem riding a go, but apart from a few chunks of unsealed road, it's always been on tarmac. I've never been drawn to MTB, and it doesn't help that, since I am two metres tall, borrowing one of my runty mates' bikes hasn't seemed an option.
This get-out clause was quickly kiboshed when the MTB tour guide dragged an extra-large Specialized Rockhopper out of the equipment shop, and extended its seatpost to a requisite length. I eyed the saddle height nervously. You know what they say about "the bigger they are, the harder they fall"? It's all true, trust me.
A short shuttle trip to the trailhead, some quick instructions ("keep your arms bent, watch the front brakes") and we were soon delving into the Tongariro National Park on the Great Lake Trail. On a difficulty scale from one to five, it's graded a mighty ... er ... two. I was already punching above my beginner's weight!
The first section was mostly flat and winding, giving a chance to build confidence. This terrain gave way to a steady descent. After a few "moments" my confidence was growing, aided by a well-designed track that always seemed to have an extra bit of width or a section of speed-scrubbing uphill when I most needed it.
I'd hoped the downhill would go on forever, but this notion was cruelled when we arrived at the lake's edge. The tiny, unspoilt bay was accessible by path only. A group of dusty hikers were standing by the water, and I pitied them for their tedious trudging. Still, what goes down must crawl up ...
After much switchbacking, and occasional woeful crashing of gears on my part, we were treated to a glorious, well-earned vista from the ridge above our destination, a town called Kinloch. One more swervy descent, to find out if my new-found MTB skillz were worthy of that "z"!
No, I'm going to disappoint you. I didn't stack it, despite a few sketchy seconds when I was a millimetres away from a dusty, skin-scraping slide down a steep slope. I'm still not sure how I avoided disaster – a triumph of luck over likelihood – but instead of being terrified, I found myself laughing like a maniac fool.
Back in Sydney, and my thoughts have often drifted back to just how fun that all was. It reminded me of trail-running, back in the days before the knee surgeon said, and I quote, "no more trail-running for you". Best of all, it was several hours of cycling without having to cope with cars – a wilderness experience and workout wrapped into one.
Of course, there's an obvious tipping point between me and MTB – buying a new bike. I've already got two bikes cluttering my no-garage apartment. (Plus that spare frame in basement storage that I can repurpose as a fixie once I find a decent pair of skinny jeans.) Then it'll be the MTB shoes and all the other bits and bobs. Day-long trips to the Blue Mountains, mud management lest I wreck the carpet ...
Then again, a quick interweb search shows I can pick up a respectable entry-level bike for a little over a grand. I could sell it if I wasn't having any fun, surely?
It's a slippery slope as perilous as the one I so narrowly avoided in New Zealand.
If you're a mountain biker, what got you into MTB, and what keeps you interested? If you're not ... why not?
The writer was a guest of Destination Great Lake Taupo.