Why do I take so much joy from mountain biking? I spend days looking forward to short hours on my bike, and huge blocks of time watching other people ride their bikes on video. Whole paychecks have gone towards bike parts and whole weekends have disappeared to seemingly fruitless adventures. I have to start plotting the different options of recompense I will present to my lovely and tireless wife to make up for my frequent Sunday absences. Despite all the trouble and money—not to mention the constant and nagging injuries—when it comes to free time, mountain biking is in rare company in terms of quality, and if the Oregon weather is sunny and bright then there is nothing I would rather be doing. True, many people have obsessions like mine, industries have been built on these leisure activities, industries for the industries, and it is for this reason—the existence of an endless amount of options—that I am interested in exactly why I am so fascinated with mountain biking.
There are certainly things that I don’t care for in mountain biking. Among the distasteful aspects of the game, climbing ranks high. I am not a huge fan of pedaling up hills on my bike. Doubtless this sentiment is sacrilege to the majority of Embrocation’s readership, yet an inner guiding light that cannot be extinguished compels me to be honest in my admissions. Yes, there is a certain satisfaction that is derived from being able to pedal up hills quickly on a well-equipped road bike; and I grant that a good hard climb can turn into a euphoric high, but on a big tire mountain bike, plodding along at a snail’s pace, no thanks.
Then there is location. Through war and commerce, mankind has developed an extensive and comprehensive road system. As road riders we count this is as a blessing, with myriad different options all starting right at our front door. Unless you live in one of the few sacred locations (Whistler, Asheville, Bend, maybe Switzerland), mountain biking takes some planning and strategy. Who is going to drive? Where do we rendezvous? How am I going to clean the caked mud off my body before I get back into my pal’s car, before I get back into my car? When going to ride your bike the last thing you want to do is to spend hours in a car before and after. We have all experienced the frantic leg straightening back seat hustle that immediately follows a post ride hamstring cramp.
Cost to the environment is yet another problem, and I choose to believe that I am earning mountain bike credits by riding my bike to work everyday, or by eating locally grown organics that don’t rank high on my personals favorites list; the dark leafy roughage of kale or the gummy muck of squash come to mind. The points tally is not stringent but it is observed and that is enough to assuage my first world guilt, as far as driving to go mountain biking is concerned. Is this the ranting of a spoiled bourgeoisie? Yes, sure, so what? I am going to venture that if you are reading this then you can relate.
Enough with this negative business. Definition through subtraction only leaves vacuous ambiguity into which anyone can dump their own meaning. Allow me to attempt a more precise accounting of the specific principles of my enthusiasm. Following a thorough investigation I believe that I have distilled the essential points of off road bliss.
Mountain biking gives the rider a feeling of weightlessness or a sense of parity with gravity. This can be felt so many different ways: deeply compressed in a corner, skipping through a rock section, rattling through tough braking bumps, or floating along a wide open section of trail, those moments are infused with the sense that the law of gravity has been relaxed or augmented, that it is functioning along a continuum rather than being a physical constant. This is so amazing because no matter how positive you are, no matter how triumphant and successful, gravity is always holding you down and there are moments while riding that this fades out and morphs, that the paradigm shifts and gravity releases its infinite grasp for a split second, or at least we can trick ourselves into believing that it does.
This sensation is not unique to mountain biking and can be experienced in similar ways in other sports, like skiing and snow boarding, skateboarding, kayaking, BMX, motocross, surfing, etc. These sports are variations on a theme; they allow our little animal brains to believe we are toying with the grand rule of gravity and that gravity is, however briefly, at our disposal.
Descending on a mountain bike takes critical focus, and as my friend James pointed out, in this wonderful digital age where everything and everyone is selling and buying distractions, finding an activity like mountain biking which requires an all hands on deck mental focus is a wonderful reprieve. Descending on a mountain bike is a concentrated break from the entropy of thought. We briefly find ourselves without the time to muse on relationships, work, or bills. Any lapse of focus from the trail ahead will quickly lead to another opportunity to pick yourself up off the ground. What we are talking about is a negation of immediate self-awareness; this is a distraction that works, blocking out any and everything leaving simply moment after moment after moment.
Mountain biking isn’t unique in its ability to be able to do this, and most people have a way of putting themselves into this position of conscious unconsciousness. When we get here our mind occupies, however briefly, the space of fight or flight; tapping into this primal base releases something that rarely surfaces in our daily lives. I have been mountain biking long enough that I can reasonably expect to recreate these moments; through experience I am able to conjure this feeling, I bank on it. What I have been doing is self perpetuating, and the more I do it the more I become enamored with honing that feeling, and through concentration I am released from everything else.