I discovered time travel last weekend. I was riding bikes with my son at this new bike park 20 minutes outside of town. I was pedaling my plush, full-suspension rig, and my 14-year-old was riding the budget-friendly hardtail I bought him at the beginning of the pandemic. It fit him perfectly back then, but he’s a foot taller now, so it was like watching a clown ride a tricycle. Needless to say, he was having a hard time keeping up with the group on his toy bike, so at the top of a two-mile long downhill, I switched whips with him so he could let loose and enjoy the descent. He took my full-suspension, I took his hardtail. I’m a good dad like that. Not a great dad who buys his kid a bike that fits, but good enough.
The minute I pointed that hardtail downhill and let the antiquated geometry and 30mm of travel have at the gnarly trail ahead, I knew something was amiss. It was as if I pedaled through some sort of wormhole in the space-time continuum and was instantly taken back to when I first started mountain biking, riding trails on what was basically a glorified ten speed.
The thing about mountain biking back in the 90s—when tires were skinny, suspension was what you got at school, and the handlebars were located right above your front tire—is that you could die at any moment. Those bikes were twitchy and prone to bucking you ass over tits. My son’s crappy hardtail offered the exact same qualities, so it was like stepping back in time, experiencing the near-death rush of the brand-new sport all over again. With just a few pedal strokes, I was in my early 20s again, soaring down the mountain, teetering on the edge of catastrophe. I might as well have been wearing baggie cargo shorts and thinking about scoring tickets to the next Dave Mathews Band show.
It’s amazing how much easier mountain biking is now. I haven’t gotten any better, mind you, but the gear I use has improved significantly. In 2023, bikes—good bikes, not the kind I buy for my family—do half the work for you. Cushy suspension front and back, mid-fat tires that add traction, bigger wheels that roll over obstacles and carry momentum, dropper posts to lower your center of gravity on the downhills…these machines are state of the art and they make pedaling up and down mountains so much easier.
I haven’t always relied on top of the line gear. There was a time when I actively chose the most rudimentary tools for the job at hand. With mountain biking, I went through a period when I would only ride single speeds. Then I got a bit deeper into the art of suffering and rode fixed gear bikes. For a time, I was obsessed with learning how to telemark ski, but I wanted to learn the most graceful turn in sports on super light cross-country gear—skinny skis with no bindings, no edges, and soft boots that offered no structural support whatsoever. Successfully executing a telemark turn on this sort of gear requires a mix of sheer athletic ability and the pure, uncompromised heart of a poet. Riding technical singletrack on a fixed gear bike demands Zen-like thoughtlessness. Try it and you will either understand the true nature of the universe or ride straight into a tree.
I rode into a lot of trees.
Was I seeking enlightenment by using these basic tools? Maybe. I certainly tell my kids there’s wisdom to be gained through difficulty, and riding singletrack on a primitive bike with technology from the 1800s is certainly difficult. I don’t know that I’m any wiser from the practice, though.
People who can ski difficult terrain on skinny cross-country skis are badass. People who can ride singlespeeds and fixed gear bikes up and down mountains are badass. But I’m not sure that they know more about themselves or the world than the rest of us. And where’s the line between badass and stupid? If a climber sends a multi-pitch route using pitons, a hammer, and a static line, are they badass or stupid? What if I went on a five-day backpacking trip carrying all my gear in a sack on the end of a stick, like a hobo from the 30s? Am I badass or stupid?
What did my son learn by riding the bike park on what is essentially a kid’s bike from Walmart? He probably learned that his dad is cheap and needs to upgrade the family’s gear. I did one lap on the thing and promptly called it quits, cutting the day short by a few laps. During my brief time on that primitive bike, I learned that time travel can be dangerous. I learned that it’s a miracle that I made it through the 90s riding essentially the same bike for years before the technology improved. I learned that there are advancements in gear for a reason. I learned I need to buy my son a new bike, so he’ll stop riding my full suspension. Or better yet, he can have my full suspension, and I can get a brand new one for myself.
So yeah, maybe I am a little wiser from riding this old bike. Maybe, for me, enlightenment looks like a brand new full squish whip that will cover up my lack of mountain biking skill.
Cover photo courtesy of the author.