Mission Overhaul

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I bought my not-so-cycle-happy kids legit mountain bikes—and it changed our lives.

My 15-year-old son, Kayden, noses his bike onto the Puzzler trail from the roughly 3,000-foot ridgeline overlooking Massanutten Resort’s Western Slope area. The 1.1-mile-long black-diamond quickly gets down to business. 

A chute of deceptively smooth singletrack leads to a series of bouldery stairsteps that release into a big, switchback berm and a long downhill run punctuated by rock hops and small drops. We swoop left around a mature oak tree, enter a ravine, and discover the Puzzler’s namesake feature: a hundred-yard-long, doubletrack-wide bridge made of huge flat stones. It descends through a boulder field with steep, sheer drops to the right. Treetops blur by and I realize Kayden’s really pushing it.

Then we bank into another ravine, where a flowy downhill plunge brings more speed. Ahead, a tree splits the trail. I avoid what looks to be a stone runway for a serious jump and go right. Glancing portside reveals Kayden’s front tire sailing through the air a foot above my head. He lands it smooth, hooting like an adrenaline junky on a bender.

Who is this kid and where is my son? I’d faint of astonishment, but am too busy gassing the pedals—he’s caught Evel Knievel disease and will at any moment bash his brains out on a tree! 

That said, the enthusiasm is infectious. We blaze into the mile-long Special K trail and shred the first of its long, high berms. Something in the way Kayden bobs and weaves makes me want to pass and leave him in a wake of dust like a runner-up chump. I look for an opening. He pedals harder. It goes on like this until we reach the bottom.  

“Dude, that was awesome,” he pants, turning up the gravel shuttle road and commencing the .8-mile hike-a-bike to the top. 

“What’s got into you?” I ask. He’s always been a fairly timid rider, especially on unfamiliar slopes. What’s more, he detests uphill pedaling. At this point, he typically invents an ailment and v-lines for the lower parking lot, abandoning me to a lonely and guilt-ridden last run. 

“This bike makes my old one look like junk,” says Kayden. Up to now, he thought “mountain biking was kinda blah. But riding this bike, I see why you’re so about it. It’s actually mad fun.”

Aha! I was so absorbed in convincing him to come along and getting his mind blown by the thrash-fest I’d forgotten: This was his maiden park ride on a dual-suspension rig. Though he’d technically inherited my 2016 Specialized Camber when I upgraded to an Alchemy Nine7Five last spring, this was our first legit outing. 

Upgrading mountain bikes has made riding singletrack a family affair for the author. photo by sage latane

He’d previously been riding a 2014 Scott Aspect hardtail. It was a quality bike (and brought a $650 price tag), but was ultimately unfit for the Virginia Blue Ridge. Its climbing gear was a joke; relatively skinny tires with tubes led to frequent flats; its geometry felt antiquated and clunky; and big air was a no-no. The list goes on.   

My elation is bruised by regret: I’d attributed his habit of consta-griping during rides to a disdain for tough cardiovascular exercise and the fact he’d rather be skateboarding with his bros. Had I known it’d yield such a positive reaction, I would’ve shelled out the cash ($1,650, new) for a second Camber years ago.  

That day at Massanutten proved revolutionary. 

Kayden started going out of his way to suggest new ride spots—feature-rich parks at nearby resorts like Bryce and Snowshoe in particular. But he doesn’t balk at afternoon spins through trails in, say, the George Washington National Forest at Reddish Knob, either. We’ve gone from misadventures à la Clark Griswold to mutually enjoyable father-son experiences, essentially overnight.  

The success led me to consider a similar approach with my nine-year-old daughter, Zoe. Like Kayden, she’ s a fan of action-oriented outdoor recreation like skiing, kayaking, river snorkeling, and bouldering, but hadn’t warmed to mountain biking. Revisiting green-level singletrack in local parks always ended the same: Her peeved and me apologetically pushing two bikes back to the car. As such, replacing her hand-me-down Mongoose with a real-deal mountain bike seemed like a waste of $450.  

The pandemic helped change that. Afternoon rides exploring side streets in our home city of Staunton, Va., became an evening staple. Zoe quickly became more adventurous. She looked for shortcuts through wooded lots, powerline clearings, abandoned alleys, and down grassy hills. Hoping to parlay the interest, I surprised her with a new Trek Roscoe 24. It has mid-fat, 2.8-inch tires to absorb bumps and an eight-gear, wide-range cassette and trigger shifter that facilitate easier climbing; disc brakes offer predictable and reliable stopping power. 

She was overjoyed at the unveiling, so I suggested a daddy-daughter trial run: a curated medley of wooded park trails. “Like, 90 percent downhill,” I promised—followed by smooth-riding bike lanes into downtown for curbside ice cream.  

That afternoon, I watched in amazement as Zoe purposefully steered over jump-like whoops, tried her hand at naturally banked curves, and laughed as she dabbed to maintain balance. She charged climbs with unprecedented determination and made it through them without walking. As her trust in Roscoe grew, so did the speed with which she approached downhill sections. It was as if the bike had transformed her brain. Fear and apprehension were erased by the unmistakable symptoms of stage-one MTB addiction!  

Exiting the shadowy woods, we took a quick breather and a sip of water. Her face was plastered with a perma-grin that was one-part pride, one-part confidence, many parts good time. She pointed to my gloves and informed me she’d need a pair of her own to avoid blisters. 

“Especially if I’m gonna try that crazy stuff where you and Kayden ride,” she says. And just like that, we went from backyard greenways to talking about tackling trails in one of the state’s three IMBA Ride Centers. “What do you think, would that be fun to try next?” 

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