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The experiences of an adult beginner--Chapter One

(Chapter Two) (Chapter Three) (Trekkie Dad's mountain bike)

Well, I did it. I went to Dirt Camp, a weekend of mountain biking with some top-notch (and patient!) instructors. The camp I attended was at Northstar, a ski resort just north of Lake Tahoe. Despite assurances from the nice Dirt Camp people on the phone, I was certain everyone there would be advanced mountain bikers who would leave me in their dust. I may have had the only H***y, but I was not the only beginner. What a relief!

Why (and how) I got into mountain biking

As I sat on the lift next to Dirt Camp Director Rod Kramer, he asked me why I started mountain biking. I answered, "The scenery. You can cover more ground and see more than when hiking. I love exploring new territory. It becomes part of the 'map of my experience.' "

It actually began years ago when my wife and I would spend a day or a weekend in Yosemite. There are paved bike trails there that can get you around the east end of the valley in places cars are not allowed to go. We would rent a couple of bikes for the day and stop at all the usual places. As our kids grew older, we found ourselves renting four bikes instead of two. I began to wonder why we were spending all this money renting these one-speed bikes. If we bought some inexpensive bikes and brought them with us, they would quickly pay for themselves. (And we would have bikes to ride around home as well.) So in the spring of 1996 we bought ourselves four bikes from the store with a bullseye for a logo and took them to Yosemite. For me, it was only the beginning.

As summer neared, we camped with friends at Grover Hot Springs State Park. Knowing that the pool was a little too far to walk and too close to drive, I suggested we take the bikes to camp. There was one trail that led out of the park where bikes were allowed. It narrowed from level dirt road to level singletrack, except for one of those V-shaped streams that someone had thrown some small logs across. I figured I could make it across through the shallow water. (It was only about 18 inches deep.) The bike made it down one side, got part way up the other, and rolled back, depositing both of us in the center of the stream. In spite of that obvious mistake, I still got a kick out of that little trail.

Mammoth Lakes

Even though I have seen most places in California I had never been to Mammoth Lakes. We had considered a smaller version of our 1992 scenic overload tour, but gas prices were high in the spring of 1996, so we decided to find a place near home (in California) and stay there a week. We settled on Mammoth Lakes. None of the family had been there, and getting there would take less than a day. As we began planning our stay, my attention settled on Mammoth Mountain Bike Park. I talked my family into taking our bikes (Remember the ones we bought for Yosemite?) and spending at least one day biking there. I began reading about mountain biking.

Mammoth Mountain Bike Park

On about the third day at Mammoth Lakes we finally did it. We drove up to the lodge, bought our tickets, and asked for a free orientation tour from one of the park's bike rangers. He led us along the Paper Route turning off on to Downtown, which ends on the edge of town. On the way we would stop, the ranger would coach a little, and we would ask questions. I wanted to know if we had enough skill to ride one of the trails from the top of the mountain. His answer was affirmative, and suggested that we go easy on the switchbacks, dabbing if necessary. We parted at the bottom of the hill and rode the van back to the lodge. My wife was through mountain biking. The kids and I were not.

After lunch, the boys (They were 11 and 13 at the time.) and I decided to take the gondola to the top. It was closed because a thundercloud had rolled in at the top. We waited. We waited some more. It still wasn't open. So we decided to take another trip on the Paper Route and perhaps ride the lift when the weather cleared. The second ride was brisker and wetter. The thundershower above dropped some water on us below for about 10 minutes. We were low on the mountain and in the trees so we just kept going. The weather cleared, and we stopped at a water station where several trails intersected. We decided to ride down the hill on a trail named Big Ring. It was steeper and tougher than anything we had earlier encountered. There were series of short switchbacks crossing and recrossing the same ski runs and water pipes. (Small ramps were laid to help us get over the pipes.) The trail ended in town well above the van pickup point, so we finished our descent on pavement. Our day ended without going to the top of the mountain.

Off the top

Two days later, the weather improved, and my younger son Spencer and I hit the park. Our plan was simple. Ride the Paper Route/Downtown trails again to warm up and then go for it. We did.

At Mammoth, they put 2 people in a gondola and secure the bikes on outside racks with bungee cords. There is a station midway up that changes your direction. The gondola made an unscheduled stop near the top, giving us more time to talk and think about what we were to attempt. After exiting the lift, it was time for a couple of pictures and a visit to the rest room. I remember looking down at the trail and saying to myself, "I'm going to ride a bike down that?"

There were two trails open from the top. One is the famous Kamikaze, the other is a much longer and tamer singletrack dubbed Off the Top. We chose the latter. It begins along a ridge and then drops into a series of long, smooth switchbacks. There is not only room to turn, but room to pull off and take pictures of the spectacular vistas. It's a perfect trail for a tourist like me. There are a couple of places where the two trails nearly intersect, and cutovers allow switching from one trail to the other. As we descended, the trail became rockier, less scenic, and more complex. A short steep descent brought us to a broad, flat area with a lake, a restroom and the trail known as Beach Cruiser. Off the Top ends here. We follow Beach Cruiser around the lake, over a small ridge, and down a little screamer of a fire road that takes us back to the lodge.

Spencer and I had a late lunch and headed back to our rented condo for a rest. Upon hearing of experience, my older son Steven talked us into taking him up there as well. So at four in the afternoon we are back on our way to the summit. On the second trip I let the boys get ahead, and I took it easy. I learned to start each switchback slowly, let gravity build up momentum, and then begin slowing well before arriving at the next turn. The experience becomes Zen-like as I think to myself, "Be one with the bike, be one with the bike." The hook sinks a little deeper.

I Change Jobs

In January (1997), I found myself working at a school that is two residential miles from home. I began to think about riding my bike between home and work, so one Sunday in February I did a test run. Next thing you know, I am riding 3-4 times/week. As the weather improves, I explore other areas near home on evenings and weekends. But there is no one to ride with, and my family thinks I am becoming obsessed.

Dirt Camp

This is it. I discover an ad for Dirt Camp in a free trial issue of Bicycling. I visit the web site and request more information. The thought of attending this school both excites and intimidates me. My bike is a H***y. I've heard of contests where people see how far they can throw them. My mountain biking experience is limited to a couple of days at Mammoth and little else. There is no way I would even be mistaken for a mountain biker. With more than just a little apprehension, I sign up for a weekend camp at Northstar, a ski resort about a three-hour drive from home.

We check in the night before, and I am still wondering what I am doing here. The next morning I see cyclists in full battle gear passing below my window. Am I going to be riding with these crazies? Nervously, I take my bike to the appointed meeting place. I check in and take a seat for our briefing.

We are asked to introduce ourselves and give a little background and riding experience. The group is diverse. There are hard-core mountain bikers, a few roadies wishing to learn mountain biking, and a handful of beginners like me. I am only a little relieved.


After a short break, we reassemble on a grassy area for drills. First we practice rolling on the ground. Sooner or later everyone falls off the bike we are told. (I have no intention of falling--ever! But I do as I am told.) Other drills include riding v-e-r-y slowly, picking up water bottles off the ground, pushing against other riders, track stands, wheelies, bunny hops, and jumping over a 2x4. My successes are small, but significant. I can actually get my front wheel several inches off the ground! Somewhere along the line, I lose a chunk of foam from the front of my saddle. I hardly notice, as I rarely seem to be on it.

The first ride

We divide ourselves into four groups and start heading up the hill. I choose to go with camp director Rod Kramer and the beginners. The altitude kills me, and I cannot pedal uphill. We get to an intersection of a singletrack called Meander. It does. It's not very steep, but the turns are tight and blind. I only bail once to avoid my body hitting a trailside tree. At the bottom we can choose to go do it again or go down for more practice on the lawn. I go back up with three others. Then it's time for lunch.

The echo lift

After lunch, Rod appears with lift tickets for all of us. We regroup; two of the beginners have moved up, and two have moved down. The ride up the lift is so slow that the advanced group decides to pedal up and beats us there. The first ride down introduces to an upper portion of the Meander trail and the more familiar bottom section. A second ride up, and we head down by a different route. It is on this trail that I experience...

My first fall

Yup. I am coming down a twisty singletrack in full sight of Rod. As I come round a left turn, he shouts out a compliment. I lose it on the following right turn. As I am flying off to the right, I curl up and conjecture as to where I will end up. One somersault later, I am sitting in the trail, covered with dust. Aside from a few minor scrapes and a bruised ego, I am OK. Rod compliments me on my perfectly executed tuck and roll. I now have a story to tell at future gatherings of mountain bikers. I survived! You should have seen the expressions on the faces of my family when I showed up for that all-important shower.

After the shower, it was dinner and a talk by Laura Charameda. She is a professional road racer who is recovering from injuries sustained while lifting a bag of groceries. She's an entertaining speaker who gives us a glimpse into the life of a full-time rider. Her aspirations are no less than Olympic. (BTW upon seeing our shining faces, Rod says we clean up pretty nicely, and I tell the story of my "perfect roll" to anyone who will listen.

The second day

So here we are stretching at 7:30 in the morning, and boy, do I need it! I'm a little sore from the day before. After a light breakfast, we get another round of lift tickets from Rod. I take the time to get a new saddle at the bike shop. When I return to the lift, Dirt Camp instructor Pat Freeman and the rest of the beginners are waiting for me. The intolerably slow lift keeps stopping and starting, but eventually we get to the top only to ride down to another lift. This is a high-speed quad that takes us considerably higher. A short ride takes us within sight of Lake Tahoe. We turn around and head along a crossover trail with a slow climb. (Did I say I couldn't pedal uphill?) Pat finds a singletrack suitable for a clinic and coaches us through the steeps. One of our party falls into a bush AFTER clearing the section and coming to a stop.

I fall again

This is a section of relatively straight track along the side of the mountain. Downhill is on my left. The trail ahead dips down and then climbs to where Pat is waiting. I am hoping to get to the bottom of the dip with enough momentum to come out easily. It doesn't work. I am a little too far outside and the bike slips out from under me, leaving me face down in the track. No time to roll. My ribs hurt and my forearm is a little scraped, but otherwise I am OK. The bike has suffered a broken shift lever. Later we pose for a picture by a sign that reads, "advanced riders only." I am a sight for sore eyes with my face half black with dirt.

Somewhere I take a wrong turn and find my way to the bottom of the second lift. I actually pop a wheelie to get up on a bridge that crosses a small stream. When I arrive at the lift, Pat is arranging for two of our party to ride down. They are tired and wish to rest. The rest of us continue down on the now familiar Meander trail. It's 1:00 now and Pat has plans to take us up one more time, but I am tired, hungry, and in need of a shower. So I drop out at the bottom and am the first to go to lunch.

The end of camp

After lunch, we have time to check out and attend two clinics: one on bike fit, and the other on maintenance and repair. I find my bike fits remarkably well, but I carefully take mental notes as each of us is evaluated for fit. I also get to sit on one of the instructor's Cannondales and pedal it around the square for a few moments. I miss most of the other talk. As the camp winds down, I talk to Pat about shopping for a bike, and he advises me that most shops have sales prior to Christmas, as they need to make room for new models. Rod tells me that the camp sells off its demos at the end of the season for less than wholesale.

My second bike

In August 1997 I got a 1998 Trek 6000 with an Indy S fork. Here's a picture of me and the bike. I have put over 4000 miles on it, and it has taken 25 pounds off me (some of it skin). The day after I bought it, I got to ride the Darrington trail with Rory "Rockalot" Huber. Visit his web site.

Chapter Two -- Chapter Three -- Bridge

Updated June 1999