Why mountain biking is the best thing that ever happened to me

The first time I had anything to do with mountain bikes was on my gap year in 2009. I volunteered at a summer camp just outside of Squamish in British Columbia. I had been paired with the camp’s mountain bike instructor, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable JB. I helped her set up the skills park, moving around wooden structures for the kids to practice riding over. She taught me how to ride a skinny (a wooden plank laid on the ground). Prior to this, my experience with bikes had been limited to riding Dad’s old road bike to work. The first time on the skinny, I looked down at the wheels. They looked as if they were almost the same width as the plank, no way was I going to stay on! Unsurprisingly, my bike agreed. I slipped off the side of the plank, falling off in the process. JB laughed, instructing me to look where I wanted to go, at the end of the plank, not down at it. I circled around for a second go. Resisting the desperate urge to look down, I stared intensely at the dirt at the other end. As I rolled along the plank, I became increasingly sure I would come off again, apprehension rising within me.  I stared even harder at the end, and amazingly sailed the full length of the plank to JB’s encouraging cheers. This was pretty cool.

A couple of months later JB suggested we do some laps at Whistler Bike Park for her birthday weekend. She told me about the legendary jump lines and technical trails, all gondola fed, that dotted the ski hill in the off season. It sounded awesome, so with a couple of other camp crew, we loaded her car and headed up.

Decked out in full face helmets and pads, we rented the formidable machines known as full suspension downhill bikes. After a quick tutorial on how to load them onto the gondola racks, I enjoyed the luxury of not have to pedal. Below us riders cleared massive gap jumps and railed berms, dirt flying up behind them. A mix of fear and excitement grew as I watched. At the top, JB instructed me to stay on her back wheel and follow her line. We started to descend, and my confidence increasing as we sailed over the packed dirt. The trails were so flowy and smooth compared to the rough tracks we rode at camp. The suspension absorbed every bump and I could hold much faster speeds without fear of coming off. It was the most fun I had ever had, it felt so good, so freeing. A roller coaster with no seatbelt, like it should have been illegal, so intense was the exhilaration.

The almighty Talon

I got my first mountain bike in June 2013. It was a Giant Talon, a hardtail 29er. I bought it because it was on sale, my friend Alex had bought one and I had developed a love of bikes, which included subscribing to the N+1 rule (see below). Up to that point, my collection had been limited to skinny tyred machines. The Whistler stoke had been forgotten, replaced with a competitive drive to race triathlon instead.

That weekend Alex and I headed out to the closest mountain biking area, a solid 40 minute drive away. We rode for a couple of hours on the red dirt cross country trails in a big loop through the forest. I actually don’t remember all that much from this maiden ride, except for Alex coming off his bike on one of the rock gardens. He wasn’t much into the downhill single track stuff, preferring the wide undulating fire roads. I felt the complete opposite. The ride had rekindled an ember within me that had been smouldering since those early days at camp. All I wanted to do was find steeper, faster downhill trails to chase that high I had experienced years before. 

Over the next few years the Talon and I made intermittent trips out to the hills. I had discovered the ‘gravity’ trails – although nothing like the machine built trails of Whistler Bike Park, they were the closest thing driving distance from my house. I committed the corners and roots of my favourites, Judderbars and Alchemy, to memory. 

I graduated from uni in late 2015 and started working. As soon as we could, my friend Katie and I went for a two week road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. We had some great adventures, like summiting Ben Lomond and taking a helicopter up to Franz Josef glacier. But what I really wanted to do was try out the purpose built, gondola fed bike park in Queenstown. Katie was up for anything so despite a lack of previous experience, she gamely rented a full suspension bike and joined me in the gondola cabin. We pushed up the last part of the hill and stood at the start of the easiest trail, filled with excited apprehension.

It was Whistler all over again. The flowing trails snaked through the pine forest, banked berms twisting between tall trunks. We paused at the middle clearing, exchanging high fives and grinning madly. After consulting the map, we decided to take a trail called ‘Thunder Goat’ back to the bottom. Straddling our bikes, we dropped into the first part of the trail. After a short wooded section, it broke out into an expansive cleared slope. The jagged Remarkables mountain range thrust into the sky from the banks of Lake Wakatipu, filling the wide basin below. I was only able to take in the incredible view for a millisecond, before my attention was drawn rapidly to the trail before me. I flew down, gaining speed before it abruptly banked upwards, sending my bike and I flying over a table-top jump. In retrospect, my tyres barely came off the ground, but at the time I felt I was soaring a metre above the dirt. It filled me with that same reckless fun I had had in Whistler, the sense that something this good just couldn’t exist.

Enjoying a pint by the lake that afternoon, an idea started brewing in my mind. But first, I needed a better bike.

Back home, a new bike shop had opened up in town and the owner was a total legend. He recommended I get myself a Specialized Rhyme, a dual suspension trail bike that would help me progress to the next level in my riding. I started telling anyone who would listen about it and showing them pictures of the Rhyme online. One afternoon when I was showing a colleague, I saw Specialized was having a sale! I stopped mid sentence and ran outside to call my bike shop.

One paycheck later and she was mine. She was (and still is) the most beautiful machine. When the weekend finally arrived, I got up early, loaded the car and headed for the hills. Stoke was at an all time high as I pedalled away from the carpark. The difference between the Rhyme and my old Talon was immediately obvious. Before I had sat on top of my bike, whereas now I fitted into it. We were one unit, hurtling along like a beast freed. I thought I had been having fun with my Talon, but the Rhyme unlocked new levels of speed, sending me flying over roots and around berms. That first ride is etched in my memory. I can recall so clearly the elation as my bike raced along, an extension of myself, allowing me to ride faster, with more confidence, down my favourite trails. From then on, part of my life started to revolve around chasing that feeling. As I had started to realise sitting by Lake Wakatipu, the flat plains of Western Australia were not going to give it to me.

About 6 months after that ride I decided to move to New Zealand, where I have lived for over 5 years and love deeply. Mountain biking helped me make lifelong friends in a place where I knew no one. I have explored some of the most beautiful and remote parts of my new home country on two wheels. I still have my Rhyme, but she has been through a few tyres, drivetrains and a set of brakes since I brought her home that fateful day in 2016. Every time I go for a ride, I am still consumed by that reckless joy I first felt at Whistler Bike Park, over 10 years ago. Mountain biking is my favourite thing to do in the world and has helped shape my life into the adventure it has been so far. And the best part is, we are not done yet.

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