The best thing about all the miles of new super special, very expensive, and highly engineered mountain bike trails in Anchorage is that no one goes to the old, root-filled, muddy, buggy, slow and painful ones anymore. At least in the summer, my favorite old haunts are ghost towns. In the winter, they’re full of fat bikes (and I mean FULL – I don’t even bother going there in the winter now; I spend more time with my foot unclipped waiting for the hordes to pass by than I do actually pedaling if I do), but in the summer, they’re empty.
They’re empty because they’re not actually fun, not in the traditional mountain bike sense of the word.
I guess I should confess – I don’t actually like mountain bikers much. I like mountain biking, but once I actually started doing mountain bike-y things (following me here?), I stopped having as much fun. I got faster and better so I started riding with other mountain bikers, real ones who dress in spandex and race every week and are competitive on every ride and spend hours on message boards analyzing every bolt and zip tie on each others’ bikes, and always seem to have a bike that’s at least four pounds lighter than mine and who require a full commitment to sustained effort to ride with. I still do ride with those guys often enough; they do keep me sharp and fit. You really can’t get a lot faster unless you ride with people better than you so it’s fun to become as good as the people who used to be better than you, and given the nature of biking, you really only notice that you’re better when you can finally beat one of said people.
But I learned to ride on trails that don’t have a single “buffed” portion, and I learned to ride them on a creaky old $400 26″ hardtail. I spent hours out there every day with my dog, bopping around and (evidently) learning how to hop over roots and trail obstructions with ease. To me, that was mountain biking; being out there riding a bike. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t a real mountain biker until someone told me so.
To become a real mountain biker, I did a few races, trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. Pretty much everyone who races says that you just have to force yourself to show up a few times and that’s the hardest part. Personally I think the hardest part is finding whatever is fun about practically killing yourself to go as fast as you possibly can for several hours at a time on a course that might not be remotely interesting at all, in the company of a hundred other people all trying to beat you, in hopes of obtaining (as I did) a small bag of trinkets for placing in one’s division at the end of the year, but to each her own; I can recognize that. Myself, though? I did not enjoy races at all. When all was said and done I looked at the little baggie of chewable energy tablets (vomit-worthy flavor) and too-big sale-rack gloves I’d won, and vowed “never again.” There was no bliss to be found in that course of action.
While I was discovering my aversion to racing, Anchorage was discovering how much money it takes to build mountain bike trails. Tons of grants were dumped into the exacting science of trail building. There are two networks of bike-specific trails now, and the newest one at Kincaid Park is wildly, obscenely popular. There are no obstacles, no big draining climbs, no river crossings; no traditional “Alaska” trail experiences other than the moose and bears (of which there seem to be a higher than normal concentration in that area – goes to show what happens when you try to have a non-Alaska experience in Alaska. Try to civilize it all you want, Alaska will find you, just you wait), and there are banked turns (now THOSE are actually, really for real, fun), lots of mostly harmless but highly entertaining jumps, and more switchbacks than can be found in the entire rest of Alaska. It’s a smash hit for the real mountain bikers. I got exactly one summer of fun on it before the “scene” turned me off on the whole affair. Now there are signs telling you which way you are allowed to ride and other signs admonishing you for being there at all because you might hurt the trail. Evidently carving a four-foot swath through the wilderness with a mini hydro-axe is the natural order of things but a pox on you for leaving a foot print or tire mark if the resulting expensive trail happens to be in anything but perfect condition when you pass by. I can’t cope with the stress of being shamed for enjoying what was built to entertain people. I rarely go to Kincaid now.
But that’s where all the mountain bikers are now. They’ve largely abandoned the first trail system built, one on the Hillside relatively near my house. They don’t go there as much anymore because those trails aren’t as fun or “flowy” (whoever got tens of thousands of dollars for designing those hiccupy trails and being lauded for their “flow” is my new boondoggle hero) as the Kincaid ones and they’re a lot more out of the way for most Anchorage residents. Consequently I go there more, now. It helps that it’s within riding distance of my house – seeing bikes on cars being driven somewhere to be ridden really depresses me. It’s hypocritical, really, because I drive my bike over to the trails when Geardog and I need to get our ride on. It’s just too far on pavement for him to run along, so he gets a lift and so does my bike. We do go to the Hillside “bike” trails occasionally, but mostly we go to where we’ve always gone – somewhere else.
Today we sojourned out in the drizzle that’s cast a pall over Anchorage all weekend. Five straight days of 80 degree weather followed by a bottomed-out 45 degree forecast will keep almost everyone inside, cleaning garages and detailing cars and recovering from hangovers. Geardog isn’t a fan of heat, though, so he can only come along when it’s cool and damp, and today was just the ticket. We drove the few miles to the trailhead, dodged strollers and Halti-equipped dogs for a mile, and snaked through a line of clue-finders from some BLM Campbell Tract event, but finally shook the crowds and galloped off to inspect our old stomping grounds.
I fully expected to find extremely wet conditions and I was not disappointed. I danced on foot over the first stream barring our way, using my bike as a fulcrum, and turned around at the second – an actual raging river covering the entire trail and saturating the surrounding woods, the ground a lake as far as the eye could see. Bitter experience over the years had taught me that attempting to find a way through this torrent was futile, so we opted for an alternate route; delaying the inevitable.
Bitter experience can sometimes lend wisdom to one’s actions, but can also mislead in some ways. I knew I’d get wet had I continued on the first route, but I also knew that by coming to these trails in the first place this early in the season I’d get wet anyway, so it wasn’t a surprise to encounter another river flowing down my intended direction. My options were to turn around or to get very wet, but even a small bit of water is such an obstacle to most people that by crossing we were virtually guaranteeing a peaceful solitary days’ outing, so naturally I charged in and waded, knee deep, cycling shoes sinking deep into the muck, to access the trail beyond.
And then we were back where it all started – the real singletrack, laced with roots and some mud and full of little difficulties and not optimized for bikes at all. There’s a bridge now over one of the standard river crossings, but little else has changed. We can still wind our way down three-tire-wide forest trail, beat in by the padded feet and cloven hooves of the descendents of the original residents of Anchorage. There are no 40-foot-wide swaths carved through the spruce by bulldozers, deemed “skate ski trails” but resembling nothing less than roads. We can still run into a bear or moose at any second but they probably won’t bother us because they don’t get harassed all day by constant human presence. We can still spend hours out there without seeing another person. There’s not much different about the actual trail because it just doesn’t get enough traffic to change it.
Now I can cover that ground a little faster because I’m way better than I was when I first threw a leg over a bike and pointed the bike into the woods, and instead of that rickety hardtail I now ride an enviously high-end full suspension 29er that makes all those roots a lot less painful. Geardog has a graying muzzle now and can go slightly fewer miles than he could way back when we started. But when we’re together out there, we still don’t care if we clear that obstacle today or whether we ride up that hill or decide to walk it. We don’t care if it’s time to take a break early or if we want to go around again or if we throw in the towel or go home. There’s no one else there to make a difference one way or another.
As we finished our ride, the clouds parted and instead of the sucker hole I expected, blue prevailed and the skies cleared. It’s a warm sunny summer evening in Anchorage and I bet there are folks headed hither and yon to savor the last hours of an Alaskan weekend. I’m at home with tired legs, a sleeping dog, and a beer, having foregone the sun to gain a few priceless hours of chilly solitude in the woods, that special part of Anchorage that, unlike the rest, seems slow to change.