June 1017, 1999
Where to ride a mountain bike for maximum thrills and, if youre lucky, spills.
by Piers Marchant
It should come as no surprise that mountain bikers readily admit a certain cavalier machismo lies at the core of their sport. Spending hours sliding up and down the slopes of difficult trails and hopping over giant rock formations tends to bring out the Sonny Corleone in you. As such, most riders have a favorite wipeout anecdote they tell with barely concealed pride. In mountain biking, failure is half the fun.
Take veteran Philly rider Lewis Haskells favorite crash: "It was right at the end of the ride," he says, his eyes going glassy with memory. "I was going down this easy Jeep road, a long downhill, maybe 30 or 35 miles an hour. I hit a rock and it was like pole-vaulting. It shot me into the air. Went head first, split my helmet, ripped up my shin to where I could see bone. I tried to stand up but I just fell down.
"Fortunately, I was just a minute walk from the car."
Haskell, like many riders, lives for those moments of pure, hand-wringing adrenaline you get when you face death (and a monster downhill) head on. Win or lose, to have any chance at all to make it down alive, you have to, in the vernacular of the biker, "commit." Anything less and you will most certainly fail. Painfully.
In the Philly region, there are some surprisingly accessible rides available for hardcore aficionados. If you dont want to leave the confines of our lovely city (or, if you are, shall we say, vehicularly indisposed) all you need do is head up through Fairmount Park to the Wissahickon Valley Trail. For the cost of a stamp (and a donation, if you have the resources) you receive a map and a trail permit, good for the year, that enables you to enjoy the wonders of mud, loose rock and tree roots on the Wissahickons fine extended loop. While there are few flat-out heart-stoppers on this trail, there is plenty of decent, technical single-track to keep your appetite whetted and your nerves sharp.
The Wissahickon loop takes you over and around golf courses, shimmering springs and a number of solid, grinding hills (including "The Widowmaker," located right next to the Valley Green restaurant). As Lee Rogers, co-owner of Bicycle Therapy, notes, the changing nature of the trail makes it especially challenging, as rain and wind alter the course significantly from ride to ride. Rogers, who rides the Wissahickon three or more times a week, describes it as "a great place to start."
For riders who really want to get dirty, however, they need to travel 90 miles north up to Jim Thorpe, PA, home of some of the best riding in the region. Whats immediately striking about Jim Thorpe is just how adapted to mountain biking the town has become. Scanning the streets, you cant throw a stone without bouncing it off someones aluminum alloy triple-butted frame. And when you see a 6-year-old with a titanium full suspension doing bunny hops down his driveway, you get the idea that the townsfolk have taken to this whole riding gig.
"Oh, theres some tension here," explains Elissa Marsden, co-owner of Blue Mountain Sports, one of the major bike stores in town. "But [the natives] understand that this is a huge part of their economy now, so they deal with it." A few years back, Jim Thorpe was a bedroom community, a quiet, secluded place for families with jobs in Allentown. But when Bethlehem Steel went under and the city fell on hard times, native Jim Thorpians had to switch gears, as it were. As a tourist town, it offers beautiful vistas and a pleasing real-world quality in its native architecture, but the real draw (in addition to hunting lands) are the trails more than two dozen by one official count, which range from the easygoing to the downright abusive.
Some of the more dangerous trails (including one called, appropriately enough, "Death Trap") have been closed down in recent years due to the construction of a county prison in the area, but there are still plenty of challenging trails left to mistreat you. Two of the more popular are the Mauch Chunk, a trail that Marsden describes as "very rocky and loose" (this trail also features "Bobs Option," a significantly difficult descent that will leave many riders double-checking their helmet clips), and The Uranium Road Trail, which is best approached via a shuttle bus that sets you near the top of a mountain and lets you ride and claw your way back down.
Once described by Bicycling magazine as "Durango East," referring to the legendary Colorado biking mecca, Jim Thorpe is for riders of all abilities, but it helps to have a little paste in your stocking. Even the relatively simple Switchback Trail has a wicked, loose-rock downhill at the end. If you go, you have to be prepared for the challenge and a bit of good-natured ass-whuppin. As an extra benefit, being up in the mountains of Jim Thorpe is a good way to beat the infernal Philly summer heat.
Of course, if you want to beat the heat in the city, it is always cooler at night, which brings us to yet another method of upping the adrenaline ante for those of us with twitchy clipless pedals: night riding. The idea is to outfit your bike and/or helmet with heavy-duty lamps and hit the trails in the dark, making for some seriously challenging rides even on trails you think you know by heart. Haskell, for one, enjoys night riding in the area because it "trains you to react faster to things. Because you dont know how deep the drops are, it forces you to relax."
Relaxation is a wonderful thing, of course. But even Haskell, a night-riding enthusiast, admits that crashing in the dark is unnerving. What he says could just as well describe the experience of mountain biking difficult trails in general. "You dont know what to prepare for when you hit," he says. "Its very damn scary, you just have to ball up and tell yourself, I have faith."
The Wissahickon Trail map and permit are available through the Fairmount Park Commission, 215-685-0000. Blue Mountain Sports has rental bikes, trail maps and shuttle service, 34 Susquehanna St., Jim Thorpe, PA, 570-325-4421. In Philly: Bicycle Therapy, 2208 South St., 215-735-7849.
Advice for Beginners
For those of you who like the idea of mountain biking and want to learn how to ride, Lee Rogers, biking enthusiast and co-owner of Bicycle Therapy, offers these basic rules for beginning bikers:
1. Speed is your friend. (Going downhill, you must maintain a certain amount of speed in order to hop over rocks and roots in the path.)
2. Always look ahead.
3. Keep in "speed check." (Meaning, hold something back by tapping on your brakes on the killer downhills.)
4. Ride within your ability.
5. Always wear gloves, eye protection and a helmet.
6. Always carry a spare tube, pump and tool kit.
7. Dont ride alone.
8. Go out of your way to be polite to other trail users. Generally speaking, mountain bikers are not exactly popular on the trails. Be careful of hikers and horseback riders.
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