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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Deflowered in the Forest

                  Deflowered in the Forest

The pros, Vicki and Donna

Virgin no more. To the sport of mountain biking (abbreviated as MTB), that is. How did I make it 44 years without ever trying MTB? Because it seemed counterintuitive to bring a bicycle into the forest and ride through tight spaces, mud, roots and trees. Because I like cycling flat roads along the beach on my gear-free lavender Schwinn. Because I like knowing I won’t plunge off a cliff (unless I attempt something supremely stupid such as texting while riding, which I’ve seen other cyclists do).

I shelved my fears to mountain bike with two of my Jogger mates, Donna and Vicki. Both are experienced riders who offered to show me the ropes and not leave me, bruised and bloodied, on the forest floor.

We drove about an hour south, to Rotorua, which is the ‘spiritual home of mountain biking in New Zealand,’ according to http://www.riderotorua.com/.  The 130-kilometer Whakarewarewa and Redwoods Forest network is one of the oldest trail systems in New Zealand.  Dirt, mud and bark-covered paths wind through Larch, Douglas Fir and California Redwood trees.  

A Little History...

http://redwoods.co.nz/ says the forest opened to the public in 1970 and was sold to Fletcher Challenge (a now-defunct multinational construction, forestry, building and energy company, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fletcher_Challenge) in 1996. Forest assets were split and sold again in 2003. Mountain bike trail access and building were regulated the following year, with the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club serving key roles in trail maintenance and development. The Rotorua District Council overtook forest management in 2006. Forest land was returned to Maori in 2009. Today, the Redwoods is maintained by the District Council and the Whakarewarewa Forest continues to be managed by Kaingaroa Timberlands. http://redwoods.co.nz/about/

The upshot of all this back-and-forth is  MTB trails are free to the public, but some areas close intermittently for logging.

There’s an information center, toilets and pay showers at the trail head. More importantly, there’s coffee.

Learn and Make Tracks

I borrowed one of Vicki’s old bikes, a sturdy bulldozer with knobby tires and gears that changed with a finger flick. Getting the gears right was tricky, at first. I couldn’t remember up and down. Several tries, and I (mostly) got there. You know you’re in the wrong gear when you’re grinding uphill and suddenly can’t budge. 

We started on the Creek Track, rated easy.  I hopped off the bike a couple times ahead of steep chutes, including two that crossed the creek. The riderotorua site says even “skilled riders have come to grief on these technical sections.” Sheesh. No wonder. Easy?

The first half hour required tremendous concentration. For those of us with spinning monkey brains (a.k.a. mothers) this is disconcerting. There was no thinking about what to cook for dinner or which emails needed returning, only a steady pulse of thoughts like, ‘Watch the tree on your left; there’s a mud patch ahead; oh, shit, that drop is steep. Brake, brake, BRAKE!’

“You’re really quiet back there,” says Donna. “It’s kind of eerie.”

I’m concentrating. It’s MTB Zen. Until I fly over the handlebars. I’m determined to keep the bike under me, rather than behind me, at least during this first attempt.

Dips and drops ebb, giving way to a flat zig-zag of single track covered in rich red mulch. Just before we reach the end of this track, two skinny Asian tourists, one with a large camera around her neck, appear.

Donna tells them, “It’s not safe to walk on the bicycle path. You could get hurt. Best sticking to the road.”

They look surprised and ask for further directions before we pedal away.

We grind up a wide gravel road and enter a stump and matchstick patch of cleared forest. Gray stumps and logs litter the ground, detritus divided by dirt bike tracks. No longer under the tree canopy, I survey the scene, trying to determine which route might be easiest and safest.

Channeling my Inner Eight-Year-Old

“Let’s try this,” says Vicki. She’s chosen one of the Challenge tracks, a grade three (out of five) trail that runs nearly a kilometer through stump land. We won’t attempt Down the Guts (grade four, advanced) or Boulderdash (grade five, expert). Not today, anyway.

“We’ll see you at the bottom,” says Donna. “Remember, it’s not a race.”

Deep breaths. I shove off, flinging myself and the bike down a dirt path that looks more motocross trail than mountain bike track. I ease off the brakes. You need enough speed to mount hills before hitting the table top plateaus. At the crest, you drop again, gaining speed. My eight-year-old, Finley, would love this. 

I love this - wide open spaces and the feeling of flying. It reminds me of skiing. Mountain biking combines the adrenaline rush of the slopes and exhilaration of navigating twists and turns – minus cold and snow. And trails have cool names.

We tackle two Challenge tracks – the second is nearly half a kilometer longer and just as fun. Donna and Vicki wait for me at the end. My mouth widens into a Joker smile the whole way down. Even though I’m not nearly as fast as my friends, I enjoy the circus of gravity and the sense of adventure that comes from trying a new sport.

We return on a track called Dipper (grade two, easy), where I can nearly relax and enjoy scenery beyond what's two feet in front of me. I later read it’s an iconic trail, flat, fast and wide, suited for families and beginners. It meanders through forest and finally, Redwood trees. I lose the track twice, bouncing over small logs marking trail boundaries.

“You trying to escape on us, Dawn? Going back to the car park?” jokes Vicki.

Don’t be silly. Because I don’t know where the car park might be from here.

Donna suggests I pick a line and stick with it. “What you look at is where you’ll go,” she says.  She’s right. That, and the advice to build a stable platform on the downhills by holding my feet evenly on the pedals, helps.

I survive two hours of climbing and whizzing, arms shuddering, thighs contracting, before we reach the end.

I’m pleased. Nothing's broken; I kept the bike under me and had a hell of a time.

MTB virgin no more. I’ll be back.

Me and Donna at the end

Cyclist Selfie

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