- Bike Checks
by Mike Ferrentino
I've been asked to fire off this top 5 favorite trails to ride before you die, bucket list kind of thing here, and I am finding myself conflicted. On one level, I am a crusty old man now who doesn't catch much air and who has a perverse affection for trails that are old and chunky and not exactly well-aligned with the current concept of flowy trail building, so I question the relevance of anything I might say. On another level, I live in a place where the local trail system - one that is mostly illegal and used to be relatively off the radar - is being massively encroached by people who are finding out about the trails via internet forums and now the devil on wheels, Strava. As such, the local DL knowledge is not that local and is sure as hell not that DL anymore.
I find myself becoming an advocate of grumpy localism, the trail riding equivalent of the gray-beard surfer in a plain black wetsuit patrolling the take-off at a formerly unknown break somewhere in Big Sur. Whatever. I think there is value in exploration, getting out of your comfort zone, but I think that the best goods are the ones you have to hunt for, and aren't, even in today's hyper-connected world, going to leap off the browser page and offer themselves up to you without some commitment on your part.
So, all that preamble aside, no f**&ing way am I going to dish you trail names and map coordinates. But there are chunks of this planet that, if you were dropped into them with your bike, you would have to be totally blind and maybe even missing half a brain not to find something truly awesome. But you might have to get into the local way of life to find the real good goods...
It is real popular here in the states for people to bag on the French. Usually the bagging comes from dipshits who have never been anywhere more exotic than their own county line, bolstered by the angst fired out by the poor saps who were ignored or condescended to while trying to be tourists in Paris. Ah well. Understand this: On general terms of life, France rules. The food is awesome, a decent bottle of wine can be had in any supermarket for less than the price of a bar of soap (which may explain a few things), they have damn good government-funded medical care, workers get a whole lot more vacation time a year than do wageslaves in the US, the toll roads have hot women working the booths, and nobody, anywhere in the whole country, seems at all negative about bikes.
Then you have the Alps, this gigantic spine of serious mountains. Go into just about any town in the French Alps and there will be a Tabac or a news-stand. There will be very decent topo maps of the locale for sale right there, and those maps will be festooned with trails, spiderwebbing all over the place like the veins in an old boozehound's cheeks. And none of those trails will be corrupted with the blight of "no bikes" signage. Ride up some famous Tour De France road climb until people start to speak Italian, then pick from any number of absolutely epic descents. Bang from valley to peak on lifts or trams, and then knock off one giant chunk of vertical descent after another until your hands blister. Eat real well in between drops. Take naps. Never worry about people giving you stink eye for being on the trails. This is the best place in the world to ride mountain bikes.
Everyone knows about Downieville. Downieville is rad. But just across the spine of the Sierras, a couple miles as the crow flies, is this Granitic hell/paradise full of rocks and lakes that is the closest thing I can think of when I form the word "home" in my mind - The Lakes Basin. One reason I don't mind dishing this place is that most people will think the riding here sucks. It is technical, slow, chunky and abusive. It destroys bikes and bodies. The riding season is high-country short. There are mosquitoes that can drain a human body of all its blood in less than two minutes. There are also hikers and equestrians. Every trail here flat out kicks your ass and makes you feel small and weak. You are stoked when you can average 5 miles an hour. You are stoked when you can finally clean that one section of that one trail that has been making you its personal bitch for years. You are even more stoked when you stop for a second, to try and subdue the oxygen-starved hammering of your heart in your throat or to shake out the rock-blasted cramps in your hands, and look at the view. And decide that maybe this is a damn good time for a swim in that there postcard lake.
Seriously, that's all you need to know. Go there. Doesn't matter where. Find out for yourself. Quite possibly one of the best quality of weather/miles of buff trail/low population density algorithms on the planet. Quite possibly also one of the highest rip-your-legs-off-hammer per capita populations on the planet as well. The locals won't mind showing you the goods because they like making strangers cry with pain and envy.
If you ever need to see a case study of proactive, community-based trail creation, look no further than here. People from the steeper and less smelly parts of New Zealand with better views than Rotorua like to talk smack about the place. But the network of trails that is continually expanding in the forest at Whakarewarewa is some of the most daily-driver-enjoyable, shit-eating-grin-inducing dirt anywhere. And it is right there, on the edge of town. And, unlike so many local stashes around the world, this one is well signposted, totally legal, and proudly showcased. It is a tourist attraction, and rather than somehow diminishing the place, that is precisely what makes it awesome. Well, that, and the bermy flowy mulchy escher-esque maze of trails that are good all year round in whatever weather you happen to find them. Roto-vegas. That place, and the people who live there, kept me from going insane a couple months ago.
The whole purpose for these bucket list exercises is to get out of your comfort zone, to try something you haven't done, to see something you haven't seen, to go somewhere you've never been. That feeling, the first time you drop into some trail that you've never ridden, and you don't know how it will roll, or what the dirt will hold like, or how long this ride may be, is one of the best flavors of life. Nothing against nailing that corner that you know like the back of your hand, or cleanly dropping that line that is so familiar you dare yourself to do it with your eyes closed - those are pretty valid good feelings as well. But give me the Lewis and Clark moment over that every time. Even when it turns into a disaster, which happens a lot with exploration, that first expectant rush as I point my bike into the unknown is why I ride.