The first few times I rode a mountain bike in modern times were on Waldo’s NEMBA-built trails, with flowy turns and gentle climbs and wooden bridges. That was plenty challenging for me then, and it’s still fun. I like the park enough to have spent days building and maintaining trails there.
But I was lucky to fall in with a group of old-school New England riders, people who learned on trails that were built for either mules or hikers and not for bikes. They showed me another kind of riding at the Preserves, Haviland Hollow, Wilton Woods, and other places we aren’t supposed to be but about which no one really cares. Holy guacamole! You got your rocks – always rocks, your 50% fall-line grades, your endless climbs that leave your chest heaving and your mind wondering why you ever left your mother’s womb, your slow, twisty wends up through groves of mountain laurel on trails barely wider than the handlebars. Not much flows other than the splashy stream crossings. Not enough people go there to keep the brambles from reaching into the trails.
The first kind of ride is amusement-park fun. Sure, there’s work needed, but it feels like road riding with 80%-of-threshold high-cadence climbs and plenty of adrenaline-pumping rewards from the flowy trail layout and the fun of the bike moving under you as you dodge between trees. Like downhill skiing, it leaves you exhilarated.
The second kind of ride is more like the fun of baling hay. Not everyone thinks baling hay is fun. It’s hard. You sweat a lot and it hurts. It’s dangerous if you don’t pay attention. At the end of the ride, you’re beat-tired. You’re probably bruised and a little bloody. You know that dinner and a beer will put you asleep five minutes later. And you’re satisfied in a way John Calvin would approve.
The trend today is to build fun and flowy trails, or trails with technical sections designed to try your skills in predictable ways. No one builds mule trails anymore. But they’re out there. And as good as they are for improving fitness and skills, they’re even better for your character.