What comes down must first go up. The logic of that little truism became painfully apparent on my first mountain bike ride, through the hilly El Moro Canyon area of Crystal Cove State Park.
The media coverage of the off-road bicycling phenomenon has tended to focus on the sport's sexier side, on steep descents down rutted, rubble-strewn trails. But the whole truth is that most of a mountain biker's time is spent pedaling uphill.
In a word, mountain biking is work.
Brian Galas, Mark Vandiver, Bill Galleher and Kevin Davis--experienced off-road cyclists who work together at Two Wheel Transit Authority in Fountain Valley--were the guides on my Sunday morning ride. Not only were these individuals kind enough to let an inexperienced rider (a "Fred" in bicycle parlance) tag along, but Vandiver entrusted me with his extra bike.
I was happy to borrow it: I found it unlikely that the foursome would trick me into riding off any cliffs (some people would pay good money to watch a reporter plummet to a grisly death) if it meant ruining a perfectly good bike.
We left the El Moro Canyon parking lot and glided along a relatively smooth fire road in easy terrain. I took the opportunity to get used to the gearing--most mountain bikes have 18 speeds--and enjoy the scenery. Separated from the cars roaring by on nearby Coast Highway, the road commanded a view of rolling green hills and steep canyons streaked with blooming wild mustard.
The road curved and descended into a shallow gully before starting to climb. I still had little idea of what I was getting into, and I gamely kept up with the others.
We kept climbing. I found myself starting to straggle behind my more experienced fellow riders, my heart pounding as I rolled into the rest stops. And the road played tricks with my mind: Every time I thought we were approaching the top of a hill, a bend in the road would reveal that more climbing was in store.
The battle to keep my pride expanded to include a struggle to keep my breakfast. Finally, when defeat seemed imminent, we reached the highest point in the park. We had climbed about 2,000 feet from sea level, taking nearly an hour to negotiate about three miles.
After a brief rest we began the most exhilarating part of the ride, a series of speedy but gradual descents along the hill crests, punctuated by short climbs on the peaks. I tried to remember the pointers I had been given, keeping my pedals level to avoid hitting them on the ground and lifting my front wheel slightly over ruts and other obstacles.
Eventually, I came around a bend to find that the others had dismounted and were lowering their seats. We had come to the real downhill section of the ride--a descent that made the other hills look like bunny slopes.
I received my instructions. I was to keep my butt above and behind the seat, placing my weight over the back tire and thus lowering the risk of being launched over the handlebars. And, against my intuition, I was told to use the front brake rather than the back (using the back brake on steep descents tends to make the bike fishtail).
I started off slowly as the others leaped ahead, and slowed down even more as I watched one of the other riders hit a rut and take a spill into the brush. Even as my hands bravely clutched both brake handles, the bike rode like a jackhammer over the steeper sections of the heavily rutted road. Finally, after one brief but seemingly vertical section where the brakes had little effect, the road leveled and I coasted to a stop.
The most dangerous section was yet to come: a pizza run, through heavy beach traffic, into downtown Laguna Beach. Dodging car doors and breathing exhaust, it was easy to see the appeal of riding off-road: the lack of cars, the beautiful surroundings, the invigorating downhill runs and the satisfaction of getting somewhere on your own power.
But don't let anyone tell you it isn't work.