It all started with a $10 mountain bike I bought at a police auction from the university.
Or rather, turn back the clock about 25 years to a time when riding a bicycle was just about the only way I had to get around. I started off with a steel frame BMX bike, probably built in the last 70s or early 80s. It was a used Schwinn. I had that thing loaded with bells, horns, a speedometer, and even a headlight. Pedaling a heavy bike like that with a generator rubbing the front tire was something of a chore, but I used to put hundreds of miles on the thing in the summertime, just riding around my home town. When I was 14 I graduated to a Huffy “mountain bike” which was more like a regular 10-speed with straight handlebars. For the next few years, I continued to ride the heck out of that bike, even doing 50 and 25 milers for Boy Scouts. I never wore a helmet and never thought much about riding once I got my license.
The day I turned 16, I got my driver’s license and didn’t touch that bike for two years, until college, where my roommate borrowed it most of the time. For the next two decades, I always brought my bike with me with every move, but seldom did I ride.
In 2016, I acquired an honest to goodness mountain bike. It was for sale at a police auction on campus where I work. I started and ended the bid at $10. The frame was solid, it had a disk break, 21 speeds, most of them low-end. There wasn’t a manufacturer’s mark or serial number on the whole rig. The only thing missing was a seat and a seat post, which I found a replacement for at a bike shop for $35. With a tune-up and overhaul of the breaks and gears, I was into this bike for about $80. Still not bad, considering my Huffy brand new was around $100 back in 1989.
Good tires, brakes, shocks, gears, and now a very nice seat, and I was ready to roll. I added the bike rack to my Jeep and was ready to conquer some trails.
What they don’t tell you is that even though you might have pedaled hundreds of miles in your youth, and plenty of time at the gym, though beneficial, there is still no substitute for actually getting on a MTB trail and riding. The first trail I rode was the Devil’s Backbone in Loveland, CO. It was a challenging trail for a new beginner. The terrain is a lot of volcanic rock that is exposed in striated patterns running diagonal to the actual trail most of the time. There are lots of stops you have to make to accommodate hikers and dogs and other bikes. I found that the twist gears on my handlebars, though advanced compared to the shimano thumb shifters on my ancient Huffy, were still not the best. Bikes have advanced even beyond those devices in recent years, with thumb and trigger shifters which bring you up and down with a simple click, instantly.
After a couple scary moments on the trail, I decided that yes, I actually did need a helmet if I didn’t want my head cracked open. I only rode a few miles, and felt like I was winded through much of it, but it was getting out more and I was ready to try out this new experience in other places. I started switching my workouts over to stationary bike from eliptical and noticed muscles that hadn’t been worked in decades, screaming out in agony.
I started researching mountainbiking trails in Northern Colorado and came across a nice loop in the Poudre Canyon called the Hewlett Gulch Trail. The following weekend, I loaded up my bike and headed over. I probably looked out of place with what I affectionately call my Frankenstein bike against the Trek, Raleigh, and Giant crowd. Which there were plenty of. My bike likely has some of those parts. Someplace. Acquired through questionable means I’m sure.
Starting out was easy. The first 200 yards being downhill, until you hit the first water crossing. When I was a kid and riding, if you needed more power, you only needed to stand up on the pedals and apply more force. The problem with a decent mountain bike is the frame is so light that the added torque proves to be too much for the bike and it’s hard to keep the wheels where they need to be, which is on the ground. You lose traction, you skid, you don’t go anywhere you need to go. I learned this crossing the first creek. Then up the first hill. What I had been missing at the gym during my training wasn’t building muscle to power through the hills, it was building endurance for when your legs just need to move that crank as quickly as possible in the lower gears. This will let you creep up the trail. It is exhausting.
By the fourth time across the same creek, my boots were soaked and my legs were on fire. There were plenty of ups and downs, and at my skill level, I decided there was no shame in stopping and even less in just walking your bike. When I came to a crossroads, I asked another person on the trail, another mountainbiker, which was the best way to go. They had just come from the right fork and said there was a pretty challenging climb to the top of the hill if I went left, but it was a good mile or two of downhill after that until the trail looped around. I decided to pick that way and soon found myself in an endless series of switchbacks, most of which I pushed the bike up when my legs got too tired to fly around the crank. The path was grueling and where the grade was easier, the rocks were usually loose and unreliable on the switchbacks. I did a lot of pushing. I was sweating profusely, burning through my first bottle of water pretty quickly and still the climb continued.
I don’t remember when I got to the top, but once there, I stopped to take pictures. Eat my PB&J, a bunch of grapes, cheese, snacks, and anything else I had packed. There was nothing left even for the ravens that were hanging out, catching thermals from the sunny hillsides.
The ride back down was amazing. It made pushing the bike up the hill totally worth it. The shocks from some unidentified donor bike took the bumps and ruts and rocks, the softer caliper brakes on the back wheel eased my speed, while the grippier disk brake on the front provided quicker grabs when needed and even quicker releases. I found myself flying down the hill at around 35 mph or maybe even faster (the speedometer on my old Schwinn would have come in handy). The run ended at a stairway of crumbling rock. I pushed the bike down this section and continued onward, managing ruts in the trail, getting my wind back just in time to start carrying the bike across the creeks again.
The only time I went over the handlebars was a hard stop just before a creek crossing, where my wheel stopped and I didn’t. I was grateful for the helmet. I tucked and rolled and laughed it off. I met the fork in the road again and missed the rush of the wind and the sound of blood pumping in my ears. I returned to my Jeep and secured Frankenstein, having survived the trip. A little under eight miles in around three and a half hours. I was beaten to a pulp, but ready for the next ride.
I have ridden the trail again on a Trek bike, and found it no easier than with Frankenstein. I probably pushed it more than my bike because it was heavier. Around 13 pounds vs. the 20+ of the Trek. Also, the seasons were different, and with that came other hazards on the trail. The creeks were lower, but the grasses were taller and the ruts deeper. Which is why I wrecked twice on the Trek as opposed to once on my bike. I have also hiked the trail up to the fork with my kiddos and gotten to see it on a more personal level. It’s a relatively congested trail, but a great ride on a bike once the crowds break up. There is plenty to see on foot as well, and being in a box canyon, the have the benefit of sun and shade intermittently, as well as the chaos of mountain weather, which can change every ten minutes. People are probably the biggest obstacle, other than the switchbacks. And the likelihood of hitting a rut wrong and crashing, which I did on the Trek bike.
I think the point I am trying to make is that if you use your resources and find equipment at a reasonable cost, you can make the best of your situation. You can still have a great time without going broke doing it. I’m planning on another trip up the HGT soon, probably just using Frankenstein, and being sure to pack enough food so I don’t bottom out on calories again. And as always, I’ll be sure to wear my helmet.
For others ways to get out more, I suggest checking out police auctions, Craigslist, eBay, and other resources for decent, gently loved equipment someone just wants out of their garage. And if you get some cobbled together pile of bike, if it works, great! If not, at least you have a great story to tell, and that’s the best part about getting out more.