October 13, 2015
After moving to Missoula, MT recently to work as a tours specialist at Adventure Cycling and surviving my first dirt tour, I figured it was time to finally try mountain biking.
Gone are the days of looping around the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) on a twenty-five to sixty mile paved route, or cruising the W&OD (Washington & Old Dominion trail) to Vienna, VA or beyond. Missoula is completely new territory.
Julie, Adventure Cycling's membership director, offered to lend me her bike. I picked it up, rode it home, and it was kinda nice to feel that front suspension bumba-bumba-bumba along the pavement, jerking forward on that bounce when I hit the brakes.
I headed up the Rattlesnake Valley to meet at the Rattlesnake trailhead three miles north of my house as the crow flies. Several women, including some coworkers, caught up to me and I followed them the rest of the way up to the trailhead where we split into two groups, those with lights and those without. The days are getting shorter.
Now, I knew it was real. There was no turning back. Well, I could have, but I didn’t want to. I had come this far!
We left the trailhead parking lot and headed up Sawmill Gulch, on pavement. This isn’t so bad, I thought—I can do this! Before long, we came to a gate. On it, there was a bear warning sign and beyond this, a three foot wide dirt trail. Once again, not too bad!
We turned left and rode across a field, still climbing, until the trail was quite steep. At this point, on proper singletrack, the trail had become too steep for me to climb. I hopped off my bike with a few others, and we moved to the side of the trail, letting those still riding pass. I walked a bit more until the trail became a bit more manageable, then hopped back on my bike.
Finally, the group reached a ridge-top fence line where we waited and regrouped before heading off. A short downhill, followed by a bit of uphill, finally gave way to a full-on descent with rocks, roots, and me gasping expletives and gripping the brakes with fear. “Try getting out of your seat and leaning back a little. That can be helpful,” suggested Carol. I tried and felt a bit more stable, not freaking out quite as much, but still a little wary, as I could see myself pitching down the side of the mountain, rolling, and hitting trees on my way down the hill into the grassy valley.
But as we continued, I felt more confident, a little at a time, and probably going eight miles an hour downhill (didn’t have enough battery power for Strava, sadly!), but feeling much better about it. Encouragement from the other women in the group definitely helped.
We headed down singletrack parallel to the original dirt path that went up from the gate and Carol stopped and said, "This is the harder way.” I turned around and headed down the easier route with Kat. No shame in that. And no one made me feel that way!
Suddenly, we popped out at the end of this singletrack into the parking lot where it all began. The Dirt Girls were suiting up in layers for the downhill cruise home. I stopped, looked around, and said, "Uh, is that it? It’s over already?” We laughed, I pulled on my arm warmers, and we bike-pooled downhill toward Missoula, finally clocking some decent speed according to the bike computer.
I turned onto the street before mine and headed down the side street into the alley behind my house, putting my bike in the garage. I headed into my house, the endorphins still frenzying as I cooked chili-mac for dinner. So happy to get that good bike feeling back.
Photos by Emma Wimmer
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