NEAR CROSBY, Minn. – I sped down the wooded and rocky hill, wind in my face, maneuvering my mountain bike through an exhilarating series of high-banked curves aptly called the Bobsled Trail.
At the bottom, my heart pounding, I caught my breath.
“Wow, that was about as much fun as you can have on two wheels,” I told my riding partner.
Though I’m past my mid-60s and have only been mountain biking seriously for three years, I’m hooked. And ready to tell nonriders — no matter their age — that they’re missing out on a ton of fun, a great workout, and a unique outdoor experience.
Like cross-country skiing, running or hiking, mountain biking is for all ages, and it’s a lifetime sport — one that people can do virtually their entire life. I’ve encountered 10-year-olds as well as 70-year-olds riding intermediate-level trails.
The mountain bike craze continues to grow, and for good reason — it’s a blast. Trails have sprouted up around the state, even in unlikely spots like the old iron mining area near Crosby, Minn., home of Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area and its famed Bobsled Trail, which makes me feel like a giddy 10-year-old every time I ride it.
Unfortunately, some people — probably including many in my baby boomer generation — think mountain biking is a sport for the reckless young. Sure, a lot of riders I encounter are younger than 40. But if you can pedal a bike, you can tool through the woods on a mountain bike trail.
“When I’m on my bike, I feel like a kid again,” said Duane Lee, a riding buddy. (He’s 64.)
It’s also a very cool way to explore the outdoors.
I’ve encountered wild turkeys, pheasants, deer and even a flock of wood ducks on trails in the metro area. I slammed on my brakes to watch a snapping turtle the size of two dinner plates amble near the trail.
I’ve biked when the heat and humidity caused sweat to pour off my bike helmet and when snowflakes and sleet stung my face.
Depending on how fast you push yourself and what type of trail you’re on, mountain biking requires concentration. Take your eyes off a mountain bike trail, even for a moment, and you could eat dirt.
Which is part of the allure.
Mountain biking is like Alpine skiing: you have to pick the best route on a trail. There are rocks, roots, drops, and even logs to either avoid or roll over.
I’m a lifelong cross-country skier, and skate-skiing when conditions are fast is exhilarating. But I get that same rush more often on a mountain bike because usually conditions are ALWAYS fast.
More than cranking
But it’s not all about speed. A ride last fall at Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, with leaf color peaking, compelled me to stop and soak in the beauty and inhale the scent of decaying leaves.
Pedaling a bike is simply a unique way to access the woods.
I’m also a lifelong runner and enjoy running trails. But mountain biking offers me a great aerobic workout without the pounding my body takes when I run.
Sure, there’s some risk. I’ve fallen twice, once on a slippery tree root and again on a boulder after a rain. Fortunately, only my pride was hurt.
I ride as fast as I dare for a 66-year-old — which is fast enough to blast past novice riders. But not fast enough to stay ahead of younger — and faster — riders. Man or woman.
One thing I’ve learned: mountain bikers are a welcoming bunch. Everyone rides at their own level. And even the best riders know that they once were novices, too.
My goal these days is to have fun but not fall. Because it’s a lot easier picking yourself up from a crash when you’re 35 than 65.
So spring has finally arrived. And here’s my advice: If you haven’t been on a mountain bike, don’t let age or inexperience discourage you from trying.
I can’t guarantee you’ll feel like a kid again. But I can almost guarantee it will put a smile on your face.
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoor writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
Easy trails to start out
There are oodles of mountain bike trails in Minnesota, from gnarly to meek. If you’re a newbie to the sport, my suggestion is start on easy trails and work your way up as you gain confidence. Another suggestion: If you get to a spot on the trail that you don’t feel comfortable tackling, just get off your bike and walk that section. (Don’t forget your bike helmet.)
Some easier rides include:
• Elm Creek Park Reserve, Maple Grove. This Three Rivers Park District single-track trail system has 2.2 miles rated “easy” and 8.1 miles rated “more difficult,’’ but I consider all 10.3 miles very rideable for novices.
• The Minnesota River Bottoms trail in Bloomington winds 7 miles along the Minnesota River. It is mostly flat. Because the trail floods at high water, it is ever-changing, and fresh sand and silt add to the challenge.
• Lebanon Hills Regional Park mountain bike trails in Eagan have a fun beginner loop and a nice 8-mile intermediate loop.
• The Galloping Goose trail (formerly Easy Street) at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby, Minn., is a 6-mile loop around Huntington Mine Lake and offers a scenic introduction to the sport and one of the finest mountain bike trail systems in the nation.