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How to Fly on a Bicycle
How to Fly on a Bicycle

For the Philadelphia Inquirer Weekend Section

It seems a long time since Ted Northrup left the earth on his bicycle, bound for the treetops. I see him floating up there, the sunlight glinting off his shiny frame, small birds passing through his spokes, the deer of the woods paused in their grazing to watch.   

Dennis Brown is up also, doing a kind of Australian crawl through the open sky. Time is passing in big, slow, rubbery blobs. Northrup and Brown seem to pause at the top of their archs and look around, as if choosing the best way to return to earth. Then, down they come with a crunch, flit off down the hill and through some bushes.

And time resumes its normal course, here on this winter day in Pennypack Park in Northeast Philadelphia. I have chosen to remain on earth, prudently. But I am with them up there in spirit, and together we celebrate a happy fact:

Mountain biking is one of the great but overlooked exercises, winter and summer, and a great way to keep fit outside. And the view of green things, the glimpse of wildlife, the clear sky and the crisp air--is it crazy to suggest these things lighten the mind in any season?

We have come to rip through Pennypack Park, a favored place of Philadelphia mountain bikers. I have fallen three times, only two of them fatal. Brown and Northrup have hit shrubs and trees and tumbled over rocks, but they keep going, flying well in front of me off lips of rock. We are glad to be here. Today is a football Sunday, and most Americans are nestled all snug in their chips.

We are out here flying.

  * * * * * * *

Mountain biking is now about 18 years old, and will permit certain judgments: Mountain bikes revolutionized bicycling, the bike industry, the way we think about bike riding. Currently between 10 and 14 million people ride a mountain bike offroad more than six times a year, according to industry estimates. 

"Sales have flattened, but participation in the sport is still going on," said Jennifer Lamb, advocacy director for the International Mountain Biking Association.

Mountain biking stormed the American west, especially. Places like Boulder and Steam Boat in Colorado, Moab in Utah, attract mountain bikers from all over the world. Yet the Philadelphia region has some of the best mountain biking anywhere. Jim Thorpe, PA, holds an annual fat-tire festival bringing thousands to the 100-plus scenic trail miles around the town. The lonely pine barrens of New Jersey provide endless flat miles of riding, as do just about any woods in South Jersey.  

Plenty of riders feel the east coast has some of the best riding in the country. Bicycling Magazine, for example, recently named Philadelphia one of the top 10 American cities for biking in general.  

Northrup likes Pennypack Park in Northeast Philadelphia. It has uncomplicated trails--non-"technical" in bike language. And people there tolerate for all kinds of uses--something mountain bikers don't find everywhere.

 * * * * * * *

For a lot of people mountain biking is a mania. Once in its grip, you think of little else. This is probably because, well, a road bike is a road bike. But a mountain bike is a way to experience geography, a time machine, an escape. Climb on a mountain bike and dance like an angel of motion.

Northrup and his wife Cheryl have acquired a small house in the Poconos--largely for mountin biking purposes. And a substantial number of riders have found daylight riding--even very difficult daylight riding--no longer challenging. So, they go at night, with lights strapped to their heads and handlebars. Northrup himself logs about 3,200 miles a year on a mountain bike, but wouldn't use himself as an example.

Paul Winkfield, who leads beginners, for the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia, practically lives on his mountainbike--in part because it's his only vehicle.

 "It's a pretty social activity," Winkfield said. "Not long ago I was leading a group through Morris Park, and we all stopped to watch a heron standing in the lake. Everyone was there, guys and girls, sharing this natural thing."

 "Mountain biking can be any riding that's not on a road. It's riding the Delaware Canal path, or Pennypack, which is not very technical. My wife rides with me and we go very casually. We ride through the winter, even when it snows."

Road riders enjoy offroad riding in winter because it gets them out of the frigid wind.

"On the mountain bike you can ride constantly. You don't have to put on many layers to stay warm. And you exert yourself more in short bursts, so you get your heart rate up and heat going."

  * * * * * *

How to do it?

Start small.  

"Every year new products come out," Brown said, "and they try to make you believe you need them. But the best guys get by with a good mid-range bike, decent clothes, and the desire to do it."

Guys like Northrup and Brown consider the true rider to be the one who gets out there and does it, regardless of equipment. They'd rather see a rider loving it regularly on a cheap Schwinn than a poser mincing the sunny-day sidewalks on a $5,000 Merlin. Paul Winkfield still rides his first mountain bike, bought 10 years ago.

The romance of mountain biking is rife with stories of 67-year-old men coming out of nowhere on cheap heaps to trounce the poser pack, all glittery with titanium; and stories of someone's kid sister coming out one day on her girl's Trek and choking all the guys with her dust.

A great many mountain bikers started mounting biking in fact, before mountain biking officially existed. I remember the thrill of bombing through the woods near my ancestral home in South Jersey. I rode a bike so worn its maker's name was nowhere visible. Somehow I never really believed it was as fun as I remembered it---until mountain biking became a billion dollar industry. And then I remembered.

The moral here: Think experience, not equipment. Find any wreck you can. The fancy-pants bikes and bottles, and booties, and headlights, and shock absorbers, and clipless pedals, aero handlebars, speedometers, hydration systems--these can wait. As with so much technology, some of it really improves the experience--snap-in pedals are a gift from the biking gods--but most doesn't. Laymon's law of technology holds that in most cases, the more you pay for technology, the smaller the degree of improvement in your experience.

As to experience itself, improvement in mountain biking follows the same rules as most improvement. Namely, practice. Do not expect or even desire to get airborne your first time out. It should be enough to stay up. Your body needs time to learn the new balance. Northrup designed his own email address with this in mind. It's a reminder to avoid plowing face first into the ground: auger_not. Find a bike, ride it modestly.

And ride politely. Mountain biking is tacitly approved, if not exactly condoned, plenty of places. But discretion is required. In their first years mountain bikes acquired a reputation for destruction of natural areas. This caused the closing of many beautiful trails accross the country--something conscientious mountain bikers deplore. Certainly, no mountain biker wishes to be thrown off a decent trail without good reason, and such reasons exist.

But irresponsible riding will probably close more trials than environmental fragility will. Irresponsible, wild, inconsiderate, land-damaging riding will, as the mountain bikers say, hurt the sport. For this reason, bikers have developed a general code of etiquette:

 --Yield right of way to hikers and horses.

--Stay in control.

-Stay slow around hikers. Smile and be friendly, to show you are not evil.

-Avoid fragile and prohibited land.

--Get permission to ride on private property.

--Avoid damaging any land.

--Make your presence known to trail users who may not see you.

And, if possible, ride with friends. If in doubt about where to ride, the best idea is to ask other mountain bikers. Even well-known trails are often very difficult to find on your own. Stop in at a bike shop.

* * * * * * *

It's another day, two weeks later, and winter has settled in for a seige. I load my ancient Fisher into the car and drive to Batsto, an historic village in Burling County, N.J.

There, I gear up and set off on a seven-mile trip into Wharton Forest, toward a dot on the map called Lower Forge, by myself. The sun makes a splendor of the white sand at my feet, I am lost in the whiteness of an unforeseen purity. I may not stop at Lower Forge, but go further to the Batona Camp, maybe all the way to the fire tower at Apple Pie Hill.

When I think of an active love for land, when I think of the consummation of place and personality, what I see is a mountain bike disappearing along a trail.








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