I went for a ride the other day. I was in Rotorua, New Zealand, where Crankworx and the opening round of the Enduro World Series (EWS) were held two weeks earlier.
Paul, a local, and Grover, an import, suggested we ride up high and check out one of the EWS tracks. It linked together three new trails I hadn’t seen before: Frank’n Furter, Riff Raff and Rocky Horror. Having followed the race coverage closely from my computer, I was keen to check it out.
But there was a catch. This stage was steep and loose; and recent rain had turned the loamy trail surface into thick, glossy, slippery mud.
‘Oh well,’ I thought, putting aside a small superstition I have about risky trails on the last day of a trip. ‘If other people can ride it, there must be a way.’
We reached the entry, at the highest point in the forest. We paused for a moment and dove on in. Frank’n Furter was steep, yes, and muddy, also yes. But the experience it delivered was within my reach and expectations. We rode, slid, yelled, laughed, felt challenged, succeeded and crossed the fire road into Riff Raff.
Riff Raff has an average downward gradient of 17%. This is taken care of by an endless series of steep chutes and steep turns. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s a type of riding I’ve been really enjoying – in the dry.
Things started out OK. I rode, I slid, I watched Paul and Grover disappear and had a quick laugh with them every time we met back up. After a few out-of-control moments on the endless chutes and turns, Grover and I started to call on the tripod technique; two wheels on the ground and a foot out for extra stability.
After a few failed tripods, I started to hit the steeper chutes using the snowboard method. With my bike on my right, two feet on the ground and a close-to-the-surface squat position, I slid about half way down each chute before falling on my side and slipping further into the mud.
The landing was soft, and truth be told, I was enjoying that too. How often, as an adult, do you take slide after slide and cover yourself head to toe in mud?
Sooner or later we reached a drop off. Paul rode the drop with ease and his momentum carried him through the twists and turns that followed. Not keen for the chute after the drop, I decided to walk my bike down this one too. Only this time walking wouldn’t work at all. I sat on the edge of the drop, surrounded by the forest and the mud.
I’d met my match.
I sat there, looking at the ledge and the chute that followed. I couldn’t find a way to get down.
That moment, sitting there on the ledge, helped me to bunnyhop an obstacle in my mind. My thoughts turned from learning about the mud to how I could ride it: what skills I’d need to build for future attempts and techniques I could enact that I already knew. I found some flow, quit crashing and enjoyed myself even more as the trail began to descend over the familiar grip of rocks.
I reached the fire road feeling happy. I pictured the trail builders having a chuckle at everyone who stubbornly straps on a race number and plows forward regardless. I was laughing with them.
Whatever your skill level, there will always be trails to ride faster, or smoother. But it had been a while since I’d challenged myself with a trail that I couldn’t work out; a trail that forced me to run through my full checklist of techniques as I questioned how to get from one obstacle to the next.
Some riders will see a trail like this one and say they need a new bike. Others say it can’t be ridden, get frustrated at everything around them, or modify key sections to make it more within their grasp. But it’s rarely the trail or the bike that needs further development in a case like this. It’s us.
I remembered feeling this way often about other trails when I started mountain biking, or dumbfounded by specific features on tracks that are now comfortably within my grasp. I loved that this one was so far out of my depth. It set a series of new challenges in the same way an obstacle in a club race track does for a rider early on, or a certain hill climb makes you set goals and adjust techniques.
It took us about half an hour to traverse that track. Time where we were completely immersed testing techniques, sliding in the mud, poking fun at our own attitudes to it all, discovering the landscape from one corner and chute to the next. It was time where there were no thoughts of work, email, ego, dinner or what else we had to do later that week.
Part of me wondered if my attitude to this experience was as twisted as the trail. It’s not that I love crashing, danger or fear. It’s the challenge I enjoy. I’d say a lot of other riders are the same. The trick is picking a challenge that feels a little out of your depth at the time, but, with practice, problem solving and encouragement will become within your reach.
Rotorua is a destination with such an impressive variety of flowing and addictive trails. From the buff introductory loops that wind through Jurassic Park style vegetation, to trails that feel like they descend and flow for days, and a few runs that test the limits of your brakes and balance like this one. There are enough experiences in this one location to amuse a mountain biker of any disposition, encourage them to push their riding to another level, and make them thoroughly enjoy the skills they have.
For that reason, I’m still thinking about this trail several days later; a sign of a good day out indeed.