There’s a nifty event coming up in Austin in a few weeks. It’s called the “Big Southie,” and is an unsupported mountain bike ride consisting of three different loops on the myriad of bike trails in the south part of town.
I’m going to ride it. Not the whole thing, but parts of it. So when I saw that a pre-ride of the route was planned for Sunday, I decided to join in.
The pre-ride was just the north loop, and would cover about 17 miles. This is described as the “most technical” of the three loops. “Technical,” in mountain bike talk, means you have to bounce over lots of rocks. I figured if I was part of a group covering some trails that I have not yet ridden, I’d be okay — even though I’m not very good at negotiating rocks.
We started within a few minutes of the scheduled 9 a.m. departure. The ride leader was looking for someone to serve as the “sweep,” or last rider in the group, and I said that since I was probably the slowest rider there, I would do it. We started on a paved multi-use trail at a local park, and right away I had to push it to stay with the group. These were some serious mountain bikers, some of whom I had seen before on other outings.
Just over a mile from the start, they veered off a familiar path onto a trail that I never knew existed. It was a different way to get to the Mopac Expressway, which we would cross under. But not on a road. We would cross under it on a rough trail. It was really quite fun, because we first crossed under the southbound lanes of the expressway, and then rode between the two divisions of the road for some time — about 12 feet below the road surface, so traffic didn’t even know we were there. Eventually, we crossed under the northbound lanes, and the trail started living up to its “technical” billing.
I’m not at the point where I blast over rocks, especially loose ones like we were dealing with. At one point, the trail turned abruptly up, and I had to downshift to the small chainring and stand on the pedals to keep my forward momentum going. Just then, the front tire hit a rock that was larger than most around it, and the bike jarred to a halt. I had to jump quickly to keep from being thrown onto the bed of rocks. While I wrestled the bike up the rest of the hill, the group had disappeared into the woods and underbrush ahead.
I pedaled hard on the trail, and soon came upon one of the bikers, who had held back to wait for me. That’s the way it would be for the next 10-15 minutes: I’d fall back, and someone would stay back to wait.
We reached the Sunset Valley trails, a nice network of trails in the town of Sunset Valley, which is completely surrounded by Austin. Now, I could stay with the group. But they were headed toward another bit of “technical” stuff — a trail I had tried to ride about a month ago, and that proved too risky for me. I let one of the riders know that I was turning back, and wished them all a nice ride.
Heading back through Sunset Valley, I decided to take some of the branch trails I’d never been on before. One was quite nice. Twisty singletrack, into and out of woods and prairie. Eventually, I reached a point where it climbed a hill steep enough that steps had been built into it. Clearly, I was off the part of the trail used for biking. But I carried the bike up the steps (the rustic kind made of logs and mud), and reached an overlook.
The sign said I was in a nature and conservation area, and sure enough, I had blundered onto a trail where bikes are not allowed. I walked the bike down the hill, and picked up the trail I had taken into this spot. This time, I decided I’d had enough exploring for the day, and headed home.
I have enjoyed mountain biking since I started doing it last April, but I think I’m getting cautious in my old age. (A friend once told me I’m just getting wiser.) The rough stuff other riders attacked were the kinds of terrain I like to avoid — or at least tackle at a slower, more exploratory pace than we rode this day. But they’re about 30 years or more younger than I am, and I’m not sure I’ll ever ramp up to their level of expertise that navigating over rough ground.
I’ll continue to ride the mountain bike, but at my age, I’ll ride on my terms.