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Mountain Biking for Grownups


sl00993_.wmf (8748 bytes)They're cool. They're hot. They're radical, dude!. They're mountain bikes, and they've taken over the bicycling world. If you stop into your local Sears or Mega-Mart, you'll probably find nothing but bikes with thick knobby off-road tires.

And you've seen the ads - dudes and dudettes with piercings through their tattoos, churning these bikes through the mud after landing a 10-foot dropoff. It's an extreme sport, man! Broken bones? We laugh at broken bones, dude!

But is that really what's happening? Sure, there are some bulletproof 18-year-olds out there in the mud - but the surveys tell us that over 90% of mountain bikes never see a speck of dirt! Instead, you'll find them slowly cruising quiet neighborhoods. It's like the SUV craze - they level mountains in the ads, but they ride to the grocery in real life. After all, most people prefer their bones shaped pretty much the way they are now!

There is a middle ground, though. Mountain bikes are slow and sluggish on the road, but once off-road, they really can take you places you wouldn't normally go. It's like hiking in the woods, but you go further and see more.

Like our ride to Lisbon.

It was a crisp fall Saturday. With one kid away at college, and the other on a band trip, we were free to play. We decided to try for Lisbon. I'd done some scouting and talked to some friends, and I was pretty sure we could do most of it off-road.

We started off with our tires pumped up hard. We had a few miles of our village streets to traverse, and hard tires roll easier on the road. It was a pretty day, and the fall colors were just warming up as we cruised through the familiar neighborhoods.

Since we were on mountain bikes, we took a shortcut through the local forest preserve, just outside of town. The bike club does volunteer work to maintain the trails, so bikes are welcome. It's not a large park, and we've been there many times, so the trails were familiar. Still, it's always a pleasant challenge to balance and pivot around the little obstacles on the paths. Moving less than 10 miles per hour, it's a challenge with no risk. If we miss, we simply put a foot down!

j00904011.wmf (17454 bytes)Once through the park, we followed a little road until we came to the abandoned railway. Here we started exploring. I'd checked the county map, and I'd seen how the railroad line once followed the creek to Lisbon. Now the tracks were gone, but I'd heard the right-of-way was mostly clear. We turned off the road to see if it was really possible to ride the whole way.

The railroad gravel that remained was rough and unpleasant. Dropping our air pressure helped a lot, but we were quite happy when the bumpy gravel smoothed out, just as we came to a large wetland.

Now, in the old days, this would have been a swamp. Today, it's an environmental treasure. I handed Peg my pocket binoculars to show her the turtles sunning on a log - and that meant she was the one lucky enough to follow the great blue heron skimming majestically over the water. Within five minutes, we'd spied two species of woodpeckers, one red-shouldered hawk, several mallards and the usual friendly flock of chickadees. I knew I'd be coming back with my bird book, and soon!

But Peg was impatient to move, so we got back into gear. The rail-line trail moved into the woods, and soon crossed a tiny creek. Unfortunately, what had been a four-foot-long bridge was now just two parallel beams. One of us was brave enough to walk across the beams, pushing the bike. The other decided even a few feet was too far to fall, and walked a pathway around the obstacle, using a stepping stone to cross the little creek. I won't say who was who, but my feet stayed dry!

We were soon treated to some wonderful cruising. The rail line trail passed through cool forest, with a dark, mossy hill to the left, and occasional trickles from waterfalls flowing through the ferns to the creek below. Our path was level or slightly downhill, so we rolled easily, enjoying the view of the creek below.

As we left the shade of the woods, we paused to drink from our water bottles. While I looked up for birds, Peg noticed something not far from us on the ground - the proverbial snake-in-the-grass! Ah, but this was a pretty thing, a nice-sized garter snake. We both enjoy snakes, and I was lucky enough to catch him before he slid away. He seemed quite calm as we inspected his coloration, and marveled at the quick, sensitive tongue touching our fingertips. Within five seconds of setting him on the ground, he was off again, going to wherever snakes go.

Soon, we turned off the trail onto the streets of Lisbon. It's a pretty place - a tiny old town, and not as prosperous as it once was. But that means the beautiful old buildings haven't been replaced by modern tin boxes, and the traffic is calmer. It even has a little town square, complete with civil war cannon and a pretty gazebo.

Better than that, it boasts not one, but two classic diners - the steel-trolley kind with little booths, round stools at the counter, and the aproned cook doing his thing in full view. We chose the one with the '50s theme, and enjoyed a burger and fries, washed down with early rock-n-roll. Hey, eat to ride, ride to eat, and pretend you're young again!

Our cruise home was just as pleasant, and very slightly uphill - the better to burn off the french fries. A highlight was watching a scout troop on a canoe outing pass by. Judging by the friendly waves, there's a natural bond between those of us who enjoy the outdoors.

We arrived home pleasantly tired, with only a little mud on our shoes to prove we'd been off-road. And to us, that's what mountain biking is about. No big risks, no radical moves, no broken bones. It's about going places we wouldn't normally go, and seeing things we'd otherwise miss. It's a way to enjoy the day and the natural pleasures that still abound, once you get a little off the pavement.

It's mountain biking for grownups.

- Frank Krygowski



Frank Krygowski



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