Exploring Limits: Mountain Biking in the Southwest

My experience with singletrack has come in three areas. My first exposure to singletrack has come through trail running. One of the main parks where I run has a nicely groomed singletrack area and we would often run there for a change of pace from our standard horse trail loop. It was here that I was first introduced to the sharp turns and undulating terrain that makes up traditional mountain bike terrain.

Then there’s winter fat biking. That same singletrack I run on also grooms in the winter and creates a snowy paradise for fat tire riding. With a foot of hard packed snow rocks and roots get smoothed out and curves become softer. Fat biking means slower speeds and less consequential wipeouts. Falling into a snowbank on the side of the trail hurts a lot less than landing on rock and root covered dirt.

Finally, my history with singletrack has involved taking that same winter fat bike out to traditional summer dirt. I’ve done a handful of trails with the big meats, but my fat bike is also fully rigid (no suspension of any kind). I’ve been able to handle some basic technical terrain, but never very much, and I never got out as often as I could.

Fast forward to 2023 and the wife and I decided to take a trip to Moab and Sedona to do some proper mountain biking. First up though was acquiring some full suspension mountain bikes. My wife is primarily a biker and so she already had her bike on order many, many months ago. I however had to make some decisions. I’ll post a full review later, but I ended up deciding on a Canyon Neuron 6 for a full suspension bike, and this week has put it through it’s paces.

We arrived in Moab on Sunday and van-camped at the North Klondike Campground. This is a mostly primitive campsite (vault toilets but no water) about 25 miles north of Moab proper. It’s also situated at the trailhead for some incredible singletrack at Klondike Bluffs. As we started to head out for a quick evening ride I discovered that my new rear brakes were waaaay too squishy and needed to be bled. I didn’t have a kit or fluid with me, so Monday’s task would be to head into town and get that taken care of. I had just enough braking power to go out on a small one mile warm-up loop, but the lack of stopping power made me very tentative and hesitant.

I decided to spend the next morning trail running some of the green/blue trails that we’d be riding to get a feel for them, while my wife went for a proper ride. It was a ton of fun to preview everything on foot first, but I knew that soon enough I’d be tackling it on two wheels. After the bike got fixed (that’s a story in itself as well) we went for an afternoon ride and I finally had my first experience with full suspension on very technical southwest mountain bike trails.

I was very hesitant at first, not really understanding how to use or trust the suspension on the bike. I had to learn that I could actually roll OVER obstacles in a way I couldn’t on a fully rigid fat bike. Letting the bike’s rear end do it’s thing and not try and overcorrect was going to be a huge learning curve for this trip. We survived the first loop on the trails and I knew I could do better.

The next morning we headed out again with the benefit of seeing the trails a couple times already. As we rode I started to piece some things together. I knew that one of the critical things in mountain biking is looking ahead and picking your lines. It’s a skill that takes a ton of practice, and is mentally taxing much in the same way that technical trail running is. However, unlike trail running you’re moving a lot quicker and so obstacles are coming at you more rapidly than you’re sometimes ready for.

Despite the difficulty, I made some good progress on those first two days and was starting to get the hang of some of the basics. The easier Klondike trails (Jasper, Agate, Midline, and Jurassic) were great introductions to what the southwest had to offer. Riding smooth, buffed-out, Minnesota dirt was a lot different world than this. I was excited to keep learning more.

The rest of Tuesday was a travel day from Moab to Sedona. We did get a lot of cool desert views on the drive, but by the time we arrived at our AirBnB it was time for food and showering from two solid days of vanlife camping. There’s nothing like cleaning off two days of grime in real bathroom shower!

Wednesday morning was our first exposure to Sedona trails and we opted for a route that was recommended for beginners, Bell Rock and Big Park. We arrived at the trailhead and headed out, avoiding the early morning hikers that were trying to beat the heat (like we were). As we began I started to look for my groove and get back into the flow.

With any new skill, practice is the key to mastery. I didn’t become a competent trail runner overnight, and in the first few months of it I had to keep re-learning and reminding myself of skills and techniques to ensure I stayed upright. Mountain biking is no different. Even though I had some solid rides in Moab, a long day of driving meant that my first couple miles in Sedona were focused on readjusting and getting the skills back up. With more practice they’ll become second nature, but for now, there is still a warm-up period.

By the time we got to the end of Bell Rock and headed out on Big Park things were starting to click. Big Park was a bit more difficult of a trail, so there was more walking, but we actually made good time around the loop and towards the end I was starting to feel more more in control. When we turned back onto Bell Rock to head back I felt like everything was falling into place.

The ride back along Bell Rock was an amazing experience. I started feeling the groove and seeing lines quicker and quicker. I felt my confidence growing, and I started sending tiny (very tiny) little drops without hesitating. Going down rocky terrain became more natural and learning to roll up rocky ascents was becoming possible. As we finished the final 1.5 mile of trail I was feeling great. Granted, suddenly feeling confident is a recipe for a crash, but I knew that and so I managed to check myself and stop taking risks I knew I shouldn’t.

We arrived back at the car and felt great. We both had grown and learned a lot in just a few days of mountain biking and our skills were developing fast. I’ll be trail running again today, but the wife will be hitting the bike again. Given that we’ve had a lot of activity over the past week we’ll probably call it good with today’s rides. I for one am excited to get back to some MN dirt and try out some of my new skills.

When I think about what I’ve learned about mountain biking on this trip it’s come down to a few categories.

  • Learning to look further down the trail and pick out lines. Every ride I do this skill becomes more and more second nature, but it’s still a work in progress. It’s also the skill that requires the most intentional mental energy, and so when the brain gets tired, this is the area where mistakes happen. I know I need to keep myself aware of where my mental stamina is at and not over-shoot my capabilities.
  • Letting the bike do it’s job. Learning how full suspension keeps the bike planted is a huge lesson when coming from a fully rigid bike. Even just the ability of the front suspension to carry you over obstacles feels unintuitive at first. Allowing the read end to bounce and adjust to the trail takes practice. It’s hard to “let go” and allow the mechanics of the bike to do the work it was designed for.
  • Better use of the dropper post. By the end of the Big Park loop I had started to figure out how to use the dropper more effectively on downhills. Getting my butt back further on technical descents made a huge difference in my ability to control the bike and boost my confidence levels.
  • Improved turning through body-bike separation. I’m a terrible turner on technical trails. I tend to ride (and run) high and forward. That puts my center of gravity in the wrong places for dealing with technical terrain and curvy trail. I have to intentionally practice pulling my body back and then shifting the bike under me in turns. I can’t just staying planted on the seat. This is probably one of the most unnatural parts of mountain biking for me, and will take the most practice.

This trip has been an incredible experience and I’ve learned a ton. The key is to make sure that when we return home I spend regular time out on the singletrack to ensure I don’t loose the skills. I need a few more months before things will become second nature, but until then it’s all about more and more practice.

Learning to do new things at age 49 isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but life is short, and so there’s no better time than the present to get at it. Adventures aren’t going to make themselves, you need to seize the opportunity and challenge yourself, and never stop making new memories.


Beer, running, and geeky things.

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