Leave intimidation behind and enjoy the rugged thrill of mountain biking

Rachel Sauer made her mountain biking debut on Rustler’s Loop south of Loma.

The Colorado River can be seen along the south side of Rustler’s Loop.

Ever since that Columbia-brand Blue Angel bicycle — the one with a cloud-motif banana seat — that my parents bought for me when I was 6, I’ve loved riding my bike.

The freedom of heading out in any direction on a bike is one of the most brilliant euphorias I know. I rode all over Utah Valley in college, through the nooks and crannies of my sketchy neighborhood in Arkansas, to the beach innumerable times in Florida, and the day I finally managed to barter for a bike in China was one of the best of my almost two years there. I rode that lovely, clunky Gieba everywhere.

But until recently, I’d never mountain biked.

This is absurd, obviously. People come from around the world to ride the trails that loop around and head out from this valley. Around the world. And I’m pretty much from here!

Here’s the thing, though: I will do almost anything to avoid riding my bike up a hill, including detours of several miles. I love a desultory pace on level ground.

Plus, as an inveterate eavesdropper, I’ve overheard lots of people discussing their mountain biking injuries, and the word they most often use is “gnarly.” This, usually followed by the waving of a cast-encased arm or the raising of a shorts hem to reveal a green and purple bruise covering an entire thigh.

I was intimidated, is my point. My brain bickered back and forth:

The potential for views! You love views!

But my bones!

And riding your bike!

What if I fall into a cactus again, like that one time?

And getting away from crowds of people!

There is that…

It’s probably so, so beautiful out there on those trails!


So Tuesday morning, features editor Ann Wright, graphics editor Robert Garcia and I hit the trail. Rustler’s Loop, that is.

Robert, an extremely experienced rider and the soul of patience, promised it was one of the best beginner trails in the area, the baby cousin to Mary’s Loop south of Loma.

Part of the intimidation of mountain biking, I guess, is that the people I see who do it always seem so competent, with their space-age bikes and special gear and stretchy clothes and 3 percent body fat and post-ride microbrews and overall derring-do. And it’s foolish to go out on any trail without a certain level of that: a bike with good tires and suspension, spare tubes, a first aid kit, extra water — all the things that make for smart, safe recreation in this area.

But standing at the start of Rustler’s Loop, in the clothes I’d been too lazy to change out of after the gym that morning, with the hybrid bike I ride around town, my backpack concealing the evidence of my anxious preparation — a box of Band-Aids, two spare tubes, a screwdriver set, a bag of dried kiwi, 50 SPF sunscreen, my mom on speed-dial — I felt ... dorky. Fraudulent. Mountain biking has sustained its perennial aura of coolness and I, metaphorically, am the A.V. Club president.

Then Robert, wonderful Robert, offered enlightenment. The point, he said, is just “to get out and ride.”

Well, that I can do.

Rustler’s Loop, when you’re riding it clockwise, immediately begins with a hill that I think is described in mountain biking parlance as “yucky.” Initial momentum took me about 20 feet, and then I shifted down. And down. And down. And the hill kept going up. About two-thirds of the way up the hill, I learned Lesson No. 1: Don’t stop when you’re shifted that low and on an incline of loose dirt, unless you plan on walking.

“And there’s no shame in walking!” Ann, also an experienced mountain biker, told me.

So, I got off and walked the rest of the way up. No point in going down with the ship of my false pride.

And I was richly rewarded for my humility at the top: The view! Verdant fields to our left, the languorous Colorado River winding below, red, red cliffs on the other side and towering cumulonimbus clouds puffing into the blue, blue sky above.

“Oooohhhh…” I sighed, and Robert and Ann nodded. They knew.

Here’s what else they knew: It’s fun to ride over rocks, to veer in serpentine S’s past blooming cacti and clumps of globe mallow, to move back on your seat down a hill and pump your legs up it. I loved that zing of flight over a rocky path, of looking 10 or 15 feet ahead of me to see the obstacles of the trail and how I’d navigate them.

This is not to imply I was any good at getting my bike up small rock ledges (I wasn’t) or that I didn’t still experience tiny stabs of panic when facing a downhill of what looked like poorly laid flagstones (I did). But the challenge of it — that is what is awesome.

Robert assured me there was no hurry, so I took my time, devouring the views, experimenting with shifting, learning the best place to guide my bike along the single-track trail, reminding myself to pay attention to where I was going rather than just the trailside wildflowers. It reminded me of all the times my brother and I tried building plywood ramps off of which to jump our bikes, which generally ended in tears. I fared much better Tuesday.

Even the skinny yellow snake we encountered sunning itself across the trail didn’t freak me out.

Well, OK, that’s a lie. It did, but I rushed past it and hopped back on my bike, anxious to continue enjoying what one of the helpful trailside signs described as a “long descent.” I’m a big, big fan of the long descent.

And then, 3.5 miles passed in what felt like a few blinks, we were back at the parking lot. Epiphany time: SO FUN!!

Bikes are for riding and so are trails, it turns out. Together? Perfection.

Get going: Rustler’s Loop, a 3.5 mile trail with a 290-foot elevation change, is located south of Loma among the Kokopelli Loops. To get there from Grand Junction, take Interstate 70 west to the Loma exit (exit 15). Go over the interstate and veer right on the gravel road. Just before the weight station, turn left, following the frontage road for about 1/2 mile to the Kokopelli parking area. Keep going on that road, over a ridge and continue down until a parking area near a fence.

Take plenty of water, sunscreen, a sturdy bike and, if it’s your first time, someone who knows what they are doing.


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