Three for the road less traveled
For a sport with a history of only 35 years or so, mountain biking has an amazing number of tribes: cross-country, endurance, singlespeed, freeride and downhill.
A look around any trail head will confirm the stereotypes. Lycra-covered cross-country riders strapping on heart monitors. Freeriders suiting up in body armor.
Downhillers getting ready to shuttle their beefy, long-travel suspension bikes up to the top. Maybe even a few singlespeeders standing around scoffing at all the technology on display. That is the perception — a sport divided by style, technology, and attitude.
The reality is that those lines are blurred.
The cross-country riders wish they could huck the big ledges and the downhillers wish they could pound up a hill as well as they bomb down it.
More than ever, they both can and are doing it all.
Meet a few riders who epitomize the complete mountain biker spirit. They look for challenging ups and downs and are not afraid to defy categories and test what is possible on a bike.
I first ran into Joe Rusk a couple of years back on the Prenup Trail. We were at the short, steep switchback not far from the bottom, which is still ridden by only a handful of people in the Grand Valley.
We stood there sizing it up, talking about potential lines to make the two big drops. For me, the discussion was purely hypothetical — there was no way I was ever going to try to make that switchback. However, by the look on his face, I could tell Rusk was seriously considering all the angles.
Rusk turns 70 this year. Strong and fit beyond reason, he is preparing for his fifth Leadville 100 in August. He isn’t just an older guy who plods along the trail — Rusk is fast and aggressive.
Rusk started mountain biking in the mid-1980s when the sport was just getting started in the Grand Valley. He said the Lunch Loop was only the Tabeguache Trail, with one side trip up to the Eagle’s Wing.
“There was no real descent coming from the top. You just started coming down and figured it out,” he said.
He and an early group of riders blazed routes on the Uncompaghre Plateau, the Bookcliffs and in the area that is now McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.
Rusk said that he has always been an early adopter. He was one of the first riders in the valley to get a front suspension bike: a Klein Rascal. A few years later, he was one of the first riders in the area to get a full suspension bike: the Moots YBB, his favorite all-time bike, which he rode for 12 years. He now rides a Yeti 575 and a Specialized singlespeed. The newer bikes allow him to ride technical stuff he had trouble with when he was younger.
“We still rode the technical stuff back then — we just endoed a lot,” he said.
The stories of Rusk are legendary. Four years ago, he broke his neck in a crash during the Tour de Bloom, an annual ride from Grand Junction to Moab. He didn’t know it was broken and finished the last two days of the ride. When he went to get it checked, the doctor said that the only thing holding up his head was his strong neck muscles. Four months later, Rusk entered the Leadville 100 and finished 58 miles before having to drop out — the only time he didn’t finish Leadville.
James Wilson is brimming with energy and biking philosophy, and it is not hard to see why many riders, locally and nationally, view him as a source of motivation and training wisdom.
In conversation, his philosophy comes across clearly. He views mountain biking as a means to self-improvement, and that only comes by challenging yourself and overcoming your own perceptions of what is possible.
Five years ago, Wilson came to Grand Junction for his sister’s wedding. After getting a taste of the area trails during the visit, he quit his job managing a gym in Texas and moved here. Since arriving, he has established himself as a respected mountain bike strength and skills trainer, working with both professional riders, such as the Yeti World Cup team, and recreational riders. He also has become a highly skilled rider, competing in slopestyle events at The Ranch, which is a series of trails and race courses located on Glade Park.
Wilson started out as a typical trail rider, but quickly became attracted to the freeride side of mountain biking, looking for jumps and technical moves to test his skills.
“I didn’t start mountain biking until I was 24, so jumping doesn’t come naturally to me,” he said. “But, I try not to shy away from what the trail presents. I always think that if other riders can do some move, I should be able to do it too.”
That attitude eventually led Wilson to the private freeride paradise, The Ranch, where he was able to concentrate on his jumping skills and challenge himself in completely new ways.
“I seek out what I call ‘hell or high water’ moments,” Wilson said. “That’s when you’re not sure if you can make it, but you just go for it.”
Despite his attraction to some of the more extreme aspects of mountain biking, Wilson said he likes the yin and yang of mountain biking — the runner’s high endurance feeling that comes from pounding out a long climb and the thrill of descents, which requires a completely different energy.
“If you can’t embrace both, then you aren’t going to be able to tap into the flow of the trail,” he said.
There are people who bike and then there are bike people. Greg Luck is bike people. He doesn’t even own a car and hasn’t owned one since 1997.
“Instead of traveling around in a metal box, I get to see things and be a part of what is going on,” Luck said.
That wandering spirit has led Luck on a number of bicycle tours around the world to places such as Borneo, New Zealand and Chile. This summer, he is planning a trip to Mongolia. He does long trips in the United States as well. He once rode from Leadville to Oregon and another time from Washington through British Columbia into Alaska. He always takes at least one or two long trips a year from a week to six months long.
Recently, he has gotten into bikepacking, a type of riding that has grown out of long- distance endurance racing. It involves long-distance backcountry rides with minimal gear, mostly restricted to what can be strapped to the frame. Last summer, he did an eight-day trip in southern Utah and said that it opened his eyes to what was possible in terms of exploring the western United States.
Luck does long-distance bike tours, commutes to work on a bike, works for a bike parts manufacturer (DT Swiss), and in his spare time — you guessed it — rides his mountain bike.
He describes himself as “an all-mountain biker. I like little hucks,” he joked. “Sometimes I am looking for bigger technical challenges and sometimes I just want to go out to 18 Road and ride some smooth, fast trails.”
“We all blend a bit of those categories like cross-country and freeride. It’s all about balancing your ability to take risks with your ability to pull something off. Sometimes your imagination pushes you forward and fear holds you back,” Luck said.
Whether it is defying age, gravity or convention, biking offers the opportunity to challenge ourselves, to see new possibilities and to explore.
So, break out of your routine, ride up that trail you always shuttle, or put on some pads and ride that section you always walk. Even better, pick a spot on the map that you have never seen, grab your bike and go enjoy the ride.