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Bikexchange logo, link to Home     It's All Right to Ride Upright     Bikexchange logo, link to Home
An Ode to the Mountain Bike and the Railbed Trail

By James Brink

Okay, so I am a traditionalist. I admit that I am still wearing my circa 1978 Detto Article 74 shoes. The only change made from the original, other than to re-stitch the seams, was to affix Look pedal cleats where old slotted cleats were previously attached.

I also submit that I must be the only person left on the planet who rides a Brooks Professional Racing Saddle; yes, the original, unpadded, hard leather version originally purchased in 1979 for my Schwinn Continental and later moved in 1982 to my Trek 620, my current steed.

Every spring I soak the underside of this saddle with neatsfoot oil and completely coat the exterior with saddle soap. This treatment makes the saddle more comfortable, at least this is what I tell myself and others.

Finally, I still believe that steel is more comfortable that aluminum and carbon fiber and I believed that true cyclists ride bent over and "in the drops."

Skeptical of Mountain Bikes

It was with great skepticism when I first became aware of the sudden and intense interest in mountain bikes, which, incidentally, are called ATB's (all terrain bicycles) by some. I can remember Bicycling Magazine sponsoring a contest to name this new fashioned machine. I can't remember the entries, but mountain bike must have been the winner.

What bothered me the most about these new bikes was the riding position of the riders. They sat upright. Through my cynical eyes they looked liked Elvira Gulch going after Toto right before the big storm. They reminded me of the faded sepia tin types of the first cyclists of the Gay '90s, the 1890's, that is.

The True Cyclists regarded the new bikes as a fad and summarily dismissed them. This is the same group of True Cyclists who also saw Madonna perform on a New Year's Eve special in 1984 and rendered the same opinion.

We were wrong on both counts.

I watched the new sport develop until in 1994 I could wait no longer. I acquired my own mountain bike. Before I could bring myself to ride my new bike, I raised the seat, lowered the handlebars which were already attached to a moderately extended stem. I took a bike that was designed to seat the rider in an upright position and managed to force a semblance of the classic crouch.

Since my new acquisition was actually a Christmas gift, I bundled in ski clothes, loaded my new machine on the rack and set out for the Montour Trail, an abandoned railbed converted to a multi-purpose trail outside of Pittsburgh, and was hooked at once.

A Whole New World

It did not take long for me to realize that a whole new world of cycling had opened up to me. No longer would I be tied to the thin strip of asphalt granted to me by my four wheeled brethren of the road. I could actually ride without constantly listening for the humming of the upcoming tires behind me or looking over my left shoulder always watching for the lumbering four wheel drive fueled by a six pack of Bud Light.

The ride was so quiet and stress free. I could ride almost 12 miles one way and cross only about five roads and driveways. This was cycling at its best. I reached the point by the summer of 1995 that 90% of my cycling was done on my mountain bike on the Montour Trail.

There are other trails I learned about through my cycling contacts. The Youghiogheny River Trail extends two ways out of Ohiopyle State Park in the beautiful Laurel Highlands: 17 miles north to Connellsville and 11 miles south to Confluence. The double outs and back make for an enjoyable day of riding during which a cyclist will enjoy one of the most peaceful 56 mile bike rides ever experienced.

I took a memorable ride on this trail one weekend following several days of heavy rain. All along the uphill side of the trail were hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the hillsides and through the valleys along the trail to the Youghiogheny River. I could not help but to stop just about every fifty feet to look at another waterfall.

I can go on forever about my bucolic railbed biking experiences. Maybe some other time. For the present, however, I must now report for the more technical readers that I discovered there are definite physical benefits of a summer of riding a 30 pound mountain bike even on flat railbeds. My 23 pound road bike disappeared from under me. Its sleekness and low weight and low rolling resistance made pedaling effortless after pushing knobbies in crushed gravel.

Road Biking Reality

I must add a word of advice to neophyte converts from road to mountain bikes and hope they do not make the same mistake I made after my conversion. In the fall of 1995, I became so enamored with my mountain bike and so over confident with my physical condition that I attempted a short 35 mile road ride with an organized group of road riders. Big mistake, even after a 1000 mile summer.

I found that I could not keep up with the riders on traditional road bikes. While I was able to gear down for the hills, I was unable to coast down the back and regain my strength. I about bonked on a normally easy ride. Never again. The mountain bike will forever stay where it was meant to stay.

Which is fine because of the number of railbed trails in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The final analysis from this True Cyclist is that it is all right to ride upright--sometimes.

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