In Defense of the In-Town Ride

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It might lack Whole Enchilada-esque views, but your hometown ride can feature actual enchiladas—and remind you how to be a kid again.

My favorite section of trail isn’t actually a trail at all, not in the classic sense of the word. It’s a rut, really, an indentation of dirt dropping between a wooden sign and a set of concrete steps at the entrance to a neighborhood park. This is one of those old school parks, with tennis courts and that game where you throw a playground ball into a wide funnel on top of a pole and try to guess which side it will pop out. It is a completely unspectacular setting and a completely unspectacular trail, surrounded by unspectacular scrub brush and occasionally, a homeless guy sleeping one off on a park bench.

But I love it, partly because that rut of dirt is downright unruly when you hit it with enough speed, but mostly, because it signifies the beginning of my favorite in-town ride. That two-second trail is a gateway, like the overly air-conditioned doors of a Las Vegas casino. I know that once I pass through that notch between the steps and the park sign, good times will be had. There will be singletrack and gravel climbs and homemade jumps and ice cream breaks and impromptu races against friends. It’s the same feeling I had as a kid when I searched every cul-de-sac, every pocket of woods, hunting for jumps and lines of dirt to explore.

And let’s be honest, the in-town ride is at its best when you’re behaving like a 10-year-old.

Like all mountain bikers, I obsess over new dirt in far-off lands, dreaming of multi-day missions into the backcountry where I’ll ride trails that hug the edges of cliffs overlooking hidden valleys full of mythical creatures like unicorns and pixies. But I’m falling in love with a route that begins and ends at my garage and traverses the small mountains surrounding my home town. It’s not a road ride, it’s not a mountain bike ride, not a gravel grinder…it’s all of it, pieced together in a seamless, mixed bag of terrain that reminds me of why I started biking in the first place.

Because it’s fun.

And totally scalable. It can be an all day affair, or a lunch break spin. It can be a solo, thought-provoking quest, or a social ride where grown-ups race up neighborhood streets like 10-year-olds, screaming, “beat you to the next mailbox!” And let’s be honest, the in-town ride is at its best when you’re behaving like a 10-year-old.

***

After bouncing down my favorite rut, I hang a left past old ladies in white skirts playing tennis, hop a curb, cross a busy four-lane road and I’m in a pocket of woods with mellow, flowy singletrack. The system isn’t big, but it has moments of brilliance; a grade reversal leading into a sweeping turn, a quick downhill with a succession of perfectly spaced waterbar drops. If I’m on a group ride, we’ll meet here in the woods, a middle ground between all our houses, linking together a mile or so of loops before we hammer up pavement, climbing a mountain on the edge of downtown with multi-million dollar houses that boast wrap-around decks hanging over cliffs. It’s definitely not the cliff’s edge beauty we fantasize about, but these are literally million-dollar views we’re riding past.

Then the road turns to gravel a few miles from the summit, winding through the woods to an old water tower, which marks the beginning of a screaming-fast, paved downhill with 35mph, white knuckle turns. When I ride this with friends, there's an unspoken competition to see who can brake the least and take the turns the fastest. Today, I ditch the road for another stretch of gravel that drops into a bucolic scene complete with cows grazing in fields and farm dogs that chase my rear tire. I take my time on this stretch, soaking in the pocket of pastoral beauty before I cruise under an interstate bypass full of graffiti, through the parking lot of a grocery store and I’m climbing pavement again. I follow the steep, sinuous blacktop past more modest houses (I’m on the other side of town now) before hitting yet another water tower and dropping into a forest with a small bandit trail system that offers the kind of homemade charm that made me fall in love with mountain biking when I was younger—lots of fall line stuff and kickers with questionable landing zones.

Also, there’s a bar with a ping pong table along the way, so that’s been known to add a significant amount of time to the journey.

Here’s where the “big air” competition goes down on group rides, each of us taking turns to see who can go big and walk away with the least bloodshed. The trails are fresh, barely scratched into the surface, and they drop you straight into downtown, and nobody else seems to know about them. I race traffic through stop lights as I move into the part of town where artist studios have been turned into high-end lofts inside mixed-use buildings. That’s where a piece of bootleg singletrack runs on the edge of the river. It’s rolling and rooty, and skinny as hell, so you have to choose your passing lanes wisely if you’re racing the group. It’s the kind of thing you’d typically find in the middle of a national forest, far outside of town, only this trail ends at a brewery, where I stop for refreshments before climbing the hard road from the river back into my neighborhood.

Call it anywhere between 12 and 20 miles, depending on the exact route I take. I can knock it out in 90 minutes or six hours, depending on the number of beer breaks I throw in. Also, there’s a bar with a ping pong table along the way, so that’s been known to add a significant amount of time to the journey.

And that’s the true beauty of the town ride. Beer breaks. Well, at least part of the beauty.

***

If you can hear the sound of an ice cream truck or an interstate at any point on your ride, it’s probably not epic. If you can drop off your dry cleaning mid-ride, or cut through a Dairy Queen parking lot, it’s probably not epic. So it’s easy to dismiss these hometown rides over familiar ground as mere distractions between bigger adventures. But I love them, largely because we’ve been told over and over that you have to travel far and wide to find adventure. These rides prove that adventure can be found in your hometown, in your backyard, just like when you were a kid exploring your neighborhood for the first time on two wheels. You just have to be willing to explore again.

The beauty lies in the ride’s malleability. I can shape this ride to my needs on any given day. It can be a sufferfest or a bar crawl. Want more gravel to grind? Make an adjustment and pedal more gravel. Want ice cream around mile 10? Stop at the corner store and get ice cream at mile 10. You can do that on an in-town ride. And did I mention the ping pong? Show me an epic backcountry trail with a mid-ride ping pong break.

Commit to exploring your own neighborhood the way you commit to exploring the backcountry.

The route is always evolving because I’m always hunting for more. Looking into patches of woods at the end of cul-de-sacs in search of skinny singletrack, checking maps for forgotten gravel roads on the edge of town, hoping I’ll stumble across my new favorite rut at the edge of a park. I feel like there’s more out there, in my own backyard, that’s yet to be discovered. And I’m sure most towns have similar hidden gems. Bikers just need to commit to exploring their own neighborhoods the way they commit to exploring the backcountry.

Don't get me wrong; I love riding in countries where nobody speaks my language. I love being surprised around every corner and making my friends jealous with exotic Instagram trail shots. I get it. I too have wanderlust and dream of the #vanlife. But these in-town rides are my bread and butter. They offer weekday adventure and they keep me going between epic journeys to far-off lands. They are the PB & J to those more epic filet mignons—and who doesn't love a good PB & J, said the kid inside everyone.

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