Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Mountain Kings

After a quick check to make sure the landing area was clear, the rider picked his line and began pedaling. Looking up from a vantage point nearly a dozen feet below the rock outcrop, you could hear the 26 inch knobby tread tires approaching, but the bike and rider remained unseen. For a fraction of a second, there was silence as the bike became air-borne, and the rider came into full view.

The dense canopy of trees in Westwoods Trails filtered the dwindling sunlight. Scattered rays reflected off the rider’s glossy black helmet. With his weight shifted to the rear to maintain balance, and his eyes transfixed on his landing spot, the rider soared through the air.

Gas shock absorbers, mounted on the front forks of the welded aluminum bike, would bear the brunt of the landing, but just prior to impact, the rider rose from his seat and flexed his arms and legs for additional shock absorption. In case of a fall, the rider wore protective gloves, elbow pads and shin guards.

The bike landed smoothly, and the rider applied steady pressure to the hand brakes. Kevlar disc brake pads, similar to automotive equipment, gripped the rotors, and brought the bike to a stop. The rider looked back at the jump, smiled, and then rode back up the hill to do it again.

Mountain biking became popular in the mid 1980’s, as aging BMX riders were looking for another outlet for their daredevil cravings. Over the years, several styles of mountain biking evolved, such as downhill, cross-country, and trials. Amateur and professional competitions exist in each category.

Downhill biking pushes the rider’s nerves to the limit. Bikers try to descend mountainous terrain as quickly as possible, often riding along the edges of steep cliffs. Cross-country biking is an endurance style of riding, where bikers test their body’s conditioning by navigating hills, mud, and other natural obstacles. Trials riding is an exhibition of bike control and balance. Riders jump, flip, hop and spin on their bikes with dizzying proportions, to the delight of spectators.

Chris DeSena manages Bully Dog Bikes in Guilford, and is an avid mountain bike rider. He explains that mountain biking is a great way to experience the outdoors, get a fantastic workout, and simultaneously spend time with friends. He refers to his favorite style of riding as “freeriding” which pulls elements from each of the other principal styles, but puts its emphasis on riding for pleasure, instead of riding for competition.

A typical ride for Desena would include a couple steep hill descents, a few log jumps, maybe a rock climb or two, and of course, several biking friends to accompany him.

Mountain biking is a sport for all age groups. You can set your own challenges and ride at your on pace. DeSena advises that riders choose trails that match their abilities. The Timberland Trails in Guilford and Tyler Mill in Wallingford are good choices for beginners. Westwoods Trails in Guilford is challenging, and with a spot nicknamed “the cheese grater,” because that is what the ground will do to your skin if you fall, you can understand why parts of this trail system should be left to experienced riders.

DeSena and his fellow riders are mindful that the trails they ride on are shared by lots of different people. He suggests bikers dismount when crossing hikers and people on horseback. He also stays true to the guideline that “If you enjoy the trail, you should respect it” by working with local groups to preserve and maintain the trails.