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Mountain biking: School is in session

By Moira E. McLaughlin
The Washington Post
As a longtime skier, I never really understood why new skiers would get to the top of a bunny slope, look down and freak out. “Come on,” I would think smugly. “Just go down!”
But as I stood with my mountain bike at the top of a narrow, muddy trail littered with rocks and roots that leads down to a right turn, more rocks and roots and then finally to level ground, I knew EXACTLY how those skiers feel.
With eight other beginner mountain bikers and two instructors, I hit the trails at the Patapsco Valley State Park in Ellicott City, Md., as part of REI’s Outdoor School. I had been curious about mountain biking for a while. My older brother, Colin, is a serious mountain biker in California who spends most of his free time on the trail. He talks about “single-track trails” and “zero degree rise.” I figured East Coast mountain biking might not give me as much cred, but at least I could learn a few techniques.
Then I heard our instructor, Carl Bruce, who lived in California for about 15 years, say: “Mountain biking is so much better out here. … Mountains here are more user-friendly, and you can summit two peaks in one day.” In California, he explained, the trails are rolling. Here, “you go straight up and then straight down.”
Cool. Maybe I could earn a little cred after all.
For 2 1/2 years, outdoors store REI has offered mountain biking classes in the Washington area as part of its Outdoor School. The intention, said Bob Ehrman, our other instructor, is to “truly get people outside.”
We met at 9 a.m. in the parking lot at REI in College Park, Md., loaded in a bus and drove about 20 minutes to the park.
Most of the bikers were pretty athletic, some having run marathons and done triathlons. One dad, Clint Maddock, brought his 14-year-old son, Sam, to get him away from video games. (REI recommends that riders are at least 14. Those younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.)
“I don’t know where any of the trails are, so this was another reason to do it,” said Melissa Russell, 39, who had tried mountain biking in Georgia but had decided her mountain biking friends were “crazy. … I spent a lot of time on the ground and not enjoying it,” she said.
Others, like Jessica Kondel and Cathy Martin, both 32, were looking for a fun outdoor activity.
The group started slowly in the parking lot, maneuvering around cones and wood and learning the basics: Keep your pedals at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock; put your weight forward going uphill, back on the way down. Easy, I thought.
Then we hit the trail. The first uphill got me winded, and the first downhill freaked me out. I straddled my bike at the top and looked down. “Come on. Just go down!” I told myself. With Bruce and Ehrman on either side of me, coaching me, my hands gripping the brakes, I slowly descended, around one root, over another rock, through some mud. I made it down successfully, albeit with a few fresh bruises.
Bruce said the trail was challenging. What made it a beginner class was not the terrain, but our slow speed. We biked about five miles the whole day, waiting for one another at the bottom of that first descent. The class is limited to 12 people, so there is plenty of one-on-one instruction.
At the end of the day, I boldly rode down the trail to the road, taking care to map out my path around the rocks and roots. “If only Colin could see me now,” I thought, right before I hit a slick patch and found myself lying in the mud.
At the van, we talked about cool mountain biking groups, sponsored rides and our newfound sport.
“Did you see the reward you get?” Bruce asked. “Everything in your mind is erased. (It’s) you, your bike and the trail. There’s not many better feelings.”
A few days later, I called my brother and told him about the mountain biking. “I liked it. I want to do more. They said it was a challenging trail. It was a cool feeling,” I told him.
“That’s good,” he said. Not exactly an invitation to ride with him, but it was a little bit of cred. That was a pretty good feeling, too.

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