SICK OF DODGING power-walkers, strollers and in-line skaters on the W&OD trail? Is your mountain bike rarin' for something more "technical" than the C&O towpath?
Then hook up with M.O.R.E. (Mid-Atlantic Off-road Enthusiasts), a local nonprofit group with more than 300 members, for an introduction to off-road biking techniques and some great local trails.
On a recent Tuesday evening, I joined 13 members of M.O.R.E. for the weekly "casual" ride at Wakefield Park in Annandale. Because I'd never ridden on anything more technical (a trail that has obstacles or is very steep) than the towpath when it was in bad shape, Scott Scudamore, president of M.O.R.E., encouraged me to take on a few curbs in the parking lot. That should have been my first clue of what I was in for.
"Any advice?" I asked Scudamore.
"Lean back as you go up," he said. "It's more technique than fitness."
On Scudamore's advice, I'd left my old hybrid at home and borrowed a mountain bike with suspension. A good-quality mountain bike with a front shock absorber is essential for the majority of M.O.R.E. rides, Scudamore said. Other necessities are a good-fitting helmet and plenty of water. Padded biking shorts, flat-soled shoes and biking gloves also cushion the ride. And bikers should always carry tools to repair a flat tire.
Although I've never considered myself a curb hopper, I took a deep breath, gathered speed and aimed. It was nothing. The bike absorbed the impact, and I felt a quick rush of triumph. I was soon crisscrossing the parking lot, bumping up and over curb after curb. It was excellent practice for what was to come.
Off-road biking trails are divided into three categories: forest or fire road, which is a packed cinder, dirt or gravel trail similar to the C&O towpath; doubletrack, a trail that may have some obstacles, such as rocks, roots and turns but is wide enough for two bikes; and singletrack, usually a winding path that could have multiple obstacles, quick dips and room for only one biker to pass. Singletrack trails also can be smooth but run along the contour of a hillside. Most fat-tire (mountain bike) lovers consider singletrack the only way to ride.
The M.O.R.E. ride's main concessions to beginners are its speed, the number of stops on the ride and the steepness of the climbs. (Advanced bikers ride many of the same trails but do it much faster and without stopping.) Each group has a trail leader who chooses a route and a "sweeper" to help if anyone falls or gets stuck.
From the parking lot, we rode down a fire road and turned onto a singletrack path lined with tall grasses. Accustomed to a wider berth, I had to concentrate to stay centered on the slim track. A few yards ahead of me, a rider dipped down, through a puddle, and up a quick, steep rise. This was more than I expected so soon, but I plunged forward and fell off my bike halfway up the rise.
Apart from the scrapes and bruises to come, I was concerned that other riders might be irritated by my ineptness, but that doesn't happen on the beginner ride. It's embarrassing to have to hop off and walk your bike, but no one gives you a hard time. Thankfully, I wasn't the only one to struggle occasionally.
I got back on the bike. My balance had been off, I hadn't downshifted and I was way too tentative on the climb. As soon as we stopped, I asked Scudamore for advice.
"Momentum is key," he said. "And lean forward when you come up."
Repeating my mantra -- "I trust this bike, I trust this bike" -- I decided to be more aggressive. I attacked the path and zipped right over those rocks and roots that crisscross the trail. I leaned low and forward on all the rises. On Scudamore's advice, I focused on where I wanted to go, not the obstacles -- trees, roots, rocks -- in my way. At one point, I even took on a six-inch-high log and won.
We rode nearly six miles: up and back the creek trail twice and through the woods. Riders ahead called out directions -- right turn, left turn or stop -- to riders behind. And it was a relief to follow and concentrate solely on the terrain right in front of me rather than where I was going next. Exhilarated by my success, I rode faster and harder than I ever would have by myself. Several deer scattered as we climbed a small ridge, the steepest challenge so far, before descending back into the woods.
"When you're outside and on a bike, you kind of lose yourself," said Rose Hoffman of Alexandria, a mother of two preschoolers and fellow rider. "You forget you're working out in the fun of it." Hoffman and her husband, Louis, take turns going on M.O.R.E. rides and watching the kids.
In addition to leading rides for mountain bikers of all levels, M.O.R.E. advocates more multi-use trails on public lands, helps to build the trails and usually maintains them. M.O.R.E. volunteers will devote 3,000 hours to trail work this year, Scudamore said. With its credo of "environmentally sound and socially responsible trail cycling," M.O.R.E. has worked hard to fight the public perception of mountain bikers as gonzo types in their twenties and thirties who tear up the trails, Scudamore said.
It was nearly dark as we pulled back into the parking lot after an hour and a half of riding. I wore my sweat and mud splatters with pride.
M.O.R.E. -- 703-680-1293. www.more-mtb.org. The Tuesday night casual ride welcomes beginners and leaves at 6:30 (conditions permitting) from the recycling bins in the parking lot at Wakefield Park (address below). M.O.R.E. also offers a three-hour mountain biking "boot camp" for beginners each month at Wakefield Park. The next session is June 13. Visit the Web site for details. The calendar on the Web site posts a range of biking options, from casual rides for newbies to fast rides for experienced riders.
Top Beginner Singletrack Sites
More trail recommendations can be found on the M.O.R.E. Web site.
Black Hill Regional Park -- 20930 Lake Ridge Dr., Boyds. Ten miles of natural surface trails around Little Seneca Lake. 301-972-3476. www.mc-mncppc.org/trails/black_hill.shtm.
Cedarville State Forest -- 10201 Bee Oak Rd., Brandywine. Nineteen miles of trails through woods and bottomlands. 301-888-1410. www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/southern/cedarville.html.
Seneca Creek Greenway Trail -- 18900 block of Route 355 (Frederick Road), near Germantown. 301-972-6581. www.mc-mncppc.org/trails/seneca.shtm. Head north for 7.8 miles of trails, which run along Seneca Creek, and then climb to a rocky outcropping.
Wakefield Park -- 8100 Braddock Rd., Annandale. 703-321-7081. www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/bikes2a.htm. About 10 miles of trails along Accotink Creek and through the woods.
Riverbend Park -- 8700 Potomac Hills St., Great Falls. 703-759-9018. www.co.fairfax.va.us/parks/nature.htm. About five miles of trails along the Potomac River and through the woods. Also links to trails in Great Falls Park.