This Mud's for You

The Joys of Biking on the Wild Side

I HAD BEEN WARNED. "It's gonna be wet out there!" Grant Mitchell announced at least four times during the five-minute van ride from the upcountry town of Waimea to the Mud Lane turnoff. After nine years at the helm of Mauna Kea Mountain Bikes, Mitchell had ridden the Big Island's most technical singletrack countless times and could afford the upbeat tone. But where I live in the parched and dusty Southwest, mud is an exotic novelty. I had come with him to reacquaint myself with mud's unlikely charms—the way it splatters off your tires and shellacs every inch of skin and clothing and bike, and brings a sense of grimy triumph to each precarious pedal stroke—and to meditate on one of mountain biking's most sacred mantras: Mud makes you cool.

Tucked into a dense swath of rainforest at 2,500 feet, high on the flanks of the lush Kohala Mountains and across a broad saddle from 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, Mud Lane exists in its own biosphere of mist and rain. The day of our ride, Mud Lane did not disappoint. It had been raining steadily all morning, and the trail was a veritable Slip 'n' Slide of muck and mud. After only a few minutes skittering down a washed-out jeep track—over a minefield of branches, rocks, and puddles—the mire was flying and our disc brakes were squealing. By the time we forked onto the three-mile singletrack loop, we were utterly, satisfactorily filthy. Threading our way through Norfolk Island pines and guava, koa, and waiwi trees, we tackled a thrilling series of tight roller-coaster turns, rain-slicked roots, low-slung branches, and gullies thick with mud. Had I not been so intent on staying upright, I would have whooped with delight.
If I was a little rusty in the mud, Mitchell was an old hand. Six feet tall with burly quads and forearms, he powered along as though he'd custom-ordered every rock, drop, and root on Mud Lane. Which, in fact, he had. "I helped build this trail," he informed me as we stopped to admire a particularly impressive drop-off that one of us had just ridden flawlessly. Mitchell, 40, moved to Hilo from southern California in the 1970s, got into mountain biking, and teamed up with surfboard innovator and notorious Big Island eccentric Gordon Clark and other locals to help cut Mud Lane in '86. These days, Mitchell leads rides across the Big Island's wildly varied terrain and works a handful of jobs to stay ahead on a Hawaii not yet overrun with tourists. "I lived on Maui once," Mitchell said, "but it was too crowded."

Indeed, Mud Lane was our own private trials course that day. We'd had eight miles of epic, technical slime to ourselves—and later, before hosing off in Waimea, I paused to inspect the evidence: a few bruises, a head-to-toe dousing in Mud Lane's finest, and a huge smile.

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