Mountain Biking

Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998

Mountain Biking

Let us now praise uranium miners. Forty-odd years ago, while snooping around for radioactive bomb material in Utah's red-rock canyon country, prospectors hacked out a network of jeep trails west of the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. They didn't find any uranium, but the eroded remnants of the roads are still there, the only access by wheel to a magical place that Edward Abbey once called "closer to anything else in the 48 United States to being genuine terra incognita": The Maze.

In Papua New Guinea, a singsing can mean a media event rivaling RuPaul's. For a Wapi spirit dance performance in Angobe, tribesmen pranced in barefaced like models sans makeup at the Paris collections. When they whipped out their wigs and paint pots, though, tourists rushed them in the bush backstage. The dancers preened for nearly an hour to the beat of smoky honeyeaters screeching from the trees. An emcee in a fur hat and a breechcloth opened the show. He said the dance is meant to cure stomachaches.
            — Trish Reynales

Approaching The Maze in Canyonlands National Park via Elaterite Basin, you pedal unsuspecting through sandy juniper desert until, with startling suddenness, the ground simply falls away in front of your handlebars. Before you lies a jumble of surreal geology stretching to the horizon, a labyrinth of deep, narrow canyons, twisting and turning and doubling back on each other. Dark monoliths and needle spires shoot up here and there. Intimate and richly textured, The Maze makes the Grand Canyon seem almost ordinary.

At first glance, the idea of descending into the labyrinth itself without ropes or wings seems ludicrous. There is, however, a scramble route down (on foot, not by bike), if you know where to look. A couple of hours of carefully picking your way through slots and along ledges, and you'll stand where no white man stood until perhaps the twentieth century. An
hour or two of wandering along the innards
of the labyrinth may bring you to a spot unseen by human eyes since the time of the Ancient Ones, who flourished here nearly 1,000 years ago. Prime time to go is in late May, but trips also run in April and the first part of May, and September through October. Rim Tours (800-626-7335) runs five-to-six-day trips for $755-$855 per person. Kaibab Tours's four-day trips cost $725 per person. Call 800-451-1133 for additional information. — David Noland

It is a perfect Italian moment. On a dirt trail only slightly less inclined than the roof of a house, Giovanni, the consummate mountain bike guide, has dismounted amid the kind of wheezing and gasping you'd normally expect to hear only at a convention of asthmatics.

Most of the group will probably want to head back down toward the river, he says, but if any of the guys want to continue farther up the mountain for awhile, he'll lead the way. He apparently hasn't noticed that the only member of the group who has continued to gut it out — who is in fact almost out of sight up ahead — is a woman.

But show the guys some mercy. They are, after all, in the little-known northern province of Trentino, home to one of the most extensive — and toughest — networks of mountain biking trails in Italy. The Trentino Forestry Department alone marks and maintains more than 1,500 miles of trails and roads that are off-limits to cars. Surrounded by the snow-capped Dolomites, many of them wind reasonably enough through alpine valleys, past fast-flowing rivers, fields of wildflowers, and whitewashed towns dominated by church towers.

But shift down into granny gear, point your front wheel toward the mountaintops, and you'll discover soon enough that what goes up — seems to have no end.

A whole series of really nasty rides begin with almost deceptive ease in Torbole, on the shore of Lake Garda, where Bike Shop Carpentari will rent you a mountain bike and give you a trail map (phone/fax, 011-39-464-505-500; $15-$20 per day, $60-$95 per week). Or for the ultimate challenge, rent bikes in Ossana, in the Valley of the Sun, from Giovanni Ravelli ($25 per day, $75 per week; 011-39-463-757-451) and take to the road for a 3,000-foot climb to the Passo Tonale, one of the toughest obstacles in the famed Giro d'Italia cycling race. — Bob Payne

Of the several thousand Americans living in the town of San Miguel de Allende, high in the foothills and desert plains of central Mexico, only about two claim not to be artists. So when anyone asked, I said my specialty was landscapes, my medium was single-track, and my plan was to be performing at 21 different speeds long before they'd had their first caf‰ con leche of the day.

The countryside around San Miguel is ribboned with trails that were made for mountain biking. Actually, they were made for burros. But mountain-biker John Kay, who owns San Miguel's La Puertecita Boutique Hotel, a former colonial mansion decorated in the kinds of colors you'd expect to see at a Mexican fiesta, has explored hundreds of miles of the trails. He's discovered that they range from cruiser level to serious enough to have even the most expert riders contributing to the local art scene by occasionally painting themselves all over the sides of the rocks.

For a leisurely ride I had myself transported 24 miles north to the town of Dolores Hidalgo. Following the dirt and gravel trail through the scrubland that runs along the Río Laja back toward San Miguel, I felt I was getting a true back-door view of Mexico — tiny villages, crumbling churches, and just-washed clothes spread out on thorny bushes. More than once, I had to yield the right of way to a pig. Shorter but more challenging was the 11-mile burro trail from the train station in San Miguel up to the hot springs at Taboada.

Riding is good year 'round, but the June-September rainy season brings the possibility of mud. Room rates at La Puertecita are $120-$185 for a double; call 011-52-415-222-50. Rental bikes are available to guests for $20 a day. Or rent from Bici-Burro in San Miguel (about $20 a day; 011-52-415-215-26). The tour company Backroads offers a six-day trip for $1,698; call 800-462-2848. — Bob Payne

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