How I learned to mountain bike on the rim of the Grand Canyon
BY CHRISTINA PALASSIO
We are wet.
We are wet like the wet you get when you’re being blasted by a fire hose. Wring-your-underwear-out wet. I have a death grip on my bars but still my hands keep slipping. And I can’t see: glasses and torrential rain being sworn enemies for life.
We are seven sopping cyclists splashing down the Arizona Trail on a singletrack that’s turned into a rushing river. Our destination is our campsite on the East Rim of the Grand Canyon. Three of us – me included – have never been on a mountain bike before. Getting used to an unfamiliar bike, new brakes, a different way of shifting was going to be a challenge no matter what. Trying to acclimate in a thunderstorm while half-blind is, frankly, terrifying.
And then it starts to hail.
Nowhere in the research I did for this mountain biking trip on the north rim of the Grand Canyon did anyone say, be ready for hail. My raincoat barely fit in my bag between all the extra water bottles and hydration packs I brought. The north rim is wetter than the more-travelled south rim, it’s true. But still: It’s the Grand Canyon.
An hour of near-crashes, slide-outs, and eardrum-busting thunder cracks later, we make it to the van, which has mercifully come to pick us up and drive us the last few miles to our campsite. I get off the bike, dump a half a cup of water out of each of my shoes, and climb inside, where the heat is on high to keep us from getting hypothermia. Troy, one of our Escape Adventures guides, is saying that he’s never biked through a storm that bad.
And then Bren, one of the three women on the trip, calls out: “Hey, you guys, look!” We pile out of the van in time to witness the storm stop as quickly as it started, and a triple rainbow appear at the end of the trail of Ponderosa and aspen.
And that’s how we start our intro to mountain biking trip on the Grand Canyon.
I’ve been a road cyclist for for 15 years. I’m a roadie through and through. Those spandex skin suits? I love them. Car traffic? No problem: I can weave between Ubers and buses like a snake through the brush. I want to be going fast on a wide-open – and preferably newly paved – road with a coffee or a beer at the end of it.
But there’s so much you don’t get to see when you’re a skin suit on pavement. So after the energy-sapping bust-up of a hopeful but hopeless relationship and an out-of-control month at work, I took a mini-break and try my hand at MTBing. And the Rainbow Rim Trail, which offers 22.5 miles of singletrack biking long the north rim – it’s the only place in the entire park that’s open to bikes – seemed like a pretty good place to start.
3 million people make it to the GC every year. Only 250,000 (?) choose to go to the north rim.10% of visitors. But it’s beautiful. Graf about options. Graf about MTB trails and culture, home of Rampage nearby including RRT. QUOTE FROM SOMEONE WHO’S DONE THE RRT DESCRIBING IT AND HOW AWESOME IT IS.”
“The Rainbow Rim Trail is closed.”
We’re still not dry when we get the news from Troy. He got the news the way you get news when there’s no cell service where you are: from X at the North Rim Country Store while we’re filling up our a XX-gallon water jug to keep us hydrated in the – er – heat. A large forest fire has been burning its way through the Kaibab National Forest has grown big enough to force the closure of many trails, including the Rainbow Rim. MORE ON KAIBAB?
I’m the only one in the group that seems upset. Closed?! The whole thing? Well, we just need to tell them to re-open it, I think in typical Toronto fashion. After all, we’re here to ride – and write about – the Rainbow Rim Trail. It can’t be closed.
But it is. And Plan B, riding an assortment of nearby trails that I’ve never heard of, sounds decidedly less exciting than Plan A. But, like any good traveller – and cyclist – I decide to shut up and just go along for the ride.
“Biggest thing is to breathe and look where you want to go,” texted my cousin-in-law Kristan, a recreational mountain biker who teaches girls how to bike near her home in Squamish, when I asked her for advice before the trip. Keep your feet event on the pedals. Stand up when you’re going down. Push your heels down for balance. Take every downhill like a linebacker. That was the advice from Kathi, another one of our guides, and Mark Matthews a world-class competitive mountain biker who happens to be on the trip.
I was ready to put the last piece of advice to the test as we headed back out on the Arizona Trail, this time under sunny skies, towards Saddle Mountain, a XX. Most of the trail had dried overnight, and I could now see what we’d been riding over the day before: rocks and stumps and roots that made the risk-averse, pavement-lover in me feel very nervous. I eye Matthews warily as we got ready – if he sets the pace, I’m in trouble.
As we climb and descend through DESC, I kept going through my checklist: Feet even, check. Heels down, check. Linebacker arms, check. Learning to do something I do every single day slightly differently is more difficult than I thought. In the city, getting caught between streetcar tracks and a iPhone-wielding driver inspires no discernible rise in my blood pressure. On this trail, every loose rock inspires first frustration – “Why doesn’t someone clear all those rocks away?” – and then fear. At many points, my bike ride was more of a hike: with me chasing my $3,000 Specialized Stumpjumper down a steep hill, trying not to let a rogue Ponderosa root launch me into flight. Every uphill takes my breath away at this elevation, putting the lie to the 4 out of 5 I rated myself on physical fitness on the tour application.
Imagining what it would feel like to do what Matthews does on a bike – to get a sense of it, visit his Instagram page – was near-impossible to comprehend. We talked it through at the 2018 Rampage freeride mountain bike competition site – dubbed the most dangerous bike competition on earth by Outside. We were all hoping we’d get to witness Matthews ride some of the lines but with wind gusting up to 80 km/h whipping around the site, we stayed on the ground while he walked us through the lines. The calculated abandon of that type of riding– and in this wild vastness of this landscape – gives me shivers.
It gets better. From the loose Kaibab National Forest, we drove into Utah to Gooseberry Mesa, a world-class mountain biking trail system near Hurricane, Utah, and rode the Jem Trail, a flowy intermediate X-km downhill that cuts through the XX. Shocks became my friend, and I got better at handling and knowing when to brake and when to let it go. Reluctantly, I picked up speed. I bounced past X, X, and X. I started not having to think so hard. I still walked the bike down the steepest descents, but it felt like that might change with a bit more practice. Kiki is far ahead just givin’ ‘er.
Have you ever woken up beside the Grand Canyon? You should try it some time. The sunrises can’t be beat.
In the evenings, beautiful food and camping and sunrises. I’ve given myself a deliberate break from social media – the no-service helps. I want to experience the experiences unfiltered / unmitigated. Ironic that I’m here with social media influencers and all we talk about is content content content.
It keeps getting better. On day three, after an early-morning hike among the peaks in beautiful Zion National Park, we spent the afternoon riding the playground outside St. George, Utah. Buried at the back of a suburb, the trails cut through the white sand X, with mesas rising up in the background. It’s playing, without worry about a destination. Takes a while for my brain to get used to it. Playing outside.
What do you learn on a trip like this? You learn to keep your feet even. You learn to experience things without the intermediary of technology. Your learn not to always go in a straight line. You’re reminded that it’s good to play. You remember to look where you want to go. And to breathe.