I've always been a biker. As kids we had Schwinn's with banana seats, sissy bars, and even tried extending the forks to be choppers. We jumped them, learned to ride without hands, hooked canvas bags to the handlebars to deliver papers, and just basically lived on them from the time school got out until it resumed in the Fall. We'd ride to the sandpits to go fishing, to the pool to go swimming, out some long dirt road to find crawdads, into town to buy candy or watch a movie. There was no kickstand, in fact we'd develop a system of jumping off the back of the bike and letting it crash to the ground without us ... adding the sissy bar put an end to that. We could ride a wheelie for half a block and spit twenty feet, both "skills" that we practiced daily.
Sometime before I turned fifteen I got my first 10 speed. Suddenly you are way up above the crowd in this strange, hunched over riding position. We had to start all over to learn riding no-handed and popping a wheelie was almost out of the question. I remember eventually doing it and thinking it just wasn't cool.
But boy could you go fast. Gears! No more coaster brakes ... it was the big time.
There haven't been many times over the years when I didn't have a bike. For a while around the 80's I was buying a new Coast King bike from the local Ace Hardware for just under a hundred bucks almost every year. They didn't have much in the way of bearings back then, so you'd eventually start wearing through metal and the pedals would get all floppy and sloppy, or fall off. Sometime around '82, when I was in the Air Force, I plunked down three hundred bucks for the most expensive bike I'd ever bought. A 18 speed Peugot.
This bike was like nothing I'd ever ridden. Smooth as silk, precise shifting, hard-ass seat, and faster than the wind. Weekends would find me zipping around Rapid City on the bike, discovering new neighborhoods and biking routes. I remember coming down a long hill one afternoon, really moving, when I noticed a railway crossing ahead. It was too late to do anything but bear down on the brakes and hope for the best. When the anemic tires hit the railroad track they both went flat and the rims splayed out like trumpet horns. Another time, riding Chadron State Park, I came down a hill too quickly and in an attempt to slow down for an approaching stop sign the V brake rode right up off the rim and popped the tire. One always wonders what happens if you get a flat at high speed. It was nerve racking, but somehow I didn't end up face first on the pavement. I still own the Peugot and ride it from time to time.
Moving to a new town always meant riding the bike around to explore. You might commute to and from work every day and yet never know what the rest of a town looks like, but on a bike you can casually explore, there's no hurry, no destination.
Sometime in the 90's, working at my first gig as a software engineer I picked up the Mountain Biking bug. I'd been working so much that my right wrist developed severe carpal tunnel and nothing seemed to help. I don't think anyone would prescribe Mt. Biking to fix it, but I found a regular dose of biking did wonders. Maybe it was just a matter of getting away from the desk and the mouse and using some other muscles, but in the process I developed a love for the sport.
Road biking is an entirely different activity. It's more sedate. You pick a course and pedal. Keep an eye out for cars and road hazards, maybe challenge yourself to go up a hill faster or go a longer distance, but it gets to be a rather monotonous cadence. I tend to think of it like jogging with wheels.
Mt. Biking on the other hand is all about chaos ... at least the type of biking I enjoy. It's hilly, it's rocky, there's roots, there's mud or water or gravel. You are constantly gauging the terrain and plotting a course, but mostly peripherally. It's like a friend once said, "if you concentrate too much on the thing you don't want to hit, you are going to hit it". So you survey what's coming up, plan your attack, then let your sub-concious and peripheral vision take it from there while moving on to the next thing. All the while you learn and expand on what you are capable of. There's no part of the body that's just along for the ride, every muscle is a member of the bike's orchestra, and they all contribute to the symphony that is the trail.
My last Mountain Bike was purchased in 1999, which seems like an eternity. Who wants to buy a bike when the world might end in the year 2000? Even though I've had a number of painful crashes on it over the years, it has served me well. A nimble 26" hard tail, I could mostly coerce it to do what I wanted, or at least knew when it was best to get off and walk. The past couple of years, as parts needed replacing, I've started eyeing new bikes: disc brakes, bigger wheels, more and better shocks, and all in a lighter package.
The internet is a blessing and a curse for someone researching a bike. On the one hand you have access to information that someone in the 80's couldn't even dream of. Back then your only source of info was the salesman and whatever placard was hanging on the bike. Now there's a glut of information ... and dis-information. Forums are full of gear heads arguing the merits of spending a few hundred bucks to shave a few ounces off a component. You don't know if they are biking gurus, company plants, or some guy in his parent's basement trolling for the sport of it. Anyone who thinks politics is the only polarized topic hasn't tried to research 29" vs 27.5" bikes.
Luckily there's a number of bike shops in the area that let you take bikes out for a test drive. That, teamed up with specs I'd gathered from the internet and advice from a couple friends, helped to focus the search. The general consensus was that 29ers were the best bike you could ever get ... or maybe 27.5", since they were at the "goldilocks" spot in the bike size and performance spectrum. I tried some of both and, to be honest, can't tell you which is better. Unlike the 27.5" I did get to try a 29er on a real singletrack trail, and that, along with some nice discounting by the dealer, led to the purchase of this bike.
It's a wonderful piece of machinery ... a bit bigger than what I'm used to, but responsive and able to tackle things I would have normally biked around or walked. With the new shocks there's even a level of comfort that my aging body can appreciate: less jolting and slamming. Some of it is a bit overkill, perhaps, or maybe I'll be able to expand what I can ride and how long. We'll see. The most important part is I get to keep doing what I enjoy the most: riding a bike.