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Going with the Mountain Elevation: How to Stay Calm and Cool on Four Scenic Bike Routes Just Outside the City

I first started mountain biking over two years ago when my dad’s friend, Mahesh, took me on my first ride on Thanksgiving day. And boy, am I thankful for that ride, because mountain biking has become an integral part of me.

Photo Credit: Amar Mohamed

I first started mountain biking over two years ago when my dad’s friend, Mahesh, took me on my first ride on Thanksgiving day. And boy, am I thankful for that ride, because mountain biking has become an integral part of me. As we were riding through the trails, I was scared of all the obstacles including sharp rocks, slippery roots, and steep drops which could send me to the hospital if I negotiated them incorrectly. All I could think about was the worst case scenario, but halfway through the ride, I tried to find the flow of the trail. I adapted my riding to ride with the trail, instead of against it. In this way, mountain biking is almost meditative because the only thing a biker focuses on—in fact, the only thing a biker CAN focus on—is the trail, lest they make that trip to the hospital. All the worries of the “outside world” vanish when the tires meet the dirt. On the trail, it is just the rider, their bike, and the trail. I had clearly fallen in love with the sport.

I returned to school after Thanksgiving break, feeling special and unique for having tried a sport no one else had. I soon learned that I was wrong. Other riders have come out of the woodwork. Now, we have a small mountain biking community at GFS. We planned and went on rides on most weekends. I learned that even the head of the upper school, Matthew Young, is a rider! 

As much as my first trail experience was a wonderful introduction to mountain biking, there are a couple of tips and tricks I wish I had known when I started, and I would love to share with the GFS community.

Gear

Cadence Cyclery is a good place to rent a bike in Philly. Make use of your local bike shop by talking to the people who work there. They are invariably friendly and always willing to share information about local trails, gear you will need, etc. 

Make sure you wear good protective gear. I recommend a sturdy helmet and knee pads, elbow pads, full-fingered gloves, a water bottle that fits a bottle cage, and a bike rack for your car.

If you wish to buy a bike, start out with a beginner bike and work your way up to the best bikes. Doing this will allow you to determine if you like the sport enough to invest more of your money (or your parents’ money!). Mountain biking is not an inexpensive sport!

Locations: Easiest to most difficult

Belmont Plateau (Fairmount Park): This is a good place to start mountain biking in the city, as the trails are mostly hard-packed and flowy with minimal roots and rocks. It is a 9- to 10-mile loop with several places to exit the loop. Since there is not much change in elevation on this cross-country style trail, it is not too physically challenging. They have a pump track (a short loop consisting of humps and banked turns) and a jump line (a series of jumps) which is fun to do before or after a ride. Caution: The Belmont trail system is a bit confusing. I got lost on my first ride there. 

Wissahickon (Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill): The Wissahickon (or the Wiss) is a great cross country riding spot that has trails for both beginners and advanced riders. It features flowy sections, a 14-mile loop, rocky sections, and a few jumps here and there. There are plenty of unique and fun sections to be explored, so boredom is not a concern. It is very easy to ride certain portions of the loop by connecting them with Forbidden Drive, which is a gravel road. The trail system at the Wiss is well-marked and is fairly easy to navigate, but it is still useful to have a map. There is a fair amount of elevation change, making it physically challenging at certain points. I recommend you complete a difficult stretch and then reward yourself with a snack or a meal at the Valley Green Inn

Mt. Penn (Reading, PA): Mt. Penn is a trail system that is geared towards advanced mountain bikers. The trails are very rocky and have technical features and extended jump lines. This trail system requires you to pedal up relatively smooth access roads and trails to get to the top. From the top, the trails that bring you down vary in difficulty. If you like flowy trails and getting your tires off the ground, I recommend the A-line trail. Mt. Penn has a fair amount of elevation change, making it physically taxing. 

Spring Mountain (Montgomery County, PA): Some of you might know this place as a ski resort. But when it is not ski season, Spring Mountain becomes a destination for mountain biking. This place is not for the faint-hearted. It has obstacles and features, such as 6-foot drops and rock gardens, that are hard to navigate on two feet, let alone two wheels. But if you are an experienced rider, this place offers challenges that few other trails do. The runs are short here, but after multiple laps of 400ft of climbing,  you will want to go to Wawa, which is 4 miles away, to replenish your calories. 

Pure adrenaline, pure speed and pure feeling. These are the things I experience when I fly through the trails, seemingly at mach two. Mountain biking has changed me for the better…well, mostly. It has introduced me to a whole community of riders. A community that accepts me no matter how skilled or unskilled I am, no matter how expensive or inexpensive my bike is, and no matter the color of my skin. Everyone is equal. Actually, Fabio Wibmer is an exception. He is beyond human! You have to look him up.
Please enjoy this video I made of ride at the Wiss.