There was a time, not long ago, when I considered myself a kayaker, not a mountain biker. Before Labor Day weekend 2008 I spent most of my free time paddling the whitewater creeks of western Pennsylvania. Back then my bike was only occasionally used, mostly for running shuttle on solo kayaking runs. My passion was for being on the water, and I couldn't imagine that changing. In my paddling days I had a streak of over 10 years where I was on the water at least once a month - winter or summer. And don't think that meant I got in 12 trips a year either. My paddling journal shows that I got in between 70 and 90 days on the water each year during that period. But after that first mountain bike ride I knew there was a huge appeal for me to get into the sport. And now I try to ride my bike five days a week, with at least two of them being singletrack days.
With fall coming the weather has gotten wetter and cooler, leaving our trails in less than perfect condition while at the same time letting the creeks get their first significant water for quite a while. So when the weekend rolled around and it looked bad for riding, but good for paddling, I went through my boating gear, loaded the boat onto the car and headed over to a run that I hadn't done in at least two years. Slippery Rock Creek is a beautiful little gorge near New Castle, Pennsylvania that I have probably paddled at least 150 times. The lower section is an easy run that I felt comfortable in running solo at a low level, and I had a great afternoon on the water (see a short GoPro vid here). I even returned the next day and paddled it again with my brother (another whitewater paddler turned mountain biker).
I had been thinking about writing a post about the whitewater experience, but decided to try to compare and contrast whitewater kayaking with mountain biking. I'm still not sure how a guy like me got so involved in riding mtb, so maybe this will provide me with some insight.
There are a several things that the two activities have in common. The most obvious is the setting, since both are outdoor sports that take mostly take place in 'wilderness' surroundings. I've always loved being in the woods, and have been attracted to camping, backpacking and other outdoors pursuits since I was a little kid. A day in the woods is rarely a waste of time.
Both entail a certain amount of risk. Recently two very well known kayakers have died while making whitewater runs - Jeff West in Alaska and Alan Panebaker in New Hampshire. I've been involved in the sport for long enough that I've seen too many young men give their lives striving to master the rapids. As I age I find this to be more and more disturbing, yet it's a decision that each person has to be allowed to make on their own. No one expects to die when they get in their boat at the top of a run, though they always know there is that chance. We always expect our skill and judgement to be adequate to the challenge. I had a very close call early in my paddling history that I was VERY lucky to escape alive. I credit that with giving me a greater sense of caution, one that might have kept me from making a deadly mistake somewhere on the river.
The risks associated with mountain biking are different. There are much less chances of death, but that is balanced with the greater risk of injury. Most pro or expert riders have tales of broken bones and other injuries that have come with their years spent on a bike. I've broken both bones in my left leg, and then the next year severely torn the cartilage in my left knee (and don't forget the fractured skull riding on the street in front of my house). I'll be feeling that knee injury every step for the rest of my life. Still, my wife is glad to see me riding mountain bikes rather than paddling so much. She knows the risks as well, and would rather have a gimpy husband than a dead one.
Each sport requires a special set of skills, developed with experience and time. The balance of the rider and the craft for each is a special, non-intuitive relationship that is a result of trial and error. But there is a strange correlation between the boat and bike, and how the rider has to be one with them in order to advance. When I was on the water last month I was amazed at the similarities in control that I was experiencing.
Both sports have aspects that allow the dedicated to get involved beyond the actual ride. I've been a streamkeeper for American Whitewater for over 15 years, providing information for other paddlers (like the lower Slip write-up linked to above) on creeks that I'm familiar with, and also taking efforts to keep the streams hazard free by cutting out downed trees. Being a person who's always been fascinated with maps I also got involved in a 7 year long effort to map the whitewater streams and watersheds of the eastern United States. In mountain biking I continued my mapping by making maps of local trail systems, and I'm attempting a much larger map of the bicycling opportunities in Allegheny National Forest. But my biggest contribution to mountain biking has come through trail building, which has now become a large part of the pastime for me. I am also now one of the founders (and secretary) of a new mountain bike club for eastern Ohio, Rust Belt Revival Trail Coalition, where my opportunities for trail building will only grow.
Both activities are dependant on the weather and those who are more aware of these conditions are rewarded with greater opportunities to get out there. Both require reliance on gear that must be kept in good working order to minimize risk. Both can be done solo or with a group. Both have a heavy reliance on safety gear and risk assessment. And participants in each love to photograph or video their exploits for enjoyment in future days. Both have a 'season' but can be largely pursued year long by the more obsessed. And both can provide a huge adrenaline boost when you're in the groove and everything is happening right.
The main difference that I can see is the exertion and fitness level required. I used to think that I was getting a good workout when I spent an afternoon paddling, and it did strengthen my upper body quite a bit. But the overall fitness required by mountain biking is a step above that needed in whitewater. A mountain biker also needs to have strong upper body and core, but obviously requires heavily developed leg muscles as well. The endurance aspect is what really separates the two. Cardio and respiratory strength is really the basis for mountain biking, probably as much as leg strength. As a person with respiratory problems I never would have thought that something like mountain biking would have appealed to me, but as I've worked my way into the sport I've found that my breathing has gotten much better (although it will never be on par with the average rider). My doctors have been impressed with my respiratory strength and recovery time - in other words while my lungs still don't work that great, the breathing muscles are strong and when I get out of breath I recover very quickly.
I think that the central appeal for me, for both whitewater and mountain biking, is the challenge and the counterbalancing necessity to realize your own limits. Being on a rapid, there is no question who is in charge of the situation (and it's not the guy in the boat) and the challenge lies in the ability to pick a line, use your skills and guide your craft safely through. When on a trail there is no active opposition - unless you count gravity - but the task is remarkably similar. You must pick a line through the rocks, use your skills and ride your bike safely through. And, being of relatively sound mind, I've chosen the wiser course many, many times by portaging around a sketchy rapid or walking the bike past a risky rock feature. Every thing in its own time, even if that time is never.