"Gonna get a ride in while you're here?"
Six tips for fitting a mountain bike ride into your regular travel plans
It's been twelve years since I last spent time in the USA. One of my fondest memories from that family trip was having my younger brother holding onto my collar as I got my balance on a bike - the first bike I'd ridden for a very, very long time - then giving me an almighty push and yelling "pedal, pedal, pedal!". Thanks to a combination of momentum and his hoarse encouragement, I found my balance and off we went, two teenage siblings doing the iconic Golden Gate Bridge ride and generally have a superb time riding bikes.
Little did I know that when I next returned to the USA, it would be a solo work trip, and between conferences and meetings I would be off exploring various trails on flash hire bikes, with nothing but Trailforks, a Camelbak and a few Clif Bars to keep me company. Wouldn't my brother be proud?!
The magic of the internet makes it easier than ever to get out for a ride while you're travelling, even when you're not doing a dedicated riding holiday. Before you even leave your house, you can find out where the trails are, where to hire a bike, even plan an entire route with input from the hundreds of riders who have done these tracks before you and shared their wisdom with the global riding community.
If you're doing a dedicated riding holiday, you probably spend a decent chunk of time making sure it's all planned and you're prepared. However if you're doing a trip for another reason, like work or a family holiday, then planning a ride here or there may slip down the priority list. So here is a list of handy tips to make sure you're prepared and ready to make the most of whatever chance you get to ride some new trails!
1) Organise your equipment
If you're going to be moving around between locations, or just planning on doing 'a ride or two' here and there, hiring a bike is probably your best bet (rather than lugging your bike around, and assembling/washing/dissembling multiple times just for a ride or two). You'll find in most places with a well developed trail network that you should be able to find a decent MTB to hire that will suit the terrain, however it's a good idea to get in touch with the hire company or shop in advance and ideally lock in a booking.
Hiring a bike can also be a fun excuse to try something new - a new brand, model, or style of bike (for me I took the opportunity to try my first 'women's specific' bike).
Depending on your available time, it might make sense to get your bike the day before you plan to ride so you can head out earlier in the day (a lot of hire places don't seem to open til late in the morning), but make sure you'll have somewhere secure to store it overnight.
Be prepared for the fact a lot of hire places won't hire bikes in inclement weather - both out of a desire to protect the local trails, and also to protect their bikes from excess wear - so if possible, have a few options in your schedule to get out for a ride, and go at the first opportunity!
2) Decide what you need to take with you
Aside from basic riding gear (jersey/shorts), you may also want to take a few other specific things with you -
- Helmet (Most places will have something you can borrow - but if you can fit your own helmet, that's always gonna be much nicer).
- Gloves & guards (these are not exactly essential, but it's not a bad idea to feel a bit more protected when you're hitting unknown trails for the first time. Long-haul flights are bad enough without adding freshly scraped up knees.)
- Pedals (find out from your hire company, but some places ask you to bring your own pedals especially if you ride clipless)
- Hydration pack
- Multitool, in case you need to do any quick trailside adjustments.
Also consider if the weather is likely to be different to home - a spray jacket could come in handy depending on where you're travelling.
3) Plan your ride
Especially if you're heading out on solo rides like I was, it's a good idea to check out sites like Trailforks before you go to get an idea not just of where the trails are, but of some of the usual loops in the area.
A bit of research will also help you decide which trails are best to stick to if you're new to the area (for example, which ones have good signage), and you can even go as far as scoping out a proper loop for yourself (having a route mapped out was critical to stopping me turning around after my first brutal - BRUTAL - fireroad in the canyons of Laguna Beach. I was committed, and I knew that the fun was coming soon...!).
Make sure you've got a good map on your phone or device you can take with you (I used Trailforks and downloaded the maps in advance for each area), which I referenced several times.
Also have a plan for getting to and from the trails. Work out how you're going to get from where you're staying or hiring your bike to the trails - is it riding distance or will you need to drive? Can you fit a bike in your hire car?
4) Understand the local hazards
You're in a new place - possibly a totally different country - so the natural hazards you're going to encounter may be different to what you're used to. In California, I was warned about rattlesnakes (and importantly what to do when I heard the warning rattle), sun exposure (thankfully it was winter, but in some areas the terrain was pretty different to what I'm used to at home with no tree cover in sight), and even mountain lions!
Prepare to get lost and have a backup plan - know the local emergency contacts and how you're going to get in touch with someone if things go bad.
5) Talk to the locals
This was perhaps the most invaluable thing I did during my trip. I chatted with local riders and trailbuilders I met while hiring bikes or out on the trail, who invariably gave me a whole bunch of tips I hadn't come across during my research. Most locals are pretty stoked to talk about their trails, so I think it's win/win. I was lucky enough to come across Laguna Beach's primary trail builder, who mapped out a complete loop for me through Aliso Canyon that took in a huge variety of top trails, in a loop I'd never have put together myself. In Santa Cruz, locals directed me to the Redwoods trail I "absolutely should not miss" (they were right!), and the trail that ends right on the rugged cliffs in front of 14ft waves. They also provided local wisdom ("If you get lost, just ride towards the ocean!") - which may not necessarily have been life-saving if it came down to it, but it was oddly reassuring as I set out on my own past the "Welcome to Back Country! This Is Mountain Lion Territory" sign....
I also made sure that the people I was hiring bikes from knew where I planned to go, the route I planned to take, and when I planned to be back. While they weren't responsible for my safety, I did know that at least at absolute worst, after a few hours they'd realise I wasn't back and know vaguely where to find me. Not what anyone wants to happen, but no harm in having a few layers of backup!
6) Check your insurance
Especially if you're heading off on a routine work trip, you may not think to read the fine print on your insurance policy to see if activities like mountain biking are covered. Chances are, by default it's not (mine classified it as an "extreme sport" which was by default excluded). Many insurers offer an upgrade for a small fee - typically a small price to pay for peace of mind if you find yourself with a minor, or major, injury in a foreign country. It's unlikely, but possible, so best to be prepared.
Life's good when you make time to ride bikes. When you're a mountain biker who's travelling, you have a fantastic opportunity to explore new terrain without having to go anywhere near a tour bus, get in some solid exercise without having to resort to the dreary hotel weights room, and share good times with fellow riders all over the world.