A mountain biking addict reflects on adapting to new trail conditions

By Sarah Hansing

Does anyone even remember hero dirt? Photo: Bruce Dorman.

Does anyone even remember hero dirt? Photo: Bruce Dorman.

Great news everyone! It turns out we are not all just getting worse at riding our mountain bikes! Ok, fine. I may be just projecting my own fears and insecurities upon us all, but it makes me feel better, alright? Pretend it’s the “royal we”.  

Anyways: it turns out that we aren’t experiencing a rapid decline in our handling skills. It would seem that we have been experiencing an oh so gradual adaptation to the trail conditions. And it has indeed been VERY gradual. Which is to say, the trails are now dry as all hell. In fact, I can’t imagine that anyone out there remembers when last it was that they were as powdery and slippery and nearly tractionless as they are now. I certainly can’t remember riding trails this dry, and I did a few years time living in Southern California, for dirt’s sakes.

That’s the thing with gradual adaptation, though, isn’t it? It’s a sneaky process. Barely noticeable, until suddenly you simply cannot ignore it, no matter how hard you try. At which point, it begins to mess with your brain.

A tree down around a blind turn on a trail we know like the back of our hand?  No problem!  (well, literally, it’s more like:  “AHHHHH!!!! PROBLEM!!!”)  but in the psychological sense, we don’t assume we are now crappy riders; we assume that we were caught off guard by a slightly sadistic force of nature, and next time we will know better.  

But these dry trail conditions …

I’ve had to learn to ride in a totally different style, and take totally different lines on just about all of the singletrack everywhere and I’ve STILL never spent so much time completely sideways.  

Sideways is not my favorite view of the trail. But it is what it is. And the reality is that we have not seen Hero Dirt in what feels like FOREVER.  I hear many of us (myself included) complaining about what horrific shape the trails are in. How bad the dirt conditions are. How blown out all of the trails are. I see my Strava times go down but my efforts to stay upright seem to be increasing incrementally with each ride.

And so, my natural assumption was that I was just losing my touch. Obviously my glory days of riding were over and I should probably just buy a hybrid and stick to bike paths now.  

The more I thought (felt sorry for myself) about this development, the more logic presented itself to me:  gradual adaptation is nearly impossible to recognize. Because it’s gradual. It isn’t too dissimilar to the ways in which we get better on the bike. We don’t just one day wake up 5x better at riding than we were. It’s gradual. We don’t just lose or gain 10-20 pounds. It’s gradual. And we don’t just decide to ride a bit different on the trails we ride everyday … it’s gradual.

Now I’m not saying that we don’t all miss having a taste of Hero Dirt. I think it’s safe to say that we are all gagging for the chance to rip into the berms with the confidence of do-no-wrong-dirt under our treads. Of COURSE we miss it. However, the benefits of gradual adaptation should not be overlooked here. We are all developing – or have developed – a new riding style and new riding skills whether we want to or not. We’re still out there having a great time, even if it isn’t our fastest time. We’re learning to think in new ways, and look ahead in different directions.

This is once again a good life lesson too. Tunnel vision and being blindsided by a turn of events is actually not the best or only way to prepare ourselves for change. Putting the ability to handle change in an instant AND over a period of time is about as good as it gets as far as being well-rounded. Look fast, but think ahead. Recognizing the sneaky kind of adaptation and learning how to handle it is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Plus, it’s nice to realize that we haven’t just lost our skills – we’ve actually gained new ones.


​Fat Tire Tuesday columnist Sarah Hansing has been slinging wrenches as a pro bike mechanic for 15 years (with the exception of a one year stint working for Trek Bicycles in Wisconsin.) Epicenter Cycling scooped her up as their lead mechanic and the shop’s crew plans to ​keep her forever. Sarah loves riding singlet​rack, wrenching on bikes, and hanging out with her jerk-face but adorable cat Harlan. (Who is a jerk.)