Marissa Neely
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How Riding a Budget Mountain Bike Created A Mountain of Good Memories

Words By: Marissa Neely and Photos By: Chris Neely

If you can ride China Peak, you can ride anywhere. The words spoken by a professional mountain biker (whose name escapes me) rattled through my brain as my bike rattled over the rocky single track beneath me. My fingers hovered over the breaks that were in desperate need of a tune up as I pumped them every so often to avoid an abrupt meeting with the ground.

Marissa and her Schwinn

Me and my Schwinn

It was the weekend after the 3rd round of the legendary Enduro Series at China Peak Mountain Resort, and my brother in law, Jon, was eager to get on the mountain and use his new Specialized Stump Jumper mountain bike. Having not mountain biked in years, I was excited to tag along but a bit wary especially since I had sold my beloved full suspension Julianna months prior due to the space restraints associated with living aboard my sailboat. Although my sweet folding bike with 26” wheels is my trusty steed now, I still miss the feeling of a full suspension bike sucking up every rock, bump and berm while going confidently down my favorite mountain. Despite my bikeless situation, my mother in law offered me her brand new- and very basic- hardtail Schwinn mountain bike, which I gladly accepted after removing the kick stand and reflector plates. It was an obvious downgrade from my Julianna, but it was enough to get me through the day.

It felt nostalgic as I pulled my Fox jersey over my head and shimmied into my padded bike shorts that I haven’t worn since I was a teenager. Despite my somewhat together wardrobe, my mountain bike gloves were nowhere to be seen so in their place I wore my West Marine sailing gloves, each a slightly different size from one another. I definitely dressed the part as I slipped on my full face helmet feeling like a queen wearing her crown, the cherry on top of the ensemble that I secretly hoped would distract other bikers from the caliber of my borrowed bike.

China Peak in the Summer

The top of China Peak

The sun melted on our skin as we unloaded the car in front of the resort, riding to the rental shop where my husband, Chris, rented his bike for the day. To our surprise, China Peak has an impressive rental fleet of brand new full suspension Specialized carbon frame bikes for guests to use out on the trails. Once Chris had his bike ready we peddled to the chair lift and loaded up for our ride to the top of the mountain. Seeing China Peak in the summer is such a stark contrast to when it is covered in snow. Beneath us was a lush landscape that had grown back thick after the infamous Creek Fire a couple years prior. Birds chirped “cheeseburger” in the background as wind danced through the pines, the fresh mountain air filling our lungs and bringing smiles to our faces. This is why I love China Peak in the summer.

Typically, China Peak is 20 degrees cooler than the California central valley which makes it a great escape from the average summer temperatures of 100 degrees and above. In addition to mountain biking, you can also hike, visit China Peak Landing on Huntington Lake to rent boats or paddle boards, or forge your own adventures in the great outdoors. Unlike Lake Tahoe, this area of the Sierra National Forest is unmolested by hotels, casinos, and glamorous mansions leaving the wilderness wild with the exception of the small but mighty communities sprinkled throughout the area. It is a hidden gem which unfortunately makes places like China Peak a severely underrated place to “play”. 

Huntington Lake glistened beneath us at the top of the mountain as we discussed which trail to tackle first. Still filled with nerves I suggested we take the easiest trail to warm up, which is mostly a fire road that is plenty wide and relatively free of any technical proponents. The chain clinked aggressively as I shifted gears biking along the narrow singletrack that connected us to the proper trail. I was already winded after biking a short 1/8th of a mile, trying to remind myself that I hadn’t exercised at altitude in a while and should go easy on my body and mind – also hoping this wasn’t a foreshadowing of how the rest of the day would pan out. After some rehydration the boys led the way down the “Backside” trail; I followed as closely behind as I could while I was still getting to know the responsiveness – or lack thereof – of my bike. I caught up a few moments after they stopped at the top of another trail, by a large group of men that were decked out in Raceface gear and riding some serious bikes. I wish you could have seen their faces as I peddled by on my Schwinn, taking a right turn down the unnamed blue single track.

Schwinn Mountain Bike

Single track towards the bottom of the mountain

A large smile stretched across my face as my speed increased and my ability to handle the various technical aspects came to light. Roots on the trail? No problem. A small rock drop? Piece of cake. Despite my bike’s very audible objections to my riding style, I was feeling like a teen again as I chased behind my husband on the trails we rode down before we were even dating. My brother in law cheered me on from where he waited on the side of the trail, clearly surprised by my abilities and the fact that my bike had made it this far. We regrouped and drank more water before continuing on, the trail getting more rocky and loose as we charged down the mountain. I carefully brake checked throughout the ride, realizing it took my breaks about 3 feet to bring me to a complete stop. We rode through small streams, rocks, loose dirt, over freshly built platforms, and peddled our hearts out to reach the day lodge where we refueled with China Peaks famous french fries before heading up to do it all over again. 

After a full day of riding I felt strong, happy, and proud that my muscle memory got me down the mountain. Covered in dust and sweat my muscles ached with every movement as we peddled to the car to load up. That morning I was concerned I would be ridiculed for the bike I brought, but by the afternoon the worry was replaced with pride. I had handled every obstacle on the trails with precision just as the other bikers with nicer bikes did, realizing that the name on your bike doesn’t really matter unless it is the name on your paycheck. Of course riding a wicked bike that everyone wants is awesome. It makes riding more enjoyable; you can be faster and safer on a better bike but turning your nose up at a lesser bike is distracting you from the point of having fun, because when you are out on the mountains alongside your favorite people, it doesn’t matter what you are riding. What matters is that you are out there having an absolute blast and creating memories to last a lifetime. So forget the name brands for a second, and do whatever you can to get out there and ride. Even if it’s been a while… After all, you know what they say… “it’s just like riding a bike”.

Riding the Schwinn

All Smiles on the bottom of the mountain