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Rural Missouri Magazine
Fat Tire Fun
Mountain bikers take their rides off road

by Jim McCarty

Chris Ploch and Ryan Pirtle battle for the lead during a 12-hour endurance mountain bike race held at Council Bluff Lake. Organized racing is just one way mountain biking enthusiasts take advantage of Missouri's hilly landscape and abundant wooded areas.

All day long they are locked in cubicles, chained to desks or perhaps operating heavy equipment. They deal with the pressures of day care, demanding bosses and customers who just don’t understand deadlines.

In the back of their minds, however, is a better place where yellow leaves gently fall to earth and jagged limestone rock shelves form exciting jumps. When the daily grind gets to be too much they sneak away, throw a bike on the car roof and take to the woods.

These are Missouri’s mountain bike riders. On any given day you can find them riding trails across the state. No obstacle is too tough to be ridden, no drop too big to take, no hill too steep to climb for these outdoor cycling enthusiasts.

“I can’t go seven days without riding,” says John Dojoian, an engineer from St. Charles and the founder of the Gateway Off-Road Cyclists. “My wife knows it. If I get cranky, she gets after me to go ride.”

John got into mountain biking in 1986, close to the time when cyclists first took their rides off road. He says he was inspired by a rider he saw every day ripping down the cobblestone streets in downtown St. Louis on a mountain bike.

“I thought it was so cool. So I bought a mountain bike,” he says. That first bike wasn’t much different than the road bikes being used at the time. It had no suspension, but it did have the knobby fat tires that let it go on trails.

That $300 bike began a progression of increasingly more expensive and advanced bikes for John, who was typical of the early riders. His next bike had a front fork with shocks that helped smooth out bumps. Before long he was riding a full suspension bike that added a shock in back, disc brakes, 27 gears and clipless pedals that lock the feet to the pedals.

With its progressively more difficult system of trails, Jefferson City’s Binder Lake is considered one of the state’s better mountain bike rides. The Capital City Cycling Club holds weekly group rides here.

Today, his riding has come full circle. With a garage full of bikes, chances are John will head to the woods on a single-speed mountain bike with no suspension and sporting tall 29-inch wheels.

There are as many reasons to ride as there are mountain biking enthusiasts. But nearly every rider shares a love of the great outdoors and a desire for exercise.

“I’m not one to spend the day at the gym,” says Karen Owens, ambassador for the Kansas City–based Earthriders Mountain Bike Club. “A really good friend of mine was into mountain biking so I got into it. I just loved it from the minute I got on a trail.”

She says the camaraderie is incredible. “My friendship circle has tripled with all the people I’ve met.”

Talk to any mountain bike rider and they will describe the rush that comes from riding a narrow, twisting path called singletrack through the woods, often not knowing what obstacle lurks around the next bend.

Mike Gibson of Defiance takes the fastest route down the Chubb Trail’s infamous steps on a bike designed for big drops.

“That’s what keeps me going, looking down from the top of the hill, knowing you have to go down,” Karen says. “And when you get to the bottom and you make it and didn’t fall, it’s such a rush. Or going over that rock you’ve never been able to do before, it’s just the best feeling.”

While many mountain bike riders are interested in epic rides like the Berryman Trail or tackling parts of the Ozark Trail open to bikes, others just want to experiment with gravity. Mike Gibson, a downhill fanatic from Defiance, was once clocked at 60 mph. “And there were people passing me,” he says.

When he’s not riding out West or in Canada, Mike drags his heavily modified mountain bike up the notorious Chubb Trail in St. Louis County. Despite its suburban location, the Chubb Trail is one of Missouri’s most technical sections of singletrack. Riders must labor up a steep section of rocky switchbacks to get to the Chubb steps, a series of rock ledges and boulders that are the trail’s chief attraction.

For Mike and his friends, broken collarbones, stitches and concussions are as common as the 25-foot drops he’s landed on his bike. At Chubb he scouts the steps to make sure they are clear of horseback riders, hikers or other mountain bikers who share this trail. Then he points his bike downhill and takes the quickest route down the steps, an 8-foot drop from the top followed by an exhilarating downhill run.

“Most people balk and that’s the worst thing to do,” Mike says after another rider crashed while trying to gingerly pick his way down the steps. “You’re best to just let it go. It’s a natural reaction to reach for the brakes.”

Jefferson City cyclists prepare for a night ride at Binder Park. The friends use powerful lights mounted on helmets and handelbars to light up obstacles on the trail. From left are John Lanworthy, Cary Maloney, Pete Goode and Nick Smith.

Mike knows about crashing on the Chubb Trail. His father introduced him to the sport of mountain biking here 12 years ago. On the way back to the parking lot he crashed. “It ripped the clothes off me. I was road rash from head to foot. After I recovered I was addicted.”

Mike’s bike looks more motorcycle than bike. It has a massive front fork, huge knobby tires and a coil-spring in the back to take the shock from landing. Disc brakes help him scrub speed when the Chubb Trail makes a 90-degree turn on the way down.

“Downhill is the best part,” says Mike of his form of riding. “That makes it all worthwhile to climb up that hill. This is where you get your excitement.”

Far more graceful are the nimble cross-country race bikes that appear each fall for the Burnin’ at the Bluff 12-hour endurance race held at Council Bluff Lake near Bixby. Close to 100 people showed up for this year’s race, which pitted teams of three and solo riders in several classes in an off-road marathon.

The Council Bluff Trail is typical of Missouri’s singletrack. It features a 13-mile loop around a scenic lake. The trail winds up and down hills, through cathedral-like stands of pine and offers frequent breathtaking views of the lake.

Many of the narrow "singletrack" trails that mountain bike riders enjoy are built by volunteers from cycling clubs.

Groups like the Gateway Off-Road Cyclists and the Earthriders not only ride the trails, chances are they built them as well. The Earthriders, for example, have spent 1,107 man-hours and $14,000 of in-kind donations to build a new trail at Lake of the Ozarks State Park. The St. Louis group is responsible for building 20 miles of new trail and doing many more miles of maintenance work.

Traveling workshops hosted by the International Mountain Biking Association teach the handful of techniques used to build new trail.

“These techniques, you can learn in a day,” says John, who is the Missouri representative for the group. “It’s all designed around water. You control the water flow and keep it off the trail. If you do that you are going to have good trail. You end up with a great trail that wanders through the woods.”

There are more than 60 trails open to mountain bikes in Missouri. Brett Dufur of Rocheport rode most of them before publishing “Show-Me Mountain Biking, The Complete Mountain Biking Guide to Missouri” ($16.95 from bookstores or online at www.pebblepublishing.com).

While a beginner can get into mountain biking for around $400, the sport can get much more expensive. Step up to a full-suspension bike and the cost increases to more than $1,000. Downhill bikes can be as much as $5,000.

One reason mountain bike riders head to the woods is to enjoy the incredible scenery Missouri has to offer. Trails like this one at Council Bluff Lake near Bixby follow lakes and rivers. Outdoor enthusiasts can cover more ground on bikes than on foot.

Once bitten by the off-road bug, cyclists tend to invest in better bike components, backpacks to carry water on long rides, colorful jerseys and rooftop bike racks.

“Biking is definitely not a cheap sport but you really have to look at it as an investment,” says Emery Dawson, who works at Springfield’s Sunshine Bike Shop. “If you can add 10 more healthy years on your life, that’s that much more time to spend working. You’re going to make yourself more money in the long run. You can’t put a price tag on being healthy, in my opinion.”

Adds Karen, “Get a decent mountain bike, get a helmet and a pair of gloves, find the local bike club and just go. If you see someone on the trail, stop and introduce yourself. If you see a local club is having a meeting, go to it. They are going to welcome you with open arms.”

For more information about mountain biking in Missouri, write to Missouri Bicycle Federation, P.O. Box 104871, Jefferson City, MO 65110-4871.

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