Path less traveled lures bicyclists

YAKIMA - Jeff Clark is convinced the local cycling scene is experiencing a quantum shift.

As co-owner of a bicycling shop in Yakima, Revolution Cycles, Clark is in position to see it happen. Although his store's clientele is pretty evenly split between enthusiasts of mountain biking and road cycling, he says he's seeing "sort of a cyclical turn" from mountain biking to road cycling.

"You can sort of see why," says Clark, 34. "With a road bike, you can start right outside your front door and go ride 50 miles. With a mountain bike, you might be driving 50 miles to get to that good trail before you can start riding."

But that's the thing about mountain bikers: Driving that far is easily worth it for the chance at a great single-track ride away from traffic and noise. What's an hour's drive if it transports you to a place where every awe-inspiring view has been hard-earned, and where danger lurks not in the sideview mirrors of meandering SUVs but in low-hanging branches or, gulp, a bunch of loose rock along a precipitous ridgeline.

Larry Wilson of Yakima has been an avid road rider and racer, but he finds mountain biking to be safer, just because there are no oblivious drivers to watch out for.

"I've been hurt both mountain biking and road biking, but the injuries I've sustained in mountain biking are not life-threatening," he says. "You're out - you're not dealing with traffic. You're in the mountains, as the term says. It's a rural experience."

And it's also a getaway from your day-to-day grind.

"It's pretty much the same reason somebody jumps in their car and will drive 100 miles to go on a backpacking trip - they're trying to get away," says mountain biking guidebook author Tom Kirkendall of Edmonds. "And that's the thing about mountain biking, as opposed to road biking: You're trying to experience something different from what you experience every day, and the only way to really do that is to go far, far away."

There's certainly no shortage of stellar single-track in the wooded hills west and northwest of Yakima. There's plenty of worthwhile trails in the Rimrock area, up the Little Naches and north up into the Manatash and Taneum areas, and even closer than that. Right at the edge of town, in fact, there's a very attractive option in Cowiche Canyon.

"It's a wonderful asset for the community," Wilson says of Cowiche Canyon. "It's kind of like a gym for mountain bikers. After work you can go up and hit it and ride for a couple of hours and not hit the same trail, if you're creative, and then be back home in just a few minutes."

And we're just heading into the time of year - September and October - when the canyon gets popular again, after having been largely avoided by many cyclists for the past couple of months.

"Cowiche Canyon gets really dusty in summer," says Evan Nilson, 16, an Eisenhower junior who has gotten serious enough about mountain biking over the past couple of years that he's taken to riding with some of the Valley's most hard-core riders. "It's still fun to go out there because there's so many link trails, but right now there's just so much dust, you have to have a pretty good gap between each other because of it."

So, in summer, a lot of local riders head further north. There are dozens of good rides in Kittitas County - a slew of them out of Salmon La Sac, plus the new Section 17 in Roslyn and, of course, one challenging ride after another in the Teanaway.

But mountain bikers, of course, are willing to drive further to find a truly epic experience.

That's why many of them drive right on over Blewett Pass - bypassing all of those promising Teanaway trailheads - and on to Cashmere, home to the trail circuit that might be the most popular mountain biking destination on this side of the Cascade crest: the Devils Gulch trail ... the Mission Ridge trail ... and loop versions that encorporate them both.

"It's one of the few rides where you can get about 10 miles of all downhill single-track - of course, that's after you've climbed for 12," says Charlie Wilcox of Yakima. "You climb up on top and you're in the middle of nowhere in a fairly short time. And the views - you can look out over everything."

A lot of riders will do the Mission Ridge-Devils Gulch circuit and others involving steep grinds to the top of the downhill portion as a "shuttle" ride - that is, leaving one car at the bottom of the trail, piling into a second vehicle and then riding up to the top. That way they can enjoy the "gravity ride" down to the bottom and then have a car to drive back up to the top for the second car.

Many hard-core riders, though, would rather ride up than drive up. It's more work, yes, they say, but produces a greater satisfaction.

"The only time I'll go for a gravity ride is to get other people to go with me - especially beginners," says Bob McEachern of Yakima. "The coolest part of the sport is riding with beginners, because they're so excited. It's all new to them; they're finding out what they can do and learning new trails and experiences, and they're just excited about it all. I remember that excitement."

Of course, on any great downhill stretch, it's easy to get too excited and find yourself going too fast, thereby running the risk of going "OTB" - over the (handle)bars. Or you might come around a corner and surprise a group of hikers or, worse, horse riders, which can be dangerous if the horses get spooked by the riders' abrupt arrival.

Experienced mountain bikers know that a little courtesy goes a long way.

"We don't just go bombing through when we see hikers," says Nilson. "We'll slow up and let them know we're coming. All the people we've dealt with on the trails have been really nice; most of them will get off to the side of the trail and we'll usually stop and talk to them. But I've heard of hikers that don't like anybody riding anywhere on their trails."

Even when there's nobody else on the trail, though, it pays to employ a little caution. Whether you're an old hand at mountain biking or just starting out, trails - especially unfamiliar ones - can pose dangers, with exposure to steep drops potentially waiting around every turn.

"There's no dishonor in walking," says McEachern - and that's saying something, since his biking buddies know him to be about as radical a rider as there is. "If it's terrifying, there's a reason: You're probably smarter than you think."