The risk. The reward. The challenge.
I ’m on a mission. It involves getting up a steep hill with no pavement and no forgiveness.
To be successful, it will require a bike, patience and power. I only have one of those three.
Tackling roots, rocks, limbs and dirt is not on the agenda for the places I usually ride, but rather than navigating by street signs, I’ve been using an odd-shaped boulder or a downed tree to find the way home. And if there’s a crash, there’s less road rash. Dirt doesn’t peel off skin as efficiently as pavement does.
Yes, I’m finding it’s a different world on a mountain bike. The riding is more about proper technique than pure fitness, and it’s more of a cerebral experience.
There are more than 130 miles of trail in Central Texas, Austin Ridge Riders Mountain Bike Club president Judi Ronkartz says, so living here provides ample opportunity for mountain bike junkies to get their fix. The Barton Creek Greenbelt — the quintessential trail system — is right in the heart of the city and a gold mine for exploration and challenges.
Upon first glance, it appears to be a straightforward trail that’s nearly eight miles long, and winds its way along the creek from Zilker Park to the Woods of Westlake subdivision, just off Loop 360. But there’s much more
‘It will throw anything and everything at you to cause failure.’
out there to ride. Much more.
But you won’t find these trails on any map. You’ll have to discover them for yourself or ask Greenbelt veterans, who may or may not give up the location of these gems.
One of Barton Creek’s best challenges is easily found. It sits proudly at the end of the main trail, ready to dole out punishment whenever provoked. Beating the Hill of Life is my personal goal. To make it up this slope without putting a foot down would signify that my skills are truly improving.
“We’ve been riding that hill for over 20 years,” said Bicycle Sport Shop owner Hill Abell, who’s a member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Crested Butte, Colo. “It used to be easier, but the city put in concrete water bars that eroded over time and left ledges. It’s loose and steep, and it’s a tough challenge.”
The climb gains more than 300 feet in less than half a mile. And while it might not sound terribly daunting, there’s more to the equation. It’s littered with loose rocks that make for difficult traction, and there are those concrete ledges to hop up and over, each one sapping a rider’s momentum.
There also is no protection from the sun, as the canopy of trees that lines the rest of the trail disappears. It’s brutal. And it can chomp down hard.
“I had a disastrous accident there in 1988,” Abell said. “Descending was a big thing back then because we didn’t have bikes with big knobby tires, so going downhill was much easier. So I was flying down the hill when one of my grips popped off. The handlebars turned sharply, and it launched me into the ground. I messed up my arm pretty good and had to have surgery.”
Still not convinced it’s a beast? Abell says he trained for the Leadville 100 last year by riding repeats on the Hill of Life. The Leadville is a punishing 100-mile mountain bike race in Colorado that includes more than 12,000 feet of elevation gain.
I certainly do not have the skill or fitness required to tackle such an event, but I can start small with Austin’s own little devil of a climb.
I’ve made four legitimate attempts up the Hill of Life in the short time I’ve been riding dirt, and it revealed its fangs early on try No. 1. A couple of minutes into the climb, I decided I should stand on the pedals to gain more power. Bad call. Loose rocks caused the rear wheel to spin out, and I went down chest-first on the handlebar. There’s not a lot of cushion between the sternum and skin.
On my second attempt, I made it about halfway up before a ledge stopped my momentum. I slowly came to a stop, and with no energy left to unclip from the pedal, I fell over on the bike and skidded a couple of feet to a halt.
This defeat was not a proud moment. I had to walk the bike down the hill in front of an audience of grinning hikers.
I put in some solid preparation for the third try. I fueled up with carbs, was wellrested and had practiced proper technique. A little more than halfway up, the biochemical stew of lactic acid burning in my muscles was building to a crescendo. I knew I was running out of time. Then a bee flew into my mouth. Ride over. Nothing like burning legs and a stinging insect on your tongue to squash all motivation.
But if you think the Hill of Life’s obstacles are only anchored to the trail, think again. It will throw anything and everything at you to cause failure.
I planned my fourth attempt as a fitting end for this story last week, with the idea that I could announce a triumphant success. It didn’t happen. Even a lightweight hardtail Stumpjumper with huge 29-inch wheels (the ultimate in mountain bike efficiency) wasn’t enough to deliver the prize.
I started off like a man possessed, pedaling with fury in my heart and fire in my legs. Everything was right. The bike felt tight, the wheels were gripping, and my weight was centered on the tip of the saddle.
Then the Hill of Life awoke. It was not pleased to have another biker scurrying up its spine.
Rocks that had been of no concern became loose and testy. The concrete ledges that were negotiable a few days before chewed at my pedals and held on tightly to my back wheel. Momentum turned to slow motion, power melted away like the salty tears stinging my eyes, and my steed slowly, surely came to a stop. Hill of Life 4, Me 0. But this is why I ride, and one day there will be success.
Above: Four times, Jason Whaley has tackled the Hill of Life on the Barton Creek Greenbelt. Four times the hill has proved not so easy to conquer.
The Hill of Life on the Barton Creek Greenbelt will sap a rider’s strength and resolve on the way up. But the trail’s loose rocks and ledges can prove challenging on the way down, as well.