Tag Archives: single track

Riding the Lithium Trail

I rode Lithium yesterday, a challenging single track just off the Teton Pass in Wyoming. Challenging enough that most mentions of it come with a warning to stay away unless your life insurance is up-to-date. It’s just across the pass from a large ski area, so just imagine a steep ski slope without the groomed runs and without any trees removed. To get there, you have to climb about 1000 feet over 2 or 3 miles, which doesn’t sound like much, except you’re starting at over 7000 feet. By the time you climb the first quarter mile, you’re struggling just to find something to breathe. I’ve been less out-of-breath sprinting up Mt. Tam.

When you reach the summit, there’s a panoramic view over Jackson Hole, and over the steep drop that makes you reconsider whether this is really where you want to be. To create the Lithium trail, someone basically carved the straightest line down the face of the mountain, adding in jumps, boulder drop-offs and pitched turns just to keep it interesting.

Riding, for me, is a metaphor for business. I learn a lot about harnessing my energy, managing risk and taking challenges head on. A trail like Lithium pushes the top of my skill level, and it challenges me in ways that remind me of launching a startup. Lots of people will warn you off, which means you have to embrace things that many people find too risky to consider, and a lot of the time you’re simply on your own. You have to face challenges that you’re not at all sure you can handle, so you have to trust yourself to plow ahead and use what you know to survive. Most of all, you have to know when to back off, when you’re in over your head and need to find another way forward. A twenty-foot drop off a boulder will remind you of that.

And when you do crash and burn, you have to get back on and ride without losing your confidence. There’s still a lot of trail left to ride.

Commit. Launch. Land.

Whenever I’m under pressure I go mountain biking. The combination of physical, technical and psychological challenge involved in climbing steep fire roads and bombing down treacherous single-track clears my head like nothing else. And any time I stop for a breather, I’m looking out over redwood forests and alpine lakes.

The greater the pressure, the tougher the trails I ride. The toughest is a trail I can’t name, but it’s on the back side of a mountain called Loma Alta. It’s some of the steepest and most technical single track around, and it can eat you alive. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve fallen there. Once I separated my shoulder on a stretch of trail that’s little more than a stream of small boulders. Once I broke my helmet after pitching over the handlebars on a root. And once, I got parallel gashes all the way up my back after flipping over and sliding through a rock garden. It’s a lot of fun.

The point of riding trails like this is to constantly face your fears, and to be reminded that no matter how skilled you are, you always have to bring your best game. The moment you get complacent is the moment you lose.

So I returned to this trail a couple of days ago feeling the need to burn off some pressure. Before you even get to the scary parts you have to earn it. It’s a 1500 foot climb to the top over two and a half miles of steep fire road. In the burning sun. With a headwind. You really have to qualify for the opportunity to break your neck.

After dropping into the single track on the back side, it only took a few minutes to come face to face with one of the technical challenges that always makes my heart stop. I mean, there are boulders to climb, there are fallen redwoods to power over, but this is a meat grinder. Imagine riding down a steep trail that loops in and out of trees along the side of a steep embankment above a creek. You’re going about 12-18 miles and hour, and as you come out of a turn and drop down a steep stretch, you come to a huge tree root across the trail. On the other side of the root, there’s a drop off, maybe 2 feet down. As you approach the root, you can’t see the landing, and you’re going pretty fast. When the landing finally comes into view, you’re right on the verge of launching, and it looks like death. Immediately below the drop off is a large and jagged rock, so if you panic and hit the breaks you’re screwed. In order to clear the rock, you have to launch yourself forward, but the right landing point is about a six-inch-wide strip of trail that immediately plows into a rut of loose dirt and gravel on the edge of the embankment. If you miss, you’re going over the side, 20 feet or so down to the creek.

So the long and the short of this exercise? You have to commit, you have to launch, and you have no room for error when you land. Sure, you could get off your bike and walk it past the challenge, and that may be better than breaking your arm, but then what’s the point in coming here?

On this ride, I nailed it. And I went bombing on down the trail swearing like a sailor who just cheated death.