Bicycle Exchange

Mountain biker Karen Gillies and road cyclist Nicola Ross invite each other out for a spin.

March 24, 2011 | | Back Issues

When I hook up with Karen Gillies to learn the ropes of mountain biking, it shouldn’t surprise me that my first lesson isn’t about changing gears or avoiding tumbles. True to form, the long-time owner of Orangeville’s Creek Side Clothing Co. makes sure that I have the proper attire.

I had arrived at Mono Cliffs Park clad in Lycra cycling shorts and one of those ridiculously busy jerseys worn by folks like me who spend their cycling time on skinny-tired, thoroughbred-like road bikes rather than knobbly tired, quarter-horse-like mountain bikes. Karen and I had agreed to an exchange: After she puts me through the hoops on a mountain bike, I would get her on the road.

First, she exchanges my fingerless cycling gloves with fingered ones that provide additional protection – though not enough, as I am to learn. A fall is more likely on a mountain bike, so covering up is good. She also has me sling on a camelback to replace my water bottle. Karen explains that there is no time to grab a water bottle when you are negotiating a tricky trail.

But the pièce de résistance is the cycling shorts she presents to me. They are made of a light, but tough fabric and are worn over Lycra shorts. “They give you another layer of protection,” Karen explains, “and if you do fall, the damage is done to these over-shorts and not to the expensive Lycra ones.”

It’s all about the shorts!

Since I belong to the 95 per cent of the population that is not built to wear Lycra, I decide that maybe mountain biking isn’t so bad. These over-shorts look good and they don’t cost too much either.

The main reason for wearing cycling shorts is comfort for your nether parts. Most cyclists who suffer from chafing do so because they don’t wear a good pair of padded shorts, leave their underwear on underneath or wear shorts made for the wrong gender. (The seams are different in men’s and women’s shorts.)

Karen’s partner Johnny gives me a quick lesson on the ins and outs of the incredibly light mountain bike he has lent me. The biggest difference in feel between my road bike and my loaner is the shock absorbers. I feel as if I am floating over the gravelly parking lot at Mono Park as I take a test spin. On a road bike I would feel every piece of gravel. It is going to take me some time to get used to having shock absorbers. I feel as if I lack contact with the ground, which translates into feeling as if I lack control.

Too soon it is time to take to the hills. I’ve figured out how to change gears, know which is my front brake and which is my back one, have adjusted the seat so that my legs are pretty much straight when the pedal is at its lowest point, and have been assured that a cold beer waits me if I survive the adventure.

Karen heads up a trail away from the parking lot. “You’re okay climbing up over these little steps aren’t you?” she calls over her shoulder. She mistakes my snort for agreement.

“Just unweight your handlebars when you get to the step and pedal up over it,” she instructs as she nimbly negotiates her way up the trail. With Johnny and a couple of others who cycle together at Mono Cliffs Park every Wednesday evening looking on, up I go. I don’t have Karen’s finesse, but I make it to the top and I give myself a pat on the back.

Don’t look down!

One of the keys to mountain biking, Karen tells me, is to avoid looking down. This advice seems counterintuitive. If I don’t look down, how can I avoid the rocks and roots? The wisdom of her advice is embedded in the fact that if you look at a rock or rut, you tend to lean that way and your bike will follow. “It’s best to look beyond where you are going.” It is an important tip that I will unfortunately fail to follow.

Karen didn’t come naturally to the sport. Like me, she didn’t ride a bike much as a kid and we also share a lack of great balance.

“Johnny and my son,” Karen complains, “have incredible balance.” The proof is in their ability to turn their bikes around on a dime, a move called “turtling.” Karen is much better at it than I am. I stop, click one foot out of the pedal cleats and pick up my bike to turn it around.

Karen loves the scenery in Mono Cliffs Park. “Since we cycle every week on the same trails, we see things change. We cycle in different levels of sunshine.” It’s a brilliant, hot and humid early September evening when we are out. The golden rod is in full bloom, but the light is getting low in the sky. “In a couple of weeks we’ll be finishing our ride in the dark,” Karen tells me.

We cycle down over another set of steps along a sandy path and I get the feel of standing up on my pedals and gripping the saddle between my thighs. It sounds like an unstable position, but it actually provides a natural sense of agility.

Karen and Nicola pose for their close-up after an eventful ride

Karen and Nicola pose for their close-up after an eventful ride. Photo Pete Paterson

Despite Karen’s excellent coaching, I give her loaner shorts a workout. When I look down into a rut, as I have been warned not to, and my front tire gets caught, I skid to the ground. Picking myself up, I brush the dust off my borrowed shorts and see a little blood on my knee and elbow – badges of honour. Noticing that the baby finger on my right hand is sticking out at an odd angle, I grab it with my left hand. Voilà, the finger is normal again, and before I can think more about it, Karen is handing me my bike.

“With beginner cyclists,” she tells me, “the guys in the group would normally have stood in line on both sides of the trail so that they could have caught you.”

We agree to bypass “puke hill.” It’s a steep incline that only the most talented cyclists manage to climb. She suggests we cross a wooden bridge that spans a creek. To do so requires me to negotiate the five-inch step up onto the bridge. Karen is up and over, but I balk at this obstacle that looks as tall as Mount Everest to me. I’ve forgotten about the shock absorbers. If I’d hit that lip with my road bike, I would have been tossed over the handle bars; mountain bikes bounce over without a second’s pause. “Just remember to unweight your handle-bars,” Karen reminds me.

We chat about the differences in the sports as we climb up some small hills and pass a few of the ponds that make Mono Cliff Park such a delight. Both of us have had our best holidays atop bicycles. Mine have involved touring through villages in France, Italy, Cuba, Mexico, Canada and the US. Karen also travels widely and is heading to Arizona in a month’s time to try out the trails there. But the event that she’s most interested in talking about is the adventure race set for the following weekend.

It’s a day-long team competition. Since Karen is the slower cyclist, Johnny will tow her along using a piece of surgical tubing that is wrapped around his waist and attached to a harness that Karen wears. The rig is designed so that it does not get caught in either of their tires. The thought of being hauled along over rocks and roots while travelling at full-out speeds simply does not compute for me.

I have a lovely time on that mountain-bike date with Karen and get a rush when I successfully cycle down the steps that we’d climbed up to start the evening’s adventure. But with visions of Karen being hauled along by Johnny, and with my baby finger swollen to twice its normal size, I am quite happy to return those now-worn cycling over-shorts to Karen.

on the road : Karen Gillies, front, a veteran mountain biker,is introduced to the flat-out speeds of road biking by Nicola Ross. Photos Pete Paterson

On the road : Karen Gillies, front, a veteran mountain biker, is introduced to the flat-out speeds of road biking by Nicola Ross. Photo Pete Paterson

Two weeks later, it’s my turn to play guide. We meet at the church parking lot in Camilla, just north of Orangeville. The road heading west and the adjoining Mono-Amaranth Townline are to-die-for roads for skinny-tired bicycles. They are flat and smooth, and on the clear morning when we ride, the mist rises over the harvested wheat fields and we have a panoramic view to the south. Smooth sailing.

I don’t have any special clothing to offer Karen, but she, of course, comes perfectly prepared – road-cycling shoes and all. They are stiffer than mountain-biking shoes, but both feature cleats that click into bicycle pedals and allow a rider to pull the pedals up as well as push down. If the thought of being attached to a bicycle makes you squeamish, recognize that these cleats have a quick release system that allows you to click out in short order.

Karen has never been on a road bike, so I give her my touring bike to try. A touring bike looks a lot like the 10-speed that you might have had as a teenager. While far slimmer than mountain-bike tires, those on a touring bike are about 50 per cent fatter than on a road bike. And, in the case of my touring bike, fenders also shield the rider from mud and water that tires pick up from the road and deposit in a stripe down the rider’s back. Road cyclists shun fenders because of their clunkiness.

Karen eyes the tires with nervous disdain. It is clear that she’ll give road riding a try, but she isn’t predisposed to enjoy it. She climbs aboard and we head west. It normally takes about ten kilometres on a road bike to get into a rhythm, and in the early morning sunshine, I can’t wait to get moving.

Ahead of me, Karen is leaning down hard on the handlebars, looking mighty uncomfortable. I suggest that she straighten up a bit by holding the handlebars on the top (rather than the bottom of the curve). She adjusts and looks a little happier.

I pick up the pace, explaining that on a road bike you want to spin the pedals fast. She picks up her cadence, but wobbles on the narrow tires as she does, making me aware that the two sports are very different.

Mountain biking is all about athleticism and quick response. You need guts to ride a mountain bike on a single-track trail (something I lack). On a road bike, you get into a hypnotic rhythm. It’s like a trail runner compared to a marathoner. An alpine skier compared to a Nordic one. Show jumping compared to thoroughbred racing. They appeal to different emotions and satisfy different needs. Whereas the sense of accomplishment from mountain biking comes from being brave and athletic, road biking comes from travelling long distances with grace. Both, however, involve great camaraderie. They are social sports.

Too soon for me, probably not soon enough for Karen, we are back at the church. “So do you think you could come to enjoy road riding?” I ask. Karen’s mountain bike happens to be on top of her car. She gives it a reassuring pat and responds, “Think I’ll stick to my knobblies.”

Different strokes for different folks, no doubt. But both sports get people outside into the fresh air and for both there is amazing territory within Headwaters where mountain-biking trails abound and rolling paved roads attract road cyclists from miles around.

As Karen pulls away, I glance down at my still-swollen baby finger and realize that despite what she says, I know better: Skinny tires really are the better way to go!

Belfountain writer Nicola Ross is the executive editor of Alternatives Journal.


On the trail : Novice mountain biker Nicola Ross successfully navigates steps on the trail at Mono Cliffs park. Photos Pete Paterson

On the trail : Novice mountain biker Nicola Ross successfully navigates steps on the trail at Mono Cliffs park. Photo Pete Paterson



Caledon Hills Cycling

Walk Run Ride
55 Healey Rd Unit 5

Bicycle Shoppe of Erin
1 Scotch St

Epic Ride
35 Robb Blvd Unit 10


Caledon Cycling Club
Specifically for mountain bike riders. Two organized rides per week.

C3 – Canadian Cross Training Club
See story Swim, bike, run


Le Tour de Terra Cotta
August 1, 2011
Distances: 8.68km, 26km, 52km, 104km
See story about a sleepy village turned into a road racer’s dream

Tour de Creemore
June 19, 2011
Distances: 100km, 40km, 10km
In support of Trails Youth Initiative.


Bikely Canada
Type where you want to cycle (e.g., Caledon or Shelburne) into the website, and it lists local bicycle routes.


More related to this article:

SWIM, BIKE, RUN, C3 puts on the moves

by Liz Beattie

LE TOUR DE TERRA COTTA, A road racer’s dream
by Nicola Ross

Video excerpts of the bike race!

About the Author More by Nicola Ross

Freelance writer Nicola Ross lives in Alton and is the author of the bestselling 'Loops and Lattes' hiking guide series.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By posting a comment you agree that IN THE HILLS magazine has the legal right to publish, edit or delete all comments for use both online or in print. You also agree that you bear sole legal responsibility for your comments, and that you will hold IN THE HILLS harmless from the legal consequences of your comment, including libel, copyright infringement and any other legal claims. Any comments posted on this site are NOT the opinion of IN THE HILLS magazine. Personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed. Please report inappropriate comments to