by Mike Burkett
Remember your very first bicycle? Dumb question. Of course you do. Who could forget an event which, perhaps for the first time in your childhood, opened up a whole new and seemingly grown-up dimension to life.
Your new bike was freedom. All of a sudden you could go farther and faster than ever before.
It was like being handed a license to explore any chunk of land you'd ever wanted to explore ... to ride through any mud puddle that caught your eye ... to barrel down slopes at a speed that would give your parents heart attacks if you were ever dumb enough to let them catch sight of you doing it.
When Gary Cornette talks about his favorite sport mountain biking it is with the same kind of enthusiasm and excitement that most people remember their first bike.
But make no mistake. Cornette is no giddy kid. He's a 51-year-old doctor the only gastro-interologist subspecialist in Payson, in fact who takes to the mountain trails on bike-back to reap the benefits of exercise, familial bonding (he almost always rides in the company of his 21-year-old son Adam), and ... oh, OK, the freedom to explore, ride through mud, and hit ground speeds that would still make his mom and dad apoplectic.
Cornette has been mountain biking "aggressively" for six years. He used to be a runner, but knee problems motivated him to switch to road biking because in his home state of Missouri, he said, "mountain biking is pretty much limited to a few hilly areas near the rivers and some lakes ... and the weather is intolerable for much of the year." In the summer, it's hot and humid; in the winter, it's frigid and frozen.
"That was one of the things that led me to Payson," Cornette said. "I can almost bicycle all year round which you can't do in Phoenix in the summer or in Flagstaff in the winter. And we have great mountain-biking trails here within 10 or 15 minutes of your house."
Among his favorites is "one of the best mountain-biking trails in state: the 260 Trailhead east of Christopher Creek. It's single-track, which means it's only wide enough for a hiker, horses or mountain bikers, and it's technical; you go over rocks and hills and down between trees. We also bike at the Crackerjack Mine up toward Pine, Boulder Creek Trail just off of Granite Dells Road, Horse Camp Trail just off of Houston Mesa Road."
Some of the best trails for beginners, Cornette said, can be found near the end of Granite Dells Road, where there are some trails which wind toward Star Valley that are flat and well-marked.
"They're not horribly challenging," he said, "but have a few small jumps and bumps, so it's a good place for beginners."
Another part of the attraction of mountain-biking in the Rim country is discovery, Cornette said.
"You can get out in the woods and run across Indian ruins that people probably don't know are there, and creeks running out of the ground and just beautiful scenery. And you can access these things any time. You can bike in the Payson snow, and it never gets that cold."
You don't need to be psychic to determine that Cornette pursues this sport purely for the fun of it. But he is, after all, a doctor, so he's well aware of the health benefits of the activity, too.
"Mountain biking is a great aerobic activity, and it really builds up your leg muscles," he said. "And it forces you to stay mentally alert at all times. When you're on the trails, you have to really be on your toes, so you don't run into a tree or something."
Cornette admits that there have been moments when he was not on his toes. But despite his own head-ons with trees and manzanita bushes, he has not suffered any serious injuries.
"Just some cuts and bruise," he shrugs. "One time, I broke a helmet hitting a rock; I would have been knocked out without the helmet, so I never go out without it."
Which leads the good doctor to his list of the biggest mistakes mountain-biking newbies most commonly make:
"Not wearing a helmet is No. 1; that is critical," he said. "Not carrying enough water. Not taking along any energy bars on a long ride. Not having tire- and chain-repair equipment. Not having sunscreen. And not having the right bike for what they are attempting to do."
When all of those conditions and equipment needs are met, Cornette said, what you've got is "one of the greatest family sports there is. And I have found nothing else that gets my blood pumping like mountain biking. At the end of the day, your endorphines are running crazy. You're really pumped up."
In other words ... just like Cornette no doubt felt when he got his first bike.