There is nothing “mountain” about the Valley, and bicycling has little fanfare along the border.
But mountain biking in the Rio Grande Valley is growing, thanks to the Mission Hike and Bike Trails. The park boasts an extensive series of narrow paths carved into dense woodland, and for the adventurous it offers miles of startlingly good fun.
The trails can get technical and you’re going to need appropriate gear. Get a good bike, but don’t spend a fortune. Instead, spend time searching for the best balance between cost and performance. When I first set out, I asked a knowledgeable friend for help choosing something from the local department store.
He said sarcastically that any cheap bike would do but added that I made sure I had dental insurance because when it inevitably failed, I would need a good dentist.
Terrified, but glad that I asked, I headed to Bicycle World in McAllen. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the model I wanted. I felt a little dismayed because buying local comes with perks, such as discounts on service and gear. I searched online, and stumbled upon Fezzari Bicycles, out of Lindon, Utah. Their unique designs drew my attention and their bicycles fit my budget. Fezzari shipped my bikes, pre-assembled, and I received them a week later.
I invited some friends and got ready to hit the dirt. One of them decided to use his trusty, old Scwhinn. He claimed it still rode like new. Of course, the bike had never carried anyone over single-track.
At the park, we put on our gear, did a lap around the lot, and rolled onto the dirt. The first trail offers a nice introduction. It refrains from overwhelming riders with technicalities.
Small bunches of cacti dot the trail, but the hairy stuff appears later on. For the most part, new riders feel safe on this trail. Mesquite trees hang low and offer shade from the sun. The trail loosely bobs and weaves its way through the brush.
After a brief stint, the trail opens up a little before receding into the trees. Here, the twists and turns come more often and the topography starts to wake up. We rode in a tight group, trying to stay within reach of the first rider who called out the upcoming hazards.
“Bank left! Right! Tight exit! Low branch! Stump!”
We were gaining speed, giddy as fifth-graders. Midway through, the trail hooks right and elevates slightly. We took the turn hard. As my friend leaned the Schwinn, the rear wheel gave and buckled. It warped and locked, throwing him right off. I still wonder exactly how he managed to fly forward instead of falling clean over.
Luckily, he landed on a relatively clean patch of dirt and avoided taking a bite out of one of the mesquite trees. We laughed and hooted as he picked up the busted bike. He dragged it back to the car, and I checked my watch. Disaster had struck a little over eight minutes in, but we learned a lesson and had a good ride.
Months later, I invited another couple of friends out. One of them rode dirt bikes for years and felt comfortable on trails, but the other lacked any trail experience. Neither of them had been to those trails. In my excitement to slalom around the park I hit it hard.
They kept up and my speed lowered their guard. We reached the end of the first few trails, which closes with a narrow opening between two thin trees. Passing through seems easy enough, but when you throw in speed and mass those modest trunks can ruin your day.
My green friend sped up to catch us. He saw the narrow opening, adjusted, but misread his clearance. One of the trees clipped his handlebar and he went down. The bike flew to the side and crashed into the woods. He slid on the rocky trail, headfirst. His helmet and glasses scuffed something awful, but his head made out fine. Always remember to wear a helmet and eyewear.
Your bike runs risks out on the trails, just as much as you do. The most frequent and persistent of these is getting flat tires. Goathead thorns and cacti litter the trails and can cut your ride short. Avoid flats by using “smart” tubes, which plug punctures with liquid and stop air from escaping, or by using tire liners, which add a layer of protection between the tire and the tube.
Even then, you may experience the odd flat. Arguably, the best way to avoid them altogether is to run a tubeless setup. However, this presents other sets of problems, and it is expensive. It can cost as much as some entry-level bikes. I passed and looked for good alternatives.
I struggled with flats for a long time, despite using “smart” tubes, until I came across a set of Schwalbe tires, which sport a Kevlar weaving to mitigate punctures. The tires’ sidewalls lack the weaving, however, and can still puncture so I always carry patches and/or a spare tube, a pump, and a multi-tool for trailside repairs. Youtube taught me to fix flats.
Even if your patches or spares go unused, it’s good to bring them along. You might encounter a fellow rider stuck with a flat and sharing your kit could salvage their ride.
If you plan on riding, start thinking about the gear you need. Set a budget for yourself and try to stick to it. Your wallet will take a beating and so will your body, but Mountain biking in the Mission Trails offers an extraordinary experience, and a fun way to get out and among nature.
Many kinds of animals make their home in the trails. You can spot roadrunners, tarantulas, javalinas, and even bobcats from the saddle. The trails offer a nice change of pace from the highways and hospitals that dot our cityscape.
So, get out there. Ride safe, ride often.