Mountain Biking

The First Time I Went… | Mountain Biking

After initially choosing a toy pirate ship over his first bike, writer Stuart Kenny reminisces on the '98 Christmas that planted the seed for his mountain biking passion

“What do you think Stuart will get for Christmas? Is he big enough for a mountain bike yet?”

So said my father to my older brother, on a video taken in Vancouver General Hospital on a classic one-tonne camcorder bought in the 1980s, two weeks before Santa was scheduled to stick whatever kids got for Christmas in 1992 (a Thunderbirds Tracy Island being the most hotly requested present, Google informs me) down chimneys across the world.

“Is he big enough for a mountain bike yet?”

It’s the first footage of me alive on the planet, that video, and as such I have the same expression as most babies who have been alive for 72 hours. You know that kind of grumpy, eyes-welded-shut, bundle-of-blankets look that could easily be mistaken for a New Year’s day hangover if you didn’t know it was on the face of a three-day old child? Yeah, that one.

I guess with Whistler a one-hour drive from our home in Lion’s Bay, Canada at the time, the mountain bike question was a natural one, an easy joke, but a suitably foreshadowing one.

Photo via Stuart Kenny

We wouldn’t stay in Canada long, though, my Irish parents opting to trade their views of the eastern shores of the Howe Sound fjord network for the footballing prowess and deep-fried cuisine of bonnie Scotland. It was there, a few years after that initial prediction from my father that I would actually ride a bike for the first time – without stabilisers, like the cool kids.

Fast forward to another Christmas day, 1998. Having recently turned six, I ran down into the living room, no doubt at some ungodly hour, to see what the big man in red had brought.

There it was. A new bike. Laid against the sofa. Metallic dark blue, with fire font on the top tube and not a stabiliser in sight. This was the big leagues now. Naturally, I ran right past it to open with the Fisher-Price Pirate Ship my parents had also got me first. The cannon fired actual plastic cannonballs. It’s still my go-to when I’m asked about the best gift I ever received.


Photo via Stuart Kenny

Two night’s sleep later, and following on from Christmas Day, and the next 24 hours spent ignoring the bike to play with what I would still argue is the best toy, and indeed the best pirate ship, ever made – the Black Pearl gets stolen too much and The Flying Dutchman is just really scary – and it was time to learn how to ride a bicycle.

This, my father quite correctly decided, would be a good laugh to get on video camera, but funnily enough, it’s one of the most vivid memories I have from that time in my childhood.

“We watch it back on Boxing Day 2018, one day short of exactly 20 years later. There’s been a whole lot of bike riding since then”

We went out to the little loop of road just outside our house, then set about learning in the traditional manner. Dad filmed. And we watch it back together on Boxing Day 2018, one day short of exactly 20 years later. There’s been a whole lot of bike riding since then.

“You didn’t want to be seen to be moaning on camera,” laughed dad. “You can kind of see your face turning into a winge at one point, but I’d turn it off then and check you were alright.”

Photo via Stuart Kenny

What this largely lead to is a fairly hilarious “fade to black” on the footage right after each time I crash. And given it was my first time, crashes were in no short supply. Dad was a good cycling teacher, though. He certainly had the credentials, given he’d cycled the entire way across Canada in the 80s. Though mum still jokes that was largely because he was too tight to pay for the bus.

I was geared out in full learner’s kit and 90s chic; kids Giro helmet in that weird shade of purple that only seems to have existed pre-2000, big puffy red jacket that confirms I was cooler as a six year old than I am now, old pair of trackies, bike. What else could you need?

“Big puffy red jacket that confirms I was cooler as a six year old than I am now, old pair of trackies, bike. What else could you need?”

It all went pretty much to plan from there. There were no disasters. There was lots of falling off though, of course. I started pretty unsurely, then got better and better, until eventually I could ride a bike. Stopping and getting off the thing was my biggest problem. I figured out pretty fast that it was easier to keep upright if you had momentum behind you, but that meant whizzing about the road pretty quickly in circles and loops, like the Steve Peat of six-year-old bicycle riders – before a kerb would appear or I would decide I wanted to stop, and just slow down, bit by bit, brake by brake, until I eventually ended up falling sideways, slowly but surely, like a cow not happy about getting tipped, but safe in the knowledge that there’s not much they can do to prevent it happening now.

My future love of mountain biking could perhaps best be predicted from the fact that after about four attempts at riding a bike, I decided to try to ride towards my dad, take one hand off the handlebars and wave to the camera, instead completely losing my balance in the process and absolutely decking myself onto the floor.

Anything for the edit clip, though, right?

Photo via Stuart Kenny

Of course, when I was asked the next day, back on the camcorder, on the safety of the old red couch in our living room, if I had crashed when I was learning to ride the new bike, I offered a convincing “no” in reply. You can hear dad giggle away behind the camera in 1998 on the television, and indeed, both of us laughing on the couch watching it back in 2018.

All’s well that ends well.

“Anything for the edit clip, though, right?”

And if there’s one thing I still have in common with that six year old in terms of cycling, it’s definitely the fact that I still crash an awful lot, and I often still hope nobody saw it happen!

It was on that same bike that I’d learn to ride on the roads, desperately try to wheelie, and discover the adrenaline and freedom that came with riding a bicycle as I raced down the hill at the top of our road without my hands on the handlebars.

Totally, like, gnarly, dude.


The day Stu busted his spleen in Slovenia and nearly died || Photo: Tristan Kennedy

It wasn’t until I went to university that I really got into mountain biking, at the University of Stirling, set in the Dumyat Hills, at the western extremity of the Ochil Hills in central Scotland. I’d ride my hybrid pretty much everywhere, so it was only natural that one day, that took me deep into the hills beyond the university campus, on a weekend morning ride.

Powering into the rolling hills, I decided, somewhat naively, to leave the tarmac go off track down a muddy trail and see how things went. Not that well, you’ll be completely surprised to know. It was extremely bumpy. I had no suspension. I was shaking about – to quote Alkaline Trio’s famous proclamation – like a dog shitting razorblades. But it was fun. I was exploring new places. Riding a bike in a completely different way. I ended up exploring for hours and and it got me eager to find out more about bikes, and in general, more about trail riding.

“Ruptured spleens and near-death experiences in the dreamy greens of Slovenia”

Before then, mountain biking had been sporadic trips into the hills, a handful of times a year on a bike not really suited for the task. Not long after this, came my first real mountain bike – a bright orange, retro Specialized Stumpjumper, which was later replaced by my first full-sus bike, a Giant Anthem, when my love of riding was confirmed as more than just a phase (alas, skydiving club and the campus radio society did not make it past the ‘phase’ period).

There’s something about the mixture of exhilaration and meditative qualities in mountain biking that got me completely hooked. And from there, it’s so easy for it to become your life. You find the community online. You find the edits and the films. You watch the downhill world cup, get your favourites – hiya Sam Hill – and discover the magazines and the culture that surrounds it all. It’s incredibly cliche, but it, y’know, becomes a lifestyle and all.

Pictured: Stu mountain biking, as an adult, in Cervinia

There was no university club, but rides in Dumyat became more regular, and turned into extremely regular trips up the Pentland Hills when I got back to Edinburgh after university. The same freedom I’d felt growing up, flying down hills no-handed became even more than that – it became a real way to get away from tech and the strains of the modern world and to properly embrace nature, in such a full and fulfilling way, while still living in the city.

Those rides became trips to Glentress and Fort William to ride, which grew into trips abroad to Meribel, ruptured spleens and near-death experiences in the dreamy greens of Slovenia, riding adventures to New Zealand and America to ride and write about riding and then eventually full circle, back to watching those original videos of my dad and miniature me, learning to ride that beautiful blue bike I was first given in 1998.

Think back about your history on a bike, from the very start to the finish, if you ever hit a riding slump. It’s an easy reminder that it’s about an awful lot more than getting from A to B.

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