My year has three seasons:  hunting, cross country ski and mountain bike season.  But the more I enjoy each activity, the more I learn they are not mutually exclusive.

            Six years ago I started racing my mountain bike in NORBA (National Off-Road Bicycle Association) and EFTA (Eastern Fat Tire Association) cross country races.  I’m not very good, but fighting to stay out of last place helped me enter hunting season in shape for long walks and hard climbs.  It also helped me get permission for multiple hunting trips because I race throughout the New England area and I combine out of state races with long weekends away with my wife.  In the fall I found it much easier to say I was going to hunt bear in Maine one week and deer in New Hampshire another week after we had three summer vacations together.

            Eventually I realized that my mountain bike could help me hunt by doing more than just whipping me into shape.  So last summer instead of taking long road rides on my easy training days, I started riding slowly through the management areas that I hunt in the fall.  The mountain bike easily handled almost all the terrain and it was a great way to get through streams.  Suddenly the object of my slow rides changed from just resting for a race to searching for new places to hunt while resting for a race.  Every slow ride I zig zagged along dirt roads and narrow trails looking for transition areas, new places to put my stand and, most important, sign that deer had bedded, eaten or traveled near my route.  When I decided to scout the thick stuff it was easy to chain the bike to a tree and take off.

            I’d like to say I took a deer from one of the new spots I found, but I didn’t.  I did, however, learn that a mountain bike is not just a pre-season hunting tool.  In November it is an ideal transport to most of my stands and it will take you and your gear into thick woods farther, faster and with less scent than any other form of transportation.  In the same twenty minutes that another hunter could hike a mile into the woods, I could be two to two and a half miles from my truck with a set of wheels that might help me roll out a deer others pushed my way.  All a bike needs is solid ground and a trail or opening at least as wide as the handlebars.  If you doubt that, go on line and type “Mountain Bike Deer Hunt” into a search engine and see how many Outfitters and Lodges run summer mountain bike trips over the same terrain they hunt in the fall.

            In just one hunting season, I discovered many more advantages of a mountain bike.  The fat rubber tires cross open ground scent free.  There is no need to hike by headlamp or flashlight.  Several manufacturers make lights that clamp onto the handlebars and brightly light up a remote trail.  They are not the dim, bulky lamps that were around when I was a teenager.  Modern bike lights are designed for serious off road riding (and racing) and they use bright halogen bulbs and longer lasting batteries.

            Mountain bikes are modern beasts of burden, too.  Today it’s not uncommon to read about someone riding a bicycle cross country.  With the lightweight packs and racks, it’s easy to carry a tent, sleeping bag and enough food for a week on a bike.  Bike packs fit on the handlebars, under the cross bar, under the seat or over either wheel and they are as strong as backpacks.  Mountain bikes also have attachments for water bottles.  Most bikes carry two but some hold three bottles and there are insulated ones that will let you take cold drinks or hot soups as far as you want to go.  And your gun or bow will fit on a mountain bike with the same clamps used on ATV handlebars.

            Buying a Bike

            Today mountain bikes range in price from about $75 at the big discount stores to over $3,000 at the fancy bike shops. Fortunately the things that make bikes expensive are not the things a hunter needs.

            Frames are the biggest part of a bicycle and what they are made from will largely determine the price of the bike.  Steel frames are strong but heavy and they are used on the cheapest bikes.  Generally speaking, bikes get lighter and more expensive as the frames progress from steel to cro-moly (an alloy), to aluminum to carbon fiber.  Bike shops will tell you that the frame material is important in the transfer of energy from your foot to the chain, but unless you consistently find yourself getting to the deer stand fifteen seconds too late, you don’t need to spend an extra $200 to get a stiffer ride.

            I recommend starting your search by looking at bikes with good cro-moly or aluminum frames in the $300 to $500 range.  Manufacturers load the lower priced steel frames with the cheapest parts to keep the price low (usually for a discount store) so the bikes are noisier and more likely to develop problems.  The expensive aluminum or carbon fiber bikes are more than you need, and their fancy coatings may deter you from dragging them through the thick stuff.  After you’ve ridden a $300 to $500 bike, try some cheaper ones and some more expensive ones and see what works.  You may find everything you need for much less than $300, especially on line, but trying these mid range rides will give you an idea of what you like and some knowledge of the components that fit you best.

            Like all good hunting tools a mountain bike must fit the hunter, which means there is not one perfect bike for everybody out there.  Again, the frame is the most important part of the fit.  Better bikes come in sizes, usually ranging from about 17 to 22 inches.  This number is the frame size but not all manufacturers measure their frames the same way so not all 18 inch bikes will fit the same person.

            To see if the frame fits you, stand over the cross bar with the seat behind you.  There should be about two inches of clearance between the bar and your body, maybe a little more to account for thick clothes.

            Next, get on the seat, put one hand on a wall or a car and place your feet on the pedals.  Your leg should be slightly bent when the pedal is all the way down and you should still be able to raise or lower the seat.  Racers will tell you that tube angles are important, too.  I say test ride the bike.  If it feels good, and if it fits, it will hunt.

            To hunt best, you also have to consider pedals and shifting.  First the good news.  The best hunting pedals are the cheapest ones because competitive riders don’t want them.  Racers want clip in pedals or light weight alloy ones with cages for their shoes.  Hunters need big flat pedals they can pump with heavy boots.  If your dream ride doesn’t come with them, you’ll find them hanging up at most discount stores.

            Shifting is a little more complicated.  Today’s mountain bikes have up to 27 speeds.  They shift by inexpensive (and least reliable) thumb or index shifters, or much better grip shifts or rapid fire shifters.  Grip shifts turn on the inside of the hand grip and are the easiest to use with heavy gloves but for some reason, they are getting harder to find on mid range and expensive bikes.  The more a bike costs, the more likely it is to have rapid fire shifters, which are levers mounted at and under the handlebars.  One lever clicks the chain into a higher gear and the other drops it into a lower gear.  They work fine but they take a little practice and they are not as easy to work with gloves.  I’ve found that bike dealers will switch rapid fire with grip shifts to make a sale so try both and don’t be afraid to ask for whatever works best.

            The Down Side

            Mountain bikes are a great hunting tool but they aren’t perfect.  They can be noisy and they can smell, but with a little attention, they can still get you into the woods quieter and with less scent than your boots can.

            Bikes make most noise when they are out of tune, which usually means that something is loose.  All cables stretch, so after the first month of hard riding, shifting will get harder and noisier.  That’s why most bike shops offer a free first tune up when they sell a bike.  Once they tighten the stretched cables, the bike should be quiet again.  Of course, when you change gears the chain will move and the shifter may click.  This is easy to avoid by riding the last quarter mile in the same gear.  Just make sure it is the lowest gear you need to cover that terrain and you won’t have to shift or dismount.  If this doesn’t silence the bike, you can always push it the last quarter mile or chain it to a tree a few hundred yards from your stand.

            Bike chains need to be lubed and chain oil, like gun oil, can smell.  When I race I lube my chain every week.  When I hunt, I don’t lube it.  If you keep the chain clean, whatever lube was on it in the summer will get you through November.  If it does get too stiff, you can always hit it with a scent free gun oil.  And handlebars are nice places to hang scent pads.

            Finally, I learned the hard way what to carry beneath my seat.  In that small bag I keep a patch kit and a chain tool and I bolt a small air pump beside my water bottle.  In six years I’ve broken one chain (by trying to crank hard through a stream in a race) and I’ve gotten two flats.  Heavy duty tubes and proper tire pressure minimize that risk.

            So next year I hope to throw a deer over the cross bar and wheel it from a new area I found in July to the same old truck.  Will it happen?  Who knows.  But I’m sure my chances will be greater with the long distance scouting I’ll be doing on two wheels throughout one of my other favorite seasons.