This story originally appeared on Bike Magazine. Words by Will Ritchie. Photos by Abner Kingman.

Bikes have gotten better. That seemed to be the tirelessly repeated mantra during our respectable bike testing Bible stay in the rock-strewn trails of Marquette, Michigan. They have also become expensive. Like holy shit, is that a typo? expensive. And aside from getting more expensive, they have received updates that make everything mind-numbingly longer, lower, slacker and faster. Everything now has more taste but is less filling.

bike backcountry safety

Photo: Abner Kingman

A week ago, I watched Mike Brunet, Marquette's most prolific trail builder, approach a moss-inhabited, steep drawn-out pucker of a chunky, greasy rock roll down. Brunet had most likely built the feature and wore very visible trepidation while aligning his black carbon bicycle with 2.6-inch tires of a 29-inch diameter into the formation of approach. This was moments after he flauntingly gapped over every trail we climbed up, making a mockery of the big wooden takeoffs and long dirt landings he built. This rock had him sweating though. He exhaled, pedaled, hoisted and seamlessly—almost noiselessly, gently thudded down the rock and minefield of a run-out. He turned around and smiled from below, "Easier than the RM6 days."

It did make me think of Rocky Mountain's Pipeline video launch, starring Wade Simmons as a trail conspiracy-theorist insistent that the North Shore had become de-gnarred, only to come to the realization that bikes — or, in the case of the video, the re-released Pipeline — had become better. Simmons, like Brunet, certainly also lugged around an old RM6, too — and I still remember that 200-millimeter, 12-pound Marzocchi Monster T fork weighing down the front end while Simmons shamed technical sections in old North Shore movies. My oh my, have times changed. Enough for me to say my oh my.

I digress.

bike backcountry safety

An increasing trend of more capable bikes push riders to higher limits of control. Photo: Abner Kingman

What happens when bikes get better? We go faster. We yearn for the same sense of flirtation with peril, though it takes quite a bit more to achieve it. So we go faster. Then people die.

Nobody unfortunately knows this better than Bonnie McDonald, who lost her fiance, Will Olson, in August 2015 when he died during Stage 3 of the Enduro World Series and Big Mountain Enduro combined Crested Butte race. Olson was one of four riders who died within three weeks of each other in the summer of 2015. Now McDonald and others of Backcountry Lifeline (BCLL) provide one-day and four-day training courses for riders as well as race organizers in order to maximize the chance of survival before official help has arrived—be it on the course or in the backcountry.

While BCLL was founded in 2015 and has done an incredible job bringing awareness to this grossly overlooked shortcoming of the mountain bike community, Dr. Rob Bixler of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS) has provided similar training to its trail crews since 2012 in a no-nonsense, distilled, dire decision-based manner to those in the field, which brings me to the start of this story: in a garage.

It's a familiar garage.

bike backcountry safety

How can you tell these people ride bikes? A combined group attention span of 30 seconds. Dr. Rob Bixler explains the unavoidable basics before we head into the woods. Photo: Abner Kingman

Two huge roll-up doors pen in a camouflage 1971 M35 six-wheeler, 2.5-ton military cargo vehicle with a white drop cloth draped over its bedside. Each wheel rests chest-high on me. A mountain of duffels, food, bike gear, water jugs and equipment is being ferried out to a seasoned and resilient looking Toyota pickup bed. A man, perhaps wearing a tactical vest, perhaps not—is checking over two walkie-talkies. Work benches strewn with tools line the perimeter.

I'm in Mark Weir's Graeagle garage in Graeagle, California. WTB flew me out as part of their sponsorship of this SBTS Backountry First Aid and Safety course, something the company believes in having lived through WTB athletes Mark Weir and Marco Osborne's harrowingly close calls with death at the Novato Ranch. Weir's Graeagle garage looks a little dirtier than his Novato garage and doesn't house a full-length, 18-hole RC car course nor pumptrack out back but otherwise it's hauntingly similar. Last night we completed the "boring part" as Dr. Rob Bixler puts it, the unavoidable classroom time. In this case, our classroom was Weir's garage, our blackboard the drop cloth hanging over the six-wheeler 2.5 ton's elevated cargo hold. Now we're soon to head to a hut within the Lost Sierra, somewhere past the Lakes Basin trails that bubble over with sharp granite. Hopefully, our bags, food and Marco Osborne's burdened pickup will be waiting for us at the backcountry cabin where Dr. Bixler—or, Dr. Rob as we refer to him—is to help us practice trailside trauma scenarios.

bike backcountry safety

Real men wear gloves too. Frank Gulla practices stitching up Mark Weir with a set of 3M's Steri-Strips. Photo: Abner Kingman

Bixler's day job as department chief of Urgent Care for Sutter Medical Group allows him to oversee seven clinics and fills his thirst for the immediacy of medicine found through Urgent Care as opposed to prolonged, lifelong management. His weekend job as medical director and executive vice president for the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship puts profession to practice in a wilderness setting as he runs medical support for events like the Downieville Classic and Lost and Found gravel race while also putting in pickax time alongside fellow trail builders and planners.

This isn't an uncommon theme in Dr. Rob's world though. During his medical school days, Bixler somehow found time leading others as an Outward Bound instructor based in Colorado's remote Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, finding solace between studies amidst comically sharp peaks. Now, during winter he doubles as the rotating physician in Tahoe Backcountry and Sugar Bowl Ski Patrols. He certainly has found his balance.

bike backcountry safety

Lakes again? They don't call it the Lakes Basin for nothin'. Photo: Abner Kingman

I, on the other hand, have not found my balance. I'm now wheezing my way through reasonable elevation and unreasonable switchbacks littered with stumble rocks as we pass by enough lakes to make me wonder if I'm only just noticing the same lake again. And again. There are a lot of them. Right as this fella finds his groove again, Marco Osborne dramatically spills off his handlebars, flattening against the ground. Scenario one has begun.

bike backcountry safety

Teal Stetson-Lee, left, and Clayton Wangbichler, right, inspect their handiwork during the first riding scenario. Photo: Abner Kingman

A long ribbon of tape along Osborne's forearm signifies a severe cut so we apply pressure with gauze then use an Ace Wrap. Dr. Rob patiently and silently observes each step from a few feet away. Once we fretfully seem satisfied, though still discussing what-ifs amongst ourselves, we turn to Dr. Rob—time for our scolding—we presume.

The scolding never happens though. Dr. Rob very calmly walks us through the steps we chose, gently asking us what we were learning from our patient based on each of the answers provided. The entire group is involved, somehow there's a relaxed ease. Nobody is called out to provide an answer, as a group we walk through where we stumbled on indecision, what we were debating, those who feel like contributing are contributing. While it seems casual, it's a practiced style that Bixler takes pride in:

bike backcountry safety

Dr. Bixler focuses on discourse, always incorporating discussion and debriefing into scenarios. Photo: Abner Kingman

"There's more discourse, we spend more time just talking about stuff. Most of the learning happens because everyone has amazing stories of things that they've seen, or been through, or dealt with. It makes for a more engaging learning environment rather than me sitting in front of a PowerPoint in a classroom and talking to you, forcing you to try to memorize things," explains Dr. Rob. There seems real merit to his method. As the afternoon sun shimmers off granite slabs surrounding us and we saddle up for the final pedal to the cabin, it's pretty apparent that we are far from the typical classroom.

Read the entire story, including tips for staying safe while mountain biking in the backcountry, at BIKE Magazine.

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