Michael Cornwell doesn’t spend much time being idle, and he has the scars to prove it.
Now 70, he has devoted most of his life to pursuing whatever form of excitement comes his way. After graduating from college in 1966, he bought his first Corvette Stingray and crashed it just a few months later. So he saved up and bought another and shipped it with him on a trip to Germany, where he eventually wrecked it as well. The second accident wasn’t his fault, he contends, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to have any luck with sports cars.
Years later in the mid-90s, a friend invited him to Oak Mountain State Park in Birmingham, Ala., to accompany him on a mountain biking trip. Although Cornwell had never even rode a mountain bike at the time, he was still an outdoorsman. In fact, he had spent much of his leisure time over the past twenty years since returning from Vietnam white water kayaking. When his friend lent him his mountain bike, though, he was smitten with the sport. Almost immediately, he went out and bought one for himself.
That was 19 years, two bikes and a heck of a lot of scars ago, now.
“I have fallen; you’re going to fall if you ride,” he said, pointing to a fresh gash on his right cheek. He had earned the stripe the previous Friday while riding along “Death by Concrete,” one of Tuscaloosa’s more difficult trails, and one of Cornwell’s favorites.
“I was on that concrete skinny and I didn’t have the line and I needed to stop, but it’s got this piece of the concrete where it goes down and I said ‘I’m gonna make it,’” he recounted, grinning widely as he gestured with his hands. “I kept going and forcing [the bike] to go. There was a little tree and I kind of fell over, somehow, and hit my face.”
Don’t let that little mishap fool you, though. Cornwell has spent a lot of time biking, especially after joining the West Alabama Mountain Biking Association, based in Tuscaloosa. In recent years, Cornwell has travelled often to races and competitions in places like North Carolina and Colorado. He’s especially proud to have competed in Utah, considered by many to be the nation’s mountain biking capitol.
“I enjoy [competing] but, at my age, I’m really just riding for fun,” he said. He laughed almost incredulously as he exclaimed that “there’s nobody in my age bracket to compete with! They put me with the guys who are 65 and older, or maybe 60 and older. You know, there’s a big difference between 60 and 70.”
Although he conceded that he thinks he’s too old for speed now, he still likes to challenge himself.
“Actually, I have become… no, I am still becoming a better technical rider,” Cornwell said. “Like controlling or hitting a line like on that concrete skinny, or riding a narrow rock thing where you’ve got to stay in a certain line like on the one we’ve got down here called ‘roots of death.’ When it comes to that kind of technical riding, I’ve gotten better with age.”
He said his biking equipment has improved with the years, too. He’s especially proud of his newest bicycle that he purchased from a factory in 2011.
“I won’t tell you how much it cost, other than that it cost $600 more than my first Corvette Stingray,” he said.
Judging by the way he proudly eyed the bike, using one hand to balance it by holding the handlebars and the other to point out its features, it must have cost a pretty penny indeed. Pivot mountain bikes, a brand that Cornwell described as a “regarded manufacturer,” don’t usually come cheap, especially not when they’ve got as much stuff as his. He pointed to the front and rear shocks that provide the bike’s dual suspension, and then to its 29-inch wheels.
“For years and years the standard mountain bike only had 26 inch wheels,” he explained. As he peered down at the wheels he remembered the two scars on his right thigh.
“Oh, I forgot about these,” he said, grinning again as he lifted up the leg of his shorts. “I got these two standing still. I was straddling a bike out in Lurleen and I reached down to pick up a limb and throw it off and somehow the bike twisted and I was straddling the bar and it went over, then the pedal came back and gouged it.”
Most of his wounds he’s gotten weren’t nearly as bad as they looked, he said. So far he hasn’t broken anything. He doesn’t try any of the really dangerous stunts he’s seen in Youtube videos, like riding along the edges of fences or using the rear wheel to hop on top of cars. He described such stunts as “a different type of riding.”
When he isn’t competing, he enjoys biking with his friends at WAMBA events. One of the organization’s key objectives is to restore and maintain biking trails in Tuscaloosa. Cornwell volunteered to be trail coordinator for the organization and, now that he’s semi-retired, he spends time each week helping to clear the WAMBA trails in Munny Sokol Park and Lake Lurleen State Park.
Many of the trails are purposed for a relaxing, beginner level ride. Still, other trails like “Death by Concrete” and “Storm Loop” provide a bit more adventure.
“We still have trails where you’ve got to be constantly making sharp turns,” Cornwell said. “That teaches you how to ride well. You don’t want a bunch of open trails where you might as well be riding out on the street.”
Luckily, you don’t have to be much of a daredevil to have a good time with WAMBA, although that does seem to help.
“The rule of thumb is we don’t ask anybody to do anything they’re uncomfortable with,” said Michael Hayes, 57, who serves as beginning ride coordinator for WAMBA. “The first thing we try to do with a newbie is teach them the new trails. A lot of times we’ll start them off doing dirt trails and then we’ll build up their confidence.”
Anyone can join WAMBA for their beginner rides in Munny Sokol Park at 5:45 on Monday afternoons. Often, veteran bikers like Nate Taylor, 45, invite their friends and family to the rides. Taylor described the rides as therapeutic. When he lost his home in the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa in 2011, Taylor would convince his two sons, now 19 and 21, to take their minds off of the stress by riding with him on some of WAMBA’s more laid-back trails.
“When you’re riding you can’t think about nothing but the trail,” Taylor said. Though his voiced seemed characteristically monotone, a smile began to color his face. “If you take your mind of the trail you’ll be eating a dirt cupcake.”
Like Taylor, Cornwell has also passed the baton to his kids. With a smile on his face, he reminisced on white water kayaking with his son, now 41, and later watching as he quickly learned all of the mountain biking techniques his father enjoyed.
“He’s the younger version of his dad,” Cornwell bragged. “He’s a natural athlete, he can outride me—of course, he should.”

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