Monday, August 3, 2015

it's not always like riding a bike

jan taking a bite out of the woods

 Demons. They’re sneaky. 

I’ve always known cycling to be the cure.  Yesterday, I learned it can be a cause.

I went mountain biking for the first time in 2 years (not on a tandem) yesterday with a good friend of mine, Jan.  When I used to live in Michigan, she and I rode together all the time.  We pushed each other to learn new skills.  Laughed when we were stumbling.  And did a few challenging races together.  In the not-too distant past, I was on the trail at least 2 days a week.  The closest trail was 15 minutes from my house.  And it was my place to let go of the day.

Since moving to Cincinnati, where there are many good trail systems, I have not accomplished one ride on the single track.

What I found out yesterday is that, yes, biking is not always just like biking… there ARE some things you forget.  And leave it to the familiarity of an old friend, combined with a new (to you) trail, to help you to learn a few new lessons.  The old friend provides confidence, and the new trail after a long haitus takes it away.

We arrived at the parking lot in the middle of a hot, windy day.  After getting food and water packed onto our bikes and in our pockets, we launched our bikes onto the dusty, hard-packed dirt trail that wound along behind a rather pungent chicken farm before it dips into the woods.  (Needless to say, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction…)  I fumbled around trying to keep my wheel in the path, cutting awkward lines, like a toddler trying to cut a smooth line in construction paper.  Jagged.  Inconsistent.  Raggedy.  My saddle was a little high, and so was my tire pressure – remnants of the last time I rode this bike, when I was running errands around town.  I fought for every inch of the short climbs, legs pushing hard against gravity, arms performing a tug-of-war with the handlebars. 

“Once in the woods”, I thought, “I’d get the groove on.”  Not so much.  We bounded around the 6 or so miles of the trail, my heart never settling down, my face and neck never relaxed.  It was the first white-knuckle ride I have had in nearly 15 years. Not since my very first ride on single track had I ever felt this unsure.

I used to be good at this.  I used to float around the trail seemingly effortlessly.  I used to never put my foot down around sharp turns or dab over roots.  I used to push myself on the descents, and challenge myself on the off-camber sections.  I used to always have balance and know exactly what my lines would be. 

This day was like I was learning to walk again.  My steps were punctuated and unsure.  My gait was uneven.  And occasionally, I fell back onto my diapered bottom, only to turn over to all fours, and slowly push myself back up again. 

Every root seemed to shift under me.  Every corner (though some were deeply rutted from other riders on the trail when it was wet) seemed like trying to carve a pumpkin with a dull knife. 

Pedal, breathe.
Turn.  Weight back.
Pedals even.  Hands loose.
Clip out!  Now!  Don’t slide down the dropoff!
Look down the trail, not at your tire.  Don’t look at your tire!


Use your body, not your hands.
Shift.  Now again.  No… too much….
Uh oh, too much weight forward on that one.  That was close. 

We stopped only once to get water and to make some decisions about trail choice in the first lap.  I was – for the first time in a long time – glad to get the mental break.  Physically, I was fine; mentally, a wreck.  I couldn’t quite get a grip on being so frustratingly bad, and on top of that, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get a grip on being so frustrated. 
a friend cures most everything.  thanks, jan.
It’s been a long time since I’ve challenged myself in this way, I realized.  This was good for me, I tried to convince myself.  That was a hard sell. 

When we finished the last part of the trail, we commiserated over some more water and Gu, at the decision point between going back out for more and going back through the chicken farm to the parking lot.

We decided we needed a little more riding.  And I thought that I was good with that.  I was just starting to warm up to the trail again, and wanted to leave a better taste in my mouth.

So we head out again.  This time, several faster riders had joined the trails and were behind us.  Several times in the first few minutes of lap 2 my “thinking” (such as it was) was interrupted with “on your left,” which forced me off the trail a few times, further interrupting any kind of flow I was slowly building.

It rattled me.  I flashed back to my first race, a 12 hr mountain bike race and a lap I did at night.  I had been covered in mud and sweat and pretty much done with the whole thing, but it was my turn to go out again.  Now it’s pitch black in the woods, with nothing but my headlamp to guide me.  Racers with much more experience and a lot of swagger passed me by, nearly knocking me off the path.  Several times, I had to stop riding completely.  A few times that night, I swore I’d never get back on that bike. 

And yet, I did.  Many times after that. 

But today, you would have never known that.  There I was, a beginner again.  As we rounded our second lap, I was feeling slightly more relaxed and confident.  Only slightly more able to stop my mind from taking hold of every move I made.  Only slightly able to breathe normally, or relax my hands and neck.  Only a slight moment of the joy I remember, toward the end, on a rolling section that seemed to naturally put me back in balance.  I think I may have even smiled a little.

Just the day before, a dear friend of mine, Allison, who always finds new things to learn (e.g., sign language, violin, crochet, running, martial arts, etc.), explained her interest in learning how to play the violin at 50 years old.  She said, “I think you have to know what it’s like to be bad at something once in a while.”  She said she hates practicing when anyone is within earshot.  She hates listening to herself play.  A trained musician, her sense of what it ought to sound like doesn’t quite match up to how it actually sounds. She’s understandably frustrated by that.  But she gets it.  And continues to practice. 

Little did I know what a profound story that would be going in to my seemingly innocent attempt to get some time in the woods with Jan and some bikes. 

My vision, and inner memory of what it was like to ride singletrack, was faint, at best.  Like Allison’s violin playing, what I had imagined in my head,  isn’t what came out on the trail.

Riding a bike isn’t always like riding a bike.

And I hate sucking at it.
And I need practice.
Demons, be gone!

Anyone wanna ride? 

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