Saturday morning it struck me.
It was time to pull out the mountain bike.
First, to locate it. Deep in the bowels of my in-laws basement we went to resurrect my mountain bike from the dead. There it hung upon a hook in the corner by the furnace. We pulled it down from its upside down grave and assessed the damage:
Flat front tire, cables worn and dear god did are those toe cages? You’ve gone soft on me. I believe you were lasted used for commuting in the city by my sister in law. It’s time to return you to your roots. Forget pavement, I’m talking trails.
From husband I demanded:
Shorter stem, mountain bike pedals, tighten the cables, get rid of that seat and go through the gears. Get it ready, I’m riding it in a few hours.
My bike waits in the foyer. It is ready to ride. I am almost giddy with the anticipation of feeling the cold air on a ride. The day was overcast and brisk, 43 degrees with a biting northwest wind. Pull out the tights, the gloves and head over to forest preserve for some rugged horse trails, grassy paths, crushed gravel and if you’re lucky a hidden piece of single track that slices through the woods.
Chris tells me to ride the bike around the parking lot of the preserve to be sure the bike fits and it works. I hop on, ride about two feet, it pedals, it whirs, yeah yeah yeah it’s fine. Put away your goniometer I’m going for a ride. I can see the envy in his eyes. Chris loves mountain biking. Actually he loves the fall for all of its unstructured and do as you wish glory. But not this year. Poor guy is training for Clearwater.
Would someone please put these Clearwater people out of their misery already? Could you imagine hitting watts right now or sending yourself off on a pool interval? Misery. Especially when you are surrounded by seasonal cues shouting at you to eat a cider doughnut, drink some hot cocoa, have a piece of pumpkin pie. Torture, I tell you. Set them free already. The fall is for trail running, mountain biking, eating 20 fun size candy bars because how can something that comes in a fun size count as any calories..?
It’s been too long, oh mountain bike. Years ago in an effort to teach me how to ride like a real cyclist and not a triathlete Chris threw me into all things cycling. You will do criteriums, you will do cyclocross, you will ride in the small ring at 100 rpms on your road bike and like it or not you will learn to mountain bike.
I did it all – or I at least tried. But when it came to mountain biking I shed more than a few tears. I believe my indoctrination into mountain bike racing was up north at Kettle Moraine. Kettle Moraine is a series of trails in Wisconsin worthy of bringing the mountain bike and dropping down into the granny gear. Glaciers came, glaciers went, retreating back while carving out the kettles and the moraines in this area. Add to that the outwash left gravely and deposited throughout the trails and you’ve got one crazy little mountain biking scene.
I remember the race – it was 20 miles or 2 blue loops. I thought to myself pfft…how long could this take? That’s less than an hour on a road bike. Overconfidence in a situation like this is a protective mechanism. It’s really just ignorance enveloped by the fog of the unknown. That which you do not know you cannot worry about. Actually you cannot cry about. Until you are about 3 miles into the trail.
I had no idea what I was in for and still to this day have no idea how I made it through. Rocks, logs, roots, steep inclines, even steeper declines and what the hell was with the mile of sand!?! I might have walked half of it. After making it through once I had to go around…again? It took me over 2 hours. But I didn’t come in last place.
Somewhere behind me was probably another young girl talked into this madness by her boyfriend.
But I liked it. I felt alive. The cold air rushes into you and soon you are sweaty climbing over hills and jumping logs. Not only that but you learn to handle your bike like a mofo. You descend a blind curve into sand and you figure out where you put your weight and how to turn. You don’t need a set of cones to keep you from crossing the center line. If you cross the line of the path you will end up in a ravine or running yourself straight into a hickory thus jamming a branch into your derailleur.
This may or may not have happened to me.
Today in this preserve there is a small section of single track and I want to ride it 100 times. At first I am scared of falling but then I remember the rules of mountain biking: the faster you go over the obstacles the less likely you are to slide out, get stuck or crash. Bomb the descents. Spin like a motor. And if you do happen to crash you get scars.
And like Chris told me a hundred times, chicks dig scars.
I remember how to jump logs and then I start jumping for no reason at all. I’m on dirt, woodchips and finally a horse trail. Deep ruts have filled with thick mud that is now flying into my mouth. I’m grinding away like I’m stuck in cold chocolate pudding when I get a giant splash of water on both feet. Another splash to my rear. I’m sweaty and soaking wet.
Hot damn I missed this!
Next up I decide to ride up the big hill that climbs up to 980 feet above sea level. Around here that is a big hill. I climb to the halfway point when I remember that I have a granny gear. Might as well take advantage of it. I shift down and realize that I have now dropped my chain. It was safe to say that my granny gear disabled itself while hanging upside down in the basement.
You know that point where you find yourself spinning around at 120 rpms, standing straight up on a hill going nowhere when you realize oh shit I dropped my chain which means that I’m really spinning in air and I am going to fall over and crash any minute now…CLIP OUT! CLIP OUT! CLIP OUT!
Clipped back in, I get up the hill, spin around at the top. From here you can see clear out to the Chicago skyline over 30 miles away. It’s quite a spectacular view especially in the fall. Soon enough I head back down the hill and enjoy the fast ride down. It strikes me that I probably should engage the brakes.
But that’s what mountain biking does to you. You find yourself maneuvering around obstacles, through mud, riding over bumps and holes that would literally swallow you whole on a road bike. You don’t know how you’re doing it but you want to go faster. You realize you’re flying around the path with wicked confidence, you’re fearless, you’re hungry for the next challenge because to ride your mountain bike on a flat path or safe pavement is…a waste of time. Possibly a sin. Not worthy of having three rings on your bike.
I’m riding the perimeter of the hill now. The wind is taking a bite of me and my wet feet are getting cold. But then it hits me: I feel alive. I do believe this was the ride that woke me from the workout dead. And it’s been a long time there. Been comatose from too much triathlon. Lately I feel like I’ve done all this stuff and it’s great but really what is the point. Is it fitness? Is it personal achievement? Is it weight management? I have no answer but I remember now that there are other things out there. I don’t need to just swim, bike and run. There are dozens of other ways I can move my body and stay fit. Hiking. Strength training. I need me a kayak because I want to do some rowing. I don’t care if I fall into the river. I’ll call it a brick workout; paddle/swim. I even found myself longing for a little stair climbing. Just to mix it up. Keep it interesting.
Somewhere out there I lost an hour. Or that’s what I think it was. There’s something about mountain biking that is distracting – in a good way. You lose track of time, effort or pain. It becomes all about spinning the pedals to get up, over and around obstacles. You might be riding 4 mph or 20 mph. It doesn’t really matter. That’s not the point, just ride.
Exhausted from riding into the wind, rolling over chunky rocks and eating mud. Not only that but the gears kept ghost shifting. That one gear I wanted? Every time I went to it the bike would automatically shift between the one above it and the one below it. I thought this was a manual model?
I rolled back up to the car. A few minutes later Chris returned from his poor-thing-had-to-do-intervals-run.
So how did the bike ride?
Like a dream really. Nevermind that the one gear I wanted was the one gear it wouldn’t go into. Nevermind that I have no granny gear. Nevermind that the suspension is so squishy right now that I feel like my ears will pop when I come back down over a bump. It rode, honestly, like a dream because I was mountain biking.
Before I started the ride I’m pretty sure I was thinking about something. My head was full of a boatload of thoughts and worries. Somewhere they flew out along the trail at 100 rpms. I still don’t remember what I was thinking about. But I know what I’m thinking right now: when is the next time to ride. And when can I start riding at night. It’s time to bring back the Nightie Night ride. Let me know if you want to join me for this ride. You need a mountain bike, a headlamp and you might want to pack a balaclava. I don’t know how far we’ll ride but I do know that when we get tired or too cold we’ll head home.
And to add an element of danger and mystery to this ride, deer management season has just begun. If you hear buckshot that means we pedal like hell.
Consider it an “interval”.