Monday, October 27, 2014

The Shortest Ride

Ah, mountain biking. When I think of the activity in a theoretical sense or when watching someone else ride the trails, it seems exquisite. I like the idea of working hard to get over a pass or maneuvering around, through or over obstacles. There's something about it that makes me smile, that causes me to believe that those who are able to get through the toughest of courses are truly remarkable human beings. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the giant, unrelenting cloud that hangs over me when it comes to mountain biking. Surely, only the smoothest, toughest and most athletic are able to achieve success on a mountain bike.
*Image found here
Or, perhaps it's merely that I've built mountain biking over the years into a task that seems to scare the bejeezus out of me.

But, let me first go back a bit.

I grew up riding mountain bikes. After my first tricycle and banana seat bike (with training wheels of course), I was on to mountain bikes. I don't think I owned a road bike until well into adulthood. Mountain bikes were simply the only option, unless a person was into BMX bikes, and I was not.

I rode my bicycle, like most pre-teens, to get around town when my parents weren't willing or weren't available to drag me to whatever location was of interest that day. I rode my mountain bike frequently over paved roads, dirt roads, and wherever I needed to travel.

I honestly don't ever remember being afraid to pedal anywhere I needed to go. In fact, I looked forward to going over obstacles and would often seek them out. Tree branches, rocks, giant puddles of mud/water - I loved it all.

Something happened between that care-free time in my youth and what I'll loosely refer to as today (which actually encompasses the last decade). What was once a fun, exciting, practical means of travel or fun became a thing of fear and dread. I wish I knew where it all turned or that I could point to a specific moment and know that it was where everything changed.

But, I can't. I don't know why or how the fear came about, but one day I simply became aware that mountain biking is scary. It became a daredevil activity in which I was no longer allowed to participate.

A few years ago, poor Sam attempted to get me started on it again, knowing full well that I am the biggest scaredy-cat when it comes to mountain bikes. That ride didn't go well. So unwell in fact that I didn't touch a mountain bike again for a very long time.

As Sam has participated in mountain bike races over the summer, it's caused me to take another look at mountain biking. Not because I want to do races, but because everyone I see actually seems to have a good time. They don't look scared out of their minds and they don't seem to be death-gripping the handlebars like yours truly. I wanted desperately to be able to find that joy and not be completely terrified of even the simplest of dirt trails.

Not to mention, I'd love to understand where the breakdown happens between riding paved roads and riding unpaved trails in my mind.
*Image from Santa Cruz
Several months ago, as Sam and I were wandering around a bike shop, I pointed to a Santa Cruz Nomad that stood brightly at the front of the store (If you follow that link, be prepared to gulp if you haven't priced above-base mountain bikes any time in the recent past). "If you buy me that bike, I'll go mountain biking with you," I snickered with far too much delight.

I knew full well that there was no way on this earth Sam was going to buy that bike. For starters, the bike as built was just shy of $7k. Really. It's an easy way to get out of something when you know there's no money for that sort of thing - particularly knowing that I may very well never touch the darn bike at all. He replied that if he could, he would, if it would get me out, which made me feel worse for suggesting it - even as a joke.

But, the more I wandered past mountain bikes in shops, the more I pondered the idea of actually using one for something other than riding up and down a paved road. The Bridgestone from the 90s I had was really too big to be used for such activities, so if I wanted to test things, I'd either need to ride Sam's bike (which is an option, but we set our bikes up very differently, and I'd hate to mess with his ride too much), or I'd have to get my own.

I looked, on occasion, through Craigslist and eBay, wondering if there was a good deal on something that would fit, but I couldn't justify spending even a few hundred dollars knowing that it could very well just end up gathering dust (and not from riding somewhere dirty).  I pretty much let the whole thing go, figuring that I get plenty of other types of riding in and I didn't feel like cluttering my head with such things for the time being.

Then one day, several weeks later, Sam arrived home from work with a mountain bike on the back of the car. Argh. Not sure if this was a good thing or not, Sam informed me that there was no need for panic as the bike was $50 from someone just trying to get rid of it, so he figured if nothing else, it would be worth testing out.

The tires were pumped up a bit and I stood over the bike in front of the house as though I was going to die if I started to pedal. As I stood there, I pondered actually taking off up the hill in front of me, but just couldn't get myself to move. I played with the brakes, pretending to test them, and a few minutes later threw my leg back over and started walking the bike back to the bike area.

Sam looked disappointed. I know he wanted me to ride the bike, but the fear running through me was more than I could handle. My insides were shaking and my heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest. "I promise I'll ride it soon," I said, only half believing it myself. "I just need to take it slowly."

Slow definitely didn't begin to describe it. I pretty much ignored the bike entirely. Then, one day, without warning or much thought at all, I decided that I should at least take the mountain bike around the block to see if it even fit properly. I took it from its spot in the holding area and pedaled around the block. The saddle was low, so I raised it up. Then, I pedaled around some more. I rode about 6 miles that day just testing the bike on paved roads.

That didn't seem so bad, I thought to myself. Of course, I knew very well that the problem was not paved roads, but rather dirt, rock and other off-road type rides.

I ended up on a dirt path accidentally on a ride with the Hillborne one day several weeks ago, which seemed to provide my brain a bit of peace with the idea of using a mountain bike on a dirt trail. If I just start slow, it won't be a problem, I told myself. I really had been trying to work my way up to even getting on the bike anywhere that wasn't paved.

As crazy as it sounds, as soon as I get near an off-road path I immediately tense up and fear takes over. I can ride dirt roads on the Hillborne because I'm comfortable with how it handles and the way it rides, but beyond that, the thought just overwhelms me. The biggest problem is that there are limits to what I can handle with the Hillborne because it is so large.
And then one day, it happened. I woke up and thought that I needed to take the mountain bike to an easy trail and just ride. I tried not to think about it too much and as the day got started, I went about preparing as though everything was normal.

As I got closer to the trail head, my heart was pounding so loudly. I was fairly convinced at this point that I wasn't going to ride the trail at all. I did a quick riding loop around the parking lot and then seriously pondered turning around and going home.

But, I didn't. Instead, I opened the gate, drug the bike through, stood over the bike and took a deep breath.

I understand completely that this all sounds insane. For someone who rides her bikes a lot, it must seem so absurd that I'd have so much anxiety about a simple dirt trail, but as I stated close to the start, there are some demons I'm dealing with when it comes to any form of mountain biking - even a silly, technically very easy, dirt trail with little climbing.

I stood on the other side of the gate for a few minutes. My brain was saying, Go back, GO BACK! You don't need to do this. My body seemed to agree as my hands were noticeably shaking. My heart was pounding so loudly I thought it might actually come out of my chest. I fought every instinct in that moment and started to pedal forward.
I had a ridiculously tight grip on the handlebars and told myself to just breathe and relax. Easy for you to say. I can't help but have fights in my own head, at times.

I pedaled for what felt like an absolute eternity (which turned out to be only a mile), at which point I stopped and got off the bike. Ahead of me were two riders on horses and I had the option to keep going and figure out how to pass them on the trail, or turn around and head back. I decided in that moment that I hadn't fallen over yet, nothing bad had happened, and I needed to keep this first ride positive, so I turned around and headed back.

As I returned to the start of the trail, I heard someone behind me say with heavy breath, "On your left." I suddenly heard the pounding of running shoes on the ground and realized that a runner was passing me. How embarrassing! Seriously, I was pedaling so slow that a runner was able to easily stride past me. I couldn't help but laugh to myself at the ridiculousness of the situation.
I noticed on the short ride back though that I was far less cautious with my riding. I was starting to loosen the death grip on the bars, and I even purposefully went over a few areas that I would normally avoid or would get off the bike to walk over.

As short as the ride was (just over 2 miles of trail), I could feel that there was a bit of confidence gained in just that short distance. I'm not ready to set off on the rockiest of terrain nor am I prepared to say that I am entirely comfortable on a mountain bike trail - even an easy one like this, but I think with some repetition and increases in distance, I can overcome some of the fear that seems to have taken over this aspect of riding for me.

The bike Sam got for me is on the large side, which hasn't resolved some of the issues with having a bike that's too large (it's a bit long in reach and the standover is a tad scary, so sudden stops are a bit precarious - which I do realize probably isn't helping the fear factor), but it handles like a tank, which for me, is a wonderful quality because I don't worry as much about holes or smaller obstacles on a trail. I'm sure I'll regret that characteristic when climbing becomes more serious.

Ultimately, it's a great feeling to have gone out and at least tried to conquer something I fear so much - particularly doing it on my own. When I look at the photos of the trail, I have to wonder what it is I am so terrified of with off-road paths, but when actually riding them the fear comes and simply takes over. Being able to overcome a bit of it is definitely confidence-inspiring though, and I was reminded that while there are few things that scare me as much as mountain biking, it is important to face my fears and attempt to overcome them.

I find it hard to believe that a two-mile bicycle ride (can I even call that a ride?) could cause such a shift in my mind, but I do think it has helped to remind myself that I don't have to do anything I am uncomfortable with riding. Perhaps one day I'll feel confident enough to head to the actual mountains rather than the foothills, but for now, I'm happy to take things slow and see where it goes.

With cooler temperatures setting in and snow likely on the way, I don't know how frequently I'll be able to ride before trails become too intimidating for me. However, I look forward to trying again soon and I know that we have enough sunny days even in winter that I may just be able to get this demon conquered before spring hits again. Maybe.


  1. Hurray!

    Welcome to the dark side!

    1. :O) Hopefully, I'll continue to have good experiences.

    2. Baby steps!

      My first real MTB ride was Evergreen Mountain in Alderfer/Three Sisters Open Space. I had no helmet, cargo pants, and I bent my derailer hanger. But I was hooked. It took a long time before I would consider riding harder stuff. I was certain I would kill myself. But look at me now! I ride clipless and fall all the time. We're made of stiffer materials than we realize most of the time.

      And if you stick to the trails in the plains they're usually pretty mellow. Make sure you go to Valmont Bike Park sometime too!

    3. Yes, definitely baby steps. I felt ridiculous only riding 2 miles, but I have to overcome the mental hangups in order to move forward, so the fact that it had gone relatively well - I had to just stop and remind myself that it was a positive experience and there will be time for falling over and what not later.

      Valmont is definitely a spot to check out as well.

  2. I have gone all terrain on a '94 GT Telera mountain bike. It was great but I personally won't try riding more complicated trails for the hard core M Bikers as I'm too old and stiff. I've had two feedbacks from mountain bikers. First, you will fall. Two, unless experienced, don't ride when it's wet [wet leaves, roots and mud is slippery]. My bike mechanic doesn't recommend going clipless in case you have to bail.

    1. I think that seems like sound advice. I know some people around here really love to go up into the mountains when it's wet, but I think for me particularly, I need to find a comfort level before even considering such things. Since every little thing seems to freak me out, I'm willing to wait for dry conditions (though we've had a lovely fall this year and haven't seen much moisture yet).

  3. As you may know, my best advice is to walk when you need to. It's something I forgot over the years, if it's too tough, no matter your level, you can always hike-a-bike. I find that I get in many more odd situations when i'm clipped in (falling), so staying with platforms is certainly the right choice for a beginner, and I have seen ton's of pretty awesome riders that still roll platforms!

    1. Yes, but that would mean I'd walk the entire course! :O) I think I'll get there - eventually - just need to take it slow to start.

  4. Wonderful and fantastic!
    It made me think of a couple of my very first non-paved rides :)

    As a first-year took me several (very cautious) rides on wetter trails before I established any sort of comfort level. With either mountain bike I ride, which is something I don't necessarily see as something anyone "needs" to do. I'm only doing it because I'm doing a time trial event in April (and that can be almost anything weather-wise...last year it was wet I think.)

    I'm still on flats. I like ones with good pins and I found some shoes that are flat that have hexagonal-shaped forms on the soles. Find shoes that will grip pedals good-you may still experience some foot-bouncing off the pedal moments. Pins will poke you if you slip and slam your pedal into your shin...I've lived with it ;)
    I may experiment with clipless next year, but at this time I like the security of being able to put a foot down without unclipping.

    When in doubt-like Sam said, hike-a-bike. There are still times where I either have to walk or re-do because I slipped up. No biggie! Everyone starts somewhere, that's been said to me a lot. Seasoned mtb riders saying "We've all been there."

    The fact you went out on your own...that's awesome :) Just awesome!

    1. Funny that you bring up the pedal situation... I failed to include it in the story above, but there actually was a moment (surprising, as short as the ride was - it's hard to believe anything could happen) with the shoe/pedal situation. They're actually pretty wide pedals that have pins in them, but in my excitement of not being as terrified as I had been, I went over a pretty hard bump and my foot went flying off the pedal (which of course did scare me as I couldn't get back on the pedal quick enough to pedal). I think I just need shoes that grip the pedals a little better for that sort of terrain. All little lessons along the way. :O)

  5. Good for you! I have enough of my own wholly irrational fears that I would never begin to judge someone else's. Good luck as you venture farther in on dirt trails and more challenging rides.

    1. Thanks, Kendra. I really despise having irrational fears. I'm hoping this is the start of breaking through these mental blocks that seem to have developed over the years.


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