Over the past year I learned as much about myself as about riding bikes through the woods. For the first time, an injury kept me off the bike for months. That led me to ask just what the hell a 55 year old man was doing trying to learn to mountain-bike. My real worry was this question: Was I trying to deny middle age by hanging out with the cool mountain-bike crowd? Or was it something else, something of my own?

My answer isn’t profound. Yeah, I like the guys and gals I ride with. But their camaraderie and approval isn’t what I’m chasing. What I’m chasing is the rush of whatever feel-good hormones riding floods my body with. I’m a hormone whore. That, to me, is worth paying a certain price in blood and sweat for.

Two and a half months off the bike made me a better cyclist. With my cycling fix limited to watching videos and Jonesing about my riding, I became more contemplative. I realized that starting out, I had only a vague idea of where the edge of my abilities lay. Clearly, there was plenty of room for growth, which meant that the edge was a moving target. But no matter where on the skills continuum my edge fell, this fact remained: On one side of the edge was safety. On the other side was debilitating injury. To learn, you have to push against the edge. The trick is to push the edge without crossing it, but I think you only truly know where it is after crossing it. I crossed it. Most mountain bikers I know have crossed it.

Over those two and a half months this summer, it became clear that the lesson wasn’t to stop pushing the edge. The lesson was distinguishing between pushing it and being reckless. I learned to say, “Not today,” when I wasn’t feeling it. I learned to take satisfaction in incremental growth, and realized that the only measure of that growth is my own past. When I clean that troublesome, rocky, slow-speed turn that always stymied me, I think, “Cool.” Zipping through a rooty section where I’ve endoed in the past makes me happy. Leaning the bike left and right underneath me as I speed through turns that scared me a year ago is its own reward.

And that is what I learned this year.





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Relating to the Real World

I’m not a particularly skilled mountain biker, but I’m far better than I was 6 months ago. For this to happen, something changed inside my head which I’ve only recently articulated. Before, I’d ride down a trail and see rocks. Now, usually, I see the line that will take me through the rocks.

I’m seeing solutions, not problems.

Something worth trying outside of the woods, I think.

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Keeping Honest

I rode Waldo two nights ago, a fast tangle of singletrack loops where almost any rider can have fun. Last night, Chris, Korey, and I rode what we call the River Road Preserve, an out and back with one loop in the middle. A couple of miles in, the mellow hiking trail and old rail bed give way to steep, abandoned wood roads dotted with moss-covered rocks, multiple stream crossings, and tight, twisty singletrack cut through laurel groves. It’s a place where not many people ride, or even hike.

Last night, we set out in a cold drizzle. Nothing that would muddy the trails, but definitely something that would lubricate the rocks and logs. In the parking lot, the pre-ride talk was something like this:

“Are we crazy?”


“So we’re riding?”

No one said no.

It was hard, and slithery; wet and cold. Toward the end of the ride, Korey said, “You have to ride here every so often to keep yourself honest. You ride Waldo one too many times…”


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Slow is Hard

After 15 or so years as a roadie, last October I went for my first mountain bike ride in decades. My purpose for that ride was simply that I thought mountain biking would improve my bike handling skills to help me suck less when riding with the A-group that I’d somehow appended myself to on Thursday night gravel grinders. Over the bars I went within the first half mile. That wasn’t unexpected. I landed well, rolling across the forest floor like a woolly bear. I picked myself up and got back on the bike. That might have been a clue – I didn’t really mind the endo. In fact, it was kind of cool to get it out of the way and to keep going.

The ride was eye-opening. Chris was riding up stuff that seemed impossible. He talked about another guy, Korey, who rode up stuff that to Chris seemed impossible. Me? I rode what I could, walked what I couldn’t, and actually got over some obstacles I’d have never tried if Chris hadn’t made them look de rigeur. In the parking lot after the ride, Chris broke out the home brew. We sat around in the camp chairs he’d brought, hanging out for another half an hour and catching up. Chris and I went out more times over that fall, riding different venues. I started riding with some other people as well. I was hooked.

The abridged version is that, nearly a year later, I’ve bought a new mountain bike, bruised myself into all the colors of the visible spectrum, scraped off more than a few square inches of skin, and I think, broken one carpal bone. I’ve had a few beers, and some great, great times. And I’m a far better mountain biker than I’d ever imagined being, although far from what deserves to be called good. In the last couple of months I’ve been getting through and over technical sections I’d never imagined were rideable. Largely, that’s because I’ve learned two things: Look to where you’re going to be in about 2 seconds, and hit stuff faster than feels strictly safe.

And that brings me to last night, when,  about 15 minutes into the ride, I ran into John, a friend I’d never ridden with. He’s probably ten years older than me, and he was riding with two other guys of similar vintage. Between them, they’d been riding for something like 120 years. They invited me to join them, so I turned around and followed them up the hill I’d just come down. That’s when I realized how much trouble I was in. They were slow; slow enough that I was having a hard time keeping my bike on the trail while climbing. Where I’d come to rely on momentum to get me through the technical sections, they relied on finesse. Riding with them, I was putting a foot down every couple of minutes, walking up steeps I’ve been cleaning, and even descending sharply on the top bar after jamming the front wheel into a root it normally would have rolled.

It was humbling. Clearly, the progress I’ve made as a mountain biker came from taking what was to me the easy way. I don’t like being a beginner – I want to get out there and do it, whatever it is. I lack the patience to practice things. Throughout life, I’ve found workarounds that got me to where I needed to be, and mountain biking is no exception. Last night, I realized that unless I take the time to work on fundamentals, I’m never going to be as good a rider as as these veterans.



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Indian Trail Opus

Indian Trail is a local icon. It’s dirt, and twisty, and steep. When you realize it’s part of a route, you to take a deep breath and look inward.

I climbed Indian Trail last night, with five other cyclists. But hard hills are not group experiences.  You can talk about the climb among yourselves later – And cyclists always do – but no one else gets you up a hard hill. Even the lanterne rouge gets kudos.

Climbing hard hills comes down to a combination of what’s in your head and what’s in your legs and your heart and your  core. There is no we. There is only mustering yourself over that 30% bump and recovering on the 15% bit that precedes the next 30% bump. There is only gauging how far you can push the burn in your thighs and across your lower back and weighing that against your expectations and your knowledge of the climb remaining.

I love that. It’s where I measure myself against myself. It’s work – Not in the productive sense of accomplishing a necessary task, but it satisfies the same part of me that likes digging holes and mixing concrete and turning a tree into firewood. The next day’s soreness is a pleasant reminder of accomplishment.

It’s a big part of why I ride bikes.


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Mind Over Mind

I had a great ride yesterday, and dreamed about mountain biking last night. The night after a good mountain biking session, I frequently dream of riding. I don’t remember any other activity having this effect. Why this is I don’t know for sure, but I can theorize.

Mountain biking engages both brain and body, and the less you have to think about connecting the two the faster you’ll react to changing terrain and the better you’ll be at riding. That takes either natural ability, or for those of us lacking that, mental training. The decisions and efforts link closely to the rewards. For example, I struggle with short steeps. A roadie by tradition, I see a steep, gear down, and sit up like I was riding a hill on a road. My front wheel comes up, and I lose steering and am forced into an awkward dismount only as far up the steep as momentum would take me. I was starting to accept that I couldn’t ride these, a self-fulfilling mind-set. From watching other riders and from my own corporal feedback, I knew intellectually that I had to gear up, throw my weight forward, and just attack.  Yesterday, I decided consciously to do what I had to do. And guess what? Boom! I was up every short steep I approached that way, creating a positive feedback loop by filling my brain with the feel-good hormones that reward jobs well done. To become a permanently better rider, that knowledge needs to get into my reptilian brain and make the actions instinctual.

Likewise with the idea of looking ahead not one, but two obstacles in situations such as rock gardens, drops, skinnies, and switchbacks. I’ve been halfway there for a while, noting an obstacle, plotting a route, and looking past. What I wasn’t doing, what I still need to work on, is not only looking past the obstacle, but also seeing past the obstacle; that is, registering what’s beyond and actively planning the next move. Thinking ahead shunts the immediate threat to some automatic part of the brain, that like a good subordinate, just handles your shit for you if you let it. I was doing that more and more on yesterday’s ride, and more and more successfully cleaning the trail. Not always, but better than in the past.

If, as I’ve read, dreams are a way the mind reconciles events with inputs, then it’s no surprise I dreamed about mountain biking. I think it’s a positive, a way my brain is reinforcing the lessons of the day in search of more of those addicting, feel-good hormones. I suppose it’s also why I write on the topic, a way to relive the moment and drive home the lesson.

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What’s the Hurry?

I got into an argument with a friend on Facebook about cyclists using the road. This particular fellow is a good guy, someone I’ve known for years, someone who’d help me if I needed it. Hell, he’d help you if you needed it and you don’t even know him. But he hates sharing the road with cyclists and nothing I say changes that. Every few months we get into it, and each time I eventually stop following the thread and walk away because all participating is doing is pissing me off and I don’t want to be pissed off.

This time though, it occurred to me to ask a bigger question: Why is everyone in such a hurry? In the larger context of your life, losing a few seconds to a cyclist isn’t a big deal. And it’s not just cyclists who annoy – It’s other drivers too. It’s traffic in general. It’s pedestrians crossing the street at anything less than a sprint. It’s horses. It’s farm equipment. It’s construction equipment.

But wait – There’s a common theme here. This anger only happens to us while driving. What is it about getting behind a wheel that changes how we interact with others?

There’s a lot going on. First, when we drive, we have an expectation of speed. We imagine we’ll reach our destination in the shortest possible time. We don’t allow for any interruptions, and any that occur put us behind our self-imposed schedules. Also, driving depersonalizes our interactions. Isolated in a steel and glass box, with the AC going and Shania Twain on the Bluetooth, the other people we encounter aren’t real in the same way they’d be if we met them on a sidewalk. And maybe there’s something visceral and atavistic going on as well. A car or a truck is a powerful thing, on one level equivalent to a weapon. We feel invulnerable behind the wheel, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, and it frustrates us not to be able to wield that power. And finally, I think we’re all just trying to cram too much into our lives. My parents weren’t this busy.

I’m not writing from any position of moral superiority. I’ve felt these emotions myself. I’ve been an asshole behind the wheel. Maybe it’s maturity (Finally!), or maybe it’s the perspective gained from being a cyclist, but in the past few years, I’ve tried to be more mindful of these issues while driving. I leave a little early. I extend courtesies to other drivers, to cyclists, pedestrians, and equestrians. I count the seconds it takes to pass a bike or a horse, and it’s rarely more than 30 of those precious little clock-ticks.

I mostly drive the speed limit, especially on local roads.  Driving the speed limit to work in the morning, I’ll stack half a dozen cars up behind me. I used to feel pressure to speed up and please those tailgating drivers, but I’ve lost sympathy. The people who live along the roads I drive have kids and pets and driveways they back out of. They deserve my respect and care at least as much as the seething driver behind me who is rushing his way to work because he stayed up late and couldn’t drag his ass out of bed ten minutes earlier.

An unexpected benefit of driving the speed limit is that I rarely end up stuck behind a slower driver – The road in front of me is my own.

That feels pretty damn nice.

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