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.




About swampyankeecyclist

I'm Andy Engel, just a middle-aged, middle-class guy from Roxbury, Connecticut. I've been married to my best friend since 1988, and we have two grown sons. I like riding bikes, and my biggest accomplishment is the 180K D2R2. I own 5 bikes but my go-to rides are a 2016 GT Grade gravel and commuter bike and a 2016 Specialized 650b hardtail mountain bike. Additionally, I have a 2000-something carbon-fiber Orbea road bike, a 1990-something Specialized Sirrus that's my old dirt and commuter bike and which now serves as a spare and a trainer bike, and a 1985 Ross Mount Hood MTB. All but the 650b have Brooks saddles. I work from home now, but used to commute 32 miles round trip to work by bike year round. I was a carpenter and still love building things, but regular paychecks, insurance, and vacation time lured me into journalism. I've written a couple of books on carpentry, and I've been an editor at Fine Homebuilding, Fine Woodworking, and Professional Deck Builder magazines. Currently, I manage construction events at the JLC Live and Remodeling Show trade shows. Additionally, my wife and I run Transylvania Guest House, an Airbnb. Find us on Instagram. Come stay with us and I'll show you some great cycling.
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