I ran into an old friend on the mountain bike trails last week. Not literally. I didn’t hit him. I actually saw him in the parking lot (and kept a good 6’+ of social distance!). This friend was talking about how everyone he rides with is younger, smaller, and faster than he is, and it got me thinking.
Something like 10 years ago, I bought a mountain bike. It was a 2009 Specialized Rockhopper Comp Disc, complete with mechanical disc brakes, 26″ wheels, and 2.1″ tires. At that point, a pretty nice bike. Armed with a helmet, basketball shorts, and tennis shoes, I showed up at Franke Park with ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what I was doing. Fortuitously, I stumbled upon a couple of “old guys” getting ready to ride. Al and Rich were likely in their late fifties, possibly early sixties, and welcomed me like I was family.
I would later learn the maxim, “Don’t follow Al,” but at that point, I was thrilled (read: a little bit excited and a lot bit terrified). Now, I ride those trails and think about the times where Al would literally get off his bike and stand beside a log roll to catch me if I started to fall because I was so absolutely freaked out by going over a log. I think about the time when I tried so desperately to “keep up with the fast guys” that I rode right off a bridge and needed a “shit ton” of stitches (the doctor’s words, not mine). I remember watching in awe as Martin and Al fearlessly rode down “Speed Gorge,” a trail that, though steep, is not technical, nor long. Most of all, I think about the patience of that group of guys who invited me in, showed me the trails, didn’t mind me tagging along and attempting to keep up, and who picked me up when I fell.
10 years later, I have a USA Cycling “Pro Card” that signifies to the world (or at least to USA Cycling) that I am a pro mountain biker. Just this week, I bunny-hopped over the same log roll where Al stood tirelessly waiting to catch me as I creeped up onto it so many years ago. One of the things I love most about mountain biking is the nuance of the sport. Even as a beginner who had not even an inkling of what “flow” meant, I enjoyed riding around the trails and challenging myself. After living in Tanzania for four years, I returned to the U.S. in 2017, was talked into trying a mountain bike race, and discovered the thrill of speed on the trails. Fast forward another two years, and I was taking a skills clinic last summer and learned what it meant to “pump” and how to start to use the shape of the trails to build momentum. Mind. Blown. This spring, I’m stoked that I can finally bunny hop small logs and obstacles–and it makes me giggle with joy every.single.time.
I might be a pro, but I’m still learning and challenging myself on the trails every time I go out there, and I would be in grave error to forget my roots and the people who welcomed me into the sport or think that it is not my duty to also welcome others to the trails. We are all in this together.