By Sal Ruibal
Nobody grows up hoping that someday they’re going to be the guy known as “The Old Coot.” I know I didn’t. But on Sunday, I’m turning 60. Anyone who doesn’t look back on their 60th birthday is probably already dead.
What really surprised me about this milestone is that I have now been riding bikes for more than 53 years. No wonder my legs hurt. The truth is, I’m probably more fit now than when I was 35 and 45. I was a hard-charging newspaper guy who had run a few marathons and 10-milers, but I worked too hard, drank and smoked too much and sweated over tens of thousands of daily newspaper deadlines.
All that changed 18 years ago when I found out that I would be covering the “new” sport of mountain biking at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games for USA TODAY. In February that year, I travelled to Phoenix for a Specialized “Super Camp” where I would learn all about the sport from some riders and coaches.
I had a lot of time on Sting-Rays and Italian ten-speeds, even some paper-boy bikes. But these bikes were something else. The tires were wide and knobby, the handlebar was straight with the gear shifter built into the handgrips. Weird.
I was introduced to the folks who would be training out motley media crew, some laid-back Colorado guy named Ned Overend and a wiry Kansas guy called Steve Tilford. Oh, and a Dutch guy named Bart Bretjens.
Steve’s wife Trudy was about the most normal person in this crew and as the soigneur and only real adult in the mix, she worked 20 hours a day. Much of that was patching us up after multiple crashes on our training rides at South Mountain Park. If you’ve never ridden the Mormon Trail or the National Trail, you’ve missed a lot of deep cuts, cactus needle skin punctures, elbow bruises and severe dehydration.
At the end of the week we actually raced in the Cactus Cup, where I met one guy I did know about, Tinker Juarez. Tinker was pretty mild-manned and is still that way. Something really weird happened during that race. All the stuff Ned was trying to show us finally came together. I felt like I was riding the course and not in oxygen debt or breaking any bones. It felt right.
And it still feels right. I think I have another 18 years left in my legs, maybe more. I weigh less now than when I first put my leg over a mountain bike at South Mountain Park. In February 2014 I’ll be the dedication recipient at 24 Hours of The Old Pueblo race in Tucson. I plan to ride a few daylight solo laps there. My night vision sucks now so I’ll just dance all night. You’re welcome to come out and ride with me and a few hundred friends.
I’ve done more 24-hour solos than team 24s, but there’s something very special about racing as a team with friends. My USA Today Mountain Bike Team buds had more fun than anyone should have on two wheels in Canaan mud and blood. My goal was to ride like a pro and party like Hugh Jass, a hippie commune disguised as a bike club hypnotized by a disco ball. And they shared the same pair of shorts, switching off every lap. Really.
I exceeded all of my competitive goals. I was 5th in Masters 45+ and on the podium at the 2002 24-hour Solo World Championships at Silver Star Resort in Canada. I “beat” my pit tent partner Tinker, who DNF’d in a midnight blizzard with hypothermia. Back in West Virginia six years later in 2008, I was the top Masters finisher at the 24 Hours of Big Bear Lake and 10th male overall.
USA Today dropped me in 2010, but being able to write for BIKE Magazine was a great rebound. BIKE is one of those iconic brands that stands for something very simple yet very powerful: two wheels, two legs and one big pounding heart.
Since 1996, mountain biking has evolved into dozens of genres and sub-cultures. The cult of cross-country had to move over to accommodate lift-served downhill runs and death-defying stunts that would make a gymnast barf. There’s fat bikes, snow bikes, 29ers, 650bs, dual suspension, no suspension, singlespeeds and even mountain unicycles.
It’s all good and I’ve been lucky to be a part of it. I’m not done yet, but the honor from the folks in Tucson gave me a good place to gain some perspective. My father died when he was 78. I hope that means I have at least 18 more years to ride my ass off. See you in The Old Pueblo.