By Sal Ruibal
I realized this morning that I have been riding bikes for about 52 years. Kinda scary, huh? I can remember barely being able to pedal my brothers’ (we shared stuff) red Schwinn 24-incher with my crotch on the top tube and my toes barely touching the black-rubber pedals. Riding around the block was like winning the frickin’ Tour de France, had we known about the Tour.
Not much later I got a Sting-Ray 20-incher and thought I was a bad-ass mofo. Until one day after school and in front of all the guys at Smitty’s gas station, I popped a wheelie and my front wheel shot off into space. What followed was the longest five seconds of my life.
I’ve had other five-seconds-before-impact moments on the bike, but that one scarred me for life. I lost more than some elbow skin and lots of pride: I lost my wheelie mojo.
Since then, I’ve ridden bikes from Death Valley to the highest climbs of the Tour de France. I rode from Telluride to Durango on the Colorado Trail. I rode in chilly Colorado rain the day my Dad died. I rode around the Eiffel Tower and down the steps of the U.S. Capitol. I rode with a U.S. President at his Texas White House and with the biggest doper to ever turn a pedal at several places around the world.
But I never popped another wheelie.
It was not for lack of trying. When no one was looking, I’d try to loft that front wheel, but something always kept me back.
Life is strange like that. I figured there was some karmic reason why I lost my wheelie mojo. Maybe I insulted an Aztec deity by drinking a beer at the top of that sacred pyramid in Tulum. Perhaps it was my two decades without entering a Catholic confessional booth.
I managed to get in a lot of riding all over this greasy planet without being able to loft a wheel and knock out a few pedal strokes. I could get it up enough to get over rocks and log-piles but never recovered the grace to see that angled front wheel spinning slowly in front of my face for one-two-three pedal strokes.
Until last weekend. My good friend and MTB coach Gene Hamiliton brought his BetterRide camp to my town – well, the old Lorton Prison, actually – to teach eight local mountain bikers how to really ride their bikes.
I’ve taken Gene’s course before and learned a lot about the dynamics of MTB riding and the many counter-intuitive aspects that great riders know instinctively and bad riders never understand.
Most of us learn from friends and end up becoming as good or as bad riders as they are teachers. Gene is a downhill racer and knows the physics behind the sport. He has an eye for spotting a bad bike set-up and is almost fanatical about rearranging the parts on your bike to give you more control.
I was glad to see that this time Gene approved my bike set-up, sag, stem length, etc. (Thanks to the TBL mech crew over the last year). I got nicked for not replacing my broken seat-post dropper but no one’s perfect.
About an hour into our first parking lot drills, Gene announced we would work on wheelies. I felt a shiver up my spine. In the shadow of the former Lorton Prison, with guard towers all around, my nemesis would soon be released. I would be sent back to Smitty’s Garage and the vision of my front wheel floating into oblivion.
But a funny thing happened. I got it. I got my wheelie mojo back. I can’t describe what changed, other than perhaps a bit more oooph in snapping my head back and Gene’s suggestion of which gear to be in.
The first pedal stroke and the bike rose up and I turned the pedals and touched pavement. But I tried again and up came the wheels and I held it a few more seconds. Then three pedal strokes. Baby steps, yes. But I was a little kid when I lost my wheelie mojo. I felt like that little kid and old-man-me passed through a Donnie Darko wormhole, only I didn’t have a jet engine land on my bed.
I’m going to play with my wheelie when it stops raining. I’ve got a lot of time to make up.
You’re never too young or old to learn more. Here’s what fellow camper Mary-Ann Masterling had to say about her experience: “I’m excited to have been given the tools to improve my riding (and have fun). I’m looking forward to the drills that I can do at my own pace, and see how these drills will translate onto the trails.”
There may be some aspects of your riding that you’ve given up on, like climbing rock gardens and descending steep slickrock. Maybe just getting out on trails again after years of neglecting your own lost mojo.
There’s no reason for older riders to give up on the sport. We may not be as limber as the snap-brim enduro dudes, but it is important to keep pushing on, seeking constant progression and not letting your age become your prison.
You’re never too old to be a kid again.