Words and Photos by Danielle Baker
When it comes to sports I'm not a natural. My first few months of mountain biking were filled with frustration, crashes and temper tantrums. If my bike hadn't been so heavy I probably would have thrown it at least 10 times. And I definitely tried to sell it once. I never thought much of the learning process. I was either good at something or I didn't do it; this is the reason I barely passed math in high school. Leave the 'jocking' for the jocks, I'll be over here writing art history papers, thanks. Not until I tried mountain biking did I realize how addicting it can be to conquer the things that challenge you the most.
For the first time I wanted to be good at something that very obviously did not come naturally to me. I have been known to accidentally punch people while talking with my hands, walk into poles and trip over nothing. I hopelessly lack coordination, strength and fearlessness. Much better suited to the world of lawn bowling and shuffleboards, it was a surprise to everyone when I became hooked on biking. Something kept me heading back out to the woods; a chemical change in my brain was pushing me to try harder and do more. I had finally elbowed my way past the awkward failed attempts at something and my bloody shins and bruises were just reminders of the euphoria that came with each success. I was an addict.
When we comprehend something new a biochemical reaction happens in our brains and rewards us with natural opium-like substances. Like lab rats or Pavlov's dog, we begin to associate our bikes with that feeling. We start to chase the fix. Once we get a taste of it we're motivated to maximize our rate of success, we chase it through slipped pedals and crashes, through rainy days and hours of sessioning. We struggle to get that new skill, go bigger and corner faster. We know that if we can just 'get it,’ we will feel amazing! We will feel invincible. It may not be immediately apparent, but we essentially become junkies.
This last weekend I dusted the cobwebs off my big bike and headed to an all-girls DH camp in Kamloops to ride with some top mountain bikers. If I were 13, posters of these women would be on my walls right next to Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. They have made careers out of this addiction, the drive for progression and learning; both in pushing themselves and in helping others to achieve it. They will get you hooked.
We rode some practice laps on Friday and while the ladies technically weren't coaching yet, they really couldn't help themselves. My timid riding and hesitant braking made me fresh meat thrown to the wolves— really nice, supportive and inspiring wolves. Within a few runs, with their advice, demos and some tough love akin to a momma bird kicking you out of the nest, I wasn't just cruising and getting my early season DH legs. I was already trying to improve, and I was chasing my fix and I didn't want to stop.
More than 30 women showed up for the camp craving the early season rush and looking to these amazing athletes for help. They might as well have been wearing pagers and standing on street corners. Women from 13 to 42, from three times on a mountain bike to years under their belt, showed up with the same goal: to ride better. As I watched the girls in the camp improve, hitting bigger jumps and drops, pumping confidently through big-bermed corners and tackling steep sections I got a little twitchy. I knew how they were feeling; I knew that as they pushed themselves a little further each time they were chasing the rush of accomplishment. The euphoria, the high-fives, the smiles—I started to jones for all of it.
It's that time of year when the bike parks open and everything else starts to take a back seat to mountain biking. You see less of your friends who don't ride and conversations tend to revolve around your last ride or planning your next. While supportive, my family still worries. They shake their heads at my scars and bone bumps, my collection of bikes and my slippery avoidance of family functions in favor of riding. But it can't be that bad; they haven't had an intervention yet. With a whole season of progression ahead of me I feel like Charles Dickens on a street full of opium dens, or like a junkie in a bike park.