By Vernon Felton
"Was I supposed to puke?"
Ed asks this, between gasps, with so much sincerity that it almost hurts just to hear him.
My mother-in-law's boyfriend is hunched over the handlebars of his borrowed bike, gasping, slick with sweat and looking—no exaggeration here—like he's just seconds away from taking the eternal dirt nap. Ed's usually a healthy brown, but for some reason his skin has taken on an alarming green and red hue.
Poor me. I promised my wife I wouldn't kill her future step-father and now he's gone and had a heart attack in the middle of his first ride. When I get home, I'm going to have to answer for this.
"Well, it's, uh, sort of optional," I suggest.
I'd think of something more helpful for Ed, but my mind is racing. For the life of me, I can't remember what I'm supposed to do if he actually keels over here in the middle of the forest. I think I'm supposed to pound on his chest or tell him to stay away from the light or, yech, give him mouth to mouth, which I'm pretty sure he's not going to be too happy about either. I like Ed just fine, but I'm old school—I get uncomfortable with anything more physically intimate than a handshake. Is there a way I can jumpstart this guy without, you know, French kissing him?
BAD JUDGE OF THESE THINGS
I'm a notoriously bad judge of determining a ride's difficulty. It's not that I'm some sort of aerobic stud. I'm far from it—particularly at this point in the season. But the sad truth is that even when most of us cyclists are "in bad shape", we can still mop the floor with the average American when it comes to anything requiring cardiovascular fitness. Cyclists might be lacking in the bicep/machismo department, but when your legs and lungs have racked up tens of thousands of miles, you develop a kind of base-level fitness that leads you to underestimate just how painful the average bike ride is going to be for a newbie.
Today's ride, for instance, was supposed to be a walk in the park. I was sure of it.
I'd consciously sat down and mapped out the easiest, flattest, least-technical route I could muster. That's not easy in my neck of the woods. We have mountains. They are steep. They are wet. They hold a grudge. This isn't exactly beginner-friendly terrain. But still, I was sure I'd created a loop that would be a breeze for a guy like Ed: it'd begin with a gentle fireroad ascent (no more than 300 or 500 feet of elevation gain), followed by four or five miles of flowy, forested singletrack. There'd be no stunts. Well, no big stunts—and nothing more challenging than a rickety teeter-totter. No jumps. Well, a few, but they'd all have obvious walk-arounds. Or they'd be table tops, but anyone can jump those. I, mean, I see 6-year olds polish off rides like that on their Strawberry Shortcake singlespeeds—flower baskets, spokey-dokes and all.
Next, I made a calculated estimate of Ed's physical fitness. Let's see…he's an ex-Marine. He does manual labor for a living. He's got salt and pepper hair and he's in his late fifties, sure, but he also has the dangerous build and physical presence that suggests that pissing him off might be the last thing you'd ever do.
In other words, I was sure Ed would sail through the ride with a smile on his face. But within 15 minutes or so, I realize I'm pedaling alone and when I circle back, I find him slouched over the handlebars with that “Passion of the Christ” look on his face, which suggests that maybe its owner isn't having the time of his life. I know we're going to have take things down a notch or I'm going to be carrying the guy out.
This got me thinking—just how many times have I ruined mountain biking for newbies? How many times have I taken people out for ‘easy’ rides that absolutely chewed them up and spat them out? Way too many, if I'm going to be honest with myself. Ed isn't the first person who's wondered whether puking was supposed to be an integral part of one of my ‘fun rides.’ My wife used to yawn a rainbow on every first ride of the season. I used to think that barfing was reflective of her need to get out and pedal more. Now, I'm starting to realize that the pain and suffering was less about her and more about me. That is, me being an idiot.
Ed rallied, thankfully. He's eager to show he's game. He wants to fit into our family and impress his future son-in-law. Being a Marine probably helps—Semper Fi and all that jazz. The prospect of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was probably further incentive for him to double up on the pain and grit his way through the ‘fun.’
After more than 20 years of taking people out on first rides, you'd think I'd have learned my lesson. You might think I'd have become a better ambassador for our sport, but apparently, I'm not getting any better at this. But I vow that I'm going to try. I want more people to experience that beautiful thing that drives the rest of us to return to the dirt, to pedal through the pain, to love this thing called mountain biking. Fortunately, mountain biking isn't in danger of dying out and doesn’t need me to evangelize on its behalf. We don't have to go door to door, spreading the Word of Dirt in an effort to bring in new believers.
Singletrack speaks for itself, which is good, because as so many vomiting newbies can attest, I'm lousy at spreading the love.