Finding the “tribe” in a foreign land
Whether it's spandex or armor
Written by Gloria Liu
Tom looked me in the eye. “I was going to text you: ‘No Lycra’.”
We were gearing up in the parking lot of Pila Mountain Resort in Aosta, Italy, which is to say that the mountain bikers I was with were pulling on their body armor, shin guards and full-face helmets. And I was putting on my clipless shoes and road-bike helmet.
Thomas Humpage, a professional photographer based in Chamonix, France, had invited me along to go downhilling with his friends for the day. He’d also lent me his 160-millimeter travel, full-suspension enduro bike, as it was decided that my hardtail 29er was probably not up to the rigors of descending 7,500 feet down Pila mountain with a bunch of really fast Chamoniards on downhill bikes. I think that also made him generally responsible for ensuring I didn’t embarrass everyone by showing up in my stretchy shorts.
Mountain biking is a different ballgame in the Alps. Back home in Boulder, Colorado, my riding buddies are cross-country racers or former roadies or who still shave their legs and jokingly called baggies “slow pants.” Compared to them, Tom and his friends looked like NFL linebackers in their mesh jerseys, full-face helmets, and bulletproof chest and shoulder padding. Their burly, downhill-oriented steeds would eat my carbon cross-country rig for breakfast.
On a borrowed bike and wearing nothing more protective than a cotton t-shirt and my “potty lid,” I felt self-conscious in a way that I hadn’t for a long time on a bike. I was acutely aware that not only did I not look the part, but that the group was probably concerned they’d spend a lot of the day waiting for me. To be fair, I was concerned, too. I had a book in my Camelbak—just in case things got a little too rad and I needed to wait it out in the car.
Travel can take even the most confident people out of their element. I had come to Chamonix this summer to write, ride my mountain bike and nurse my soul back to health after a highly stressful spring, during which I’d quit my job and moved three times.
I wasn’t new to living in a foreign country: when I was 26, I had burnt out at a desk working in financial services, and moved to New Zealand to snowboard every day. But since then, I’d had a second career in the States, moved in with a boyfriend and traded in the late nights partying for domestic life. Teetering precariously on the edge of my 31st birthday, I’d wondered if I would be too old, too square, to make friends in a mountain town as easily as I had in my 20s.
But I had brought the perfect wingman with me to Chamonix: a bike. The first person I met in France, my shuttle driver from the airport, had perked up when he found out I was a rider and offered to show me around the trails. When we headed out, I’d promptly crashed upside down into a tree. But Oli took me riding again anyway, coaching me through the steep, rocky switchbacks above Chamonix and introducing me to his buddies, fellow mountain bikers too. The manager at the local bike shop gave newcomers my contact information, telling them to look me up as a riding buddy. In terms of making friends, “We should ride sometime,” is the best pickup line in any country.
Of course, then you have to go on that ride.
At the start of the first run down, I lined myself up at the back. I was as nervous as I had been my second day on a mountain bike, three years ago, when my boyfriend and his best friend took me downhilling at the Snowmass Bike Park. I had ridden the brakes so hard my arms were pumped a quarter of the way down.
But I had done a lot of riding between then and now. Had spent so many long days in the mountains exploring Colorado singletrack alone, riding through thunderstorms, pushing my bike up loose, steep fire roads. I’d raced my bike, coming in close to last once, close to the front a few times, and right in the middle some others, but always, always chasing until I thought my lungs would surely bleed.
I reminded myself that I knew how to ride. And when we rolled out, I was pleased to discover I did–that the plush feel of a full-suspension trail bike and a flowy piece of singletrack was something familiar, and that when I leaned back hard, butt hanging over the back tire, it was instinct rather than intellect that took over and drove.
My first few weeks in France, there had been plenty of times I had felt displaced. Jetlagged and sleepless, missing people back home. Stammering at the supermarket checkout, mangling the French language. Being out of your element is a good thing; it’s why travel can be so transformative. But in a foreign place, we also crave the things we know. And ripping down on a winding ribbon of dirt, chasing some fast guys on bikes—this, this I knew.
To my surprise, I was keeping up, too. When I got to the bottom of a series of tight, deep bermed S-turns, an older Italian man about my father’s age pulled up next to me. “Brava!” he chortled, high-fiving me before he ripped off.
I could get used to this, I thought, as we soaked up the abundant Italian sunshine on the patio, twirling our forks into five identical bowls of spaghetti tossed in chilis, garlic and olive oil. Fueled by espresso and carbs, I grew bolder after lunch, ripping along like a maniac and making long, controlled slides through some of the sandy turns. Our skidding tires kicked up thick clouds of dust, draping the scene in an opaque, shimmering haze. I no longer hung in the very back.
At one point I got a bit too cocky, digging my front tire into the soft part of a berm and going over the handlebars, leaving a nasty gouge on right elbow and hip that stung for the rest of the day.
“That looks gnarly,” Tom said, inspecting the wound on my arm, which was already oozing shiny red blood.
When we got to the bottom, we were all caked in dust. Tom walked over wordlessly and gave me a decisive high five. Then he laughed and told me I’d better look in the mirror. I was sporting a dark brown dirt mustache and unibrow.
Back in town, we sat in our bike clothes at the bar, filthy and stinking, our beer sweating bullets on the table. We talked about bikes, dating, snowboarding, travel and work. We recapped the day and made hopeful plans for the rest of the summer. If I closed my eyes and the accents had been American, I could’ve been in Boulder with my friends, having post-ride beers at the trailhead.
But even better, I didn’t wish I were. I didn’t want to be anywhere else but right here. Compared to what I was used to back home, the riding, and the riders, looked a little different in the Alps. Whether they were in shin guards or Spandex, though, I had found members of my tribe.
The sun disappeared behind the valley walls on the longest day of the year, setting off the stark silhouette of this beautiful day. The air cooled and my stomach started to rumble. But I stayed, sated with the knowledge that wherever I went in the world, I needed only to seek out the people who also chased joy on two wheels, and that I would find a place to belong.
We ordered another round so we wouldn’t have to part ways just yet. And in the waning light, this new place felt just a little bit more like home.
Gloria Liu is a freelance writer from Colorado currently based in Chamonix, France. Read more of her writing at gloria-liu.com, or follow her on adventures on Instagram @thats_my_line.