I’ve been off the bike more times than I want to remember and for more reasons than I care to admit. Winters, hurricanes, a couple of douchebag discs in my back and a general propensity for laziness have all taken their toll on my riding. Throw in the occasional injury and pregnancy, and I've been benched enough times to know that getting back on the bike is never quick. Or easy. Or painless.
At least, I should know these things. The realization of how much has changed in the seven months since I was last on a bike sets in well before the ride begins. Time and neglect have leeched air from my tires. my tool bag—a collection of random crap that would make MacGyver jealous all stored in a state-of-the-art Ziploc baggie—has been cannibalized down to an empty patch kit, broken tire lever and an expired Clif Bar. even my ride clothes, no longer worthy of a front-and-center dresser drawer, were long ago demoted to a cracked Tupperware lodged under the bed.
The first ride begins just as it always does; in a blissful wash of excitement and anticipation. I've been dreaming about this day for months, but those dreams never included the awkward reality-check of donning Lycra bought when I was actually in shape. Standing in front of the mirror feels like going to a high school reunion—everything is familiar, but fatter than I remember. Bike shorts that once hugged muscles capable of all-day rides now function more like sausage casing. I resign myself to wearing baggies. I also start craving sausage.
After two hours of bumbling around the house trying to remember what ride gear I need and where I left it all, I finally arrive at the trailhead eager to be officially reclassified to 'on the bike' status. I've never been a great climber or the best endurance rider, but I've always had a knack for balance that lets me dance through burly sections with a bit of grace. As I dive into the familiar singletrack, memories of swooping through trees and flitting over rocks are confronted with locked-out arms and eyes that zero in on every crag. At this moment, I'm about as graceful as a wet fart.
Less than a mile into the ride, I stuff my front wheel into a ledge so small I've never noticed it before. Some guy in sweatpants riding a Trek Y-bike passes, and without the slightest shred of sarcasm says, "You're doing great! Keep it up." One of the side effects of being a chick in this sport is that no matter how crappy you are riding, someone will compliment you for it. I appreciate his kindness, but a small part of me also wants to thwack him in the fanny pack.
It feels like years ago that I was cruising off drops in Winter Park and entering my first Super D in Ashland, but only yesterday that I clumsily headed out for my first mountain bike ride. I feel like a spandex-clad Benjamin Button,
except instead of growing younger, I just become a shittier rider.
My foot clumsily tries to find the clipless pedal and I head off again, reminding myself that under the rust is someone who's pretty damn good on a bike. The smells of dirt and sweat rewind time in the same way that a whiff of apple pie can take you home—or, in my case, the scent of Hamburger Helper.
After a number of unexpected dabs and previously unnecessary breaks to catch my breath, I stop thinking about what I should be doing and let the skills ingrained over years take control. My arms relax—a little—and my eyes scan the trail ahead—mostly. Soon I'm pedaling fast enough to feel a cool wind on a perfectly still day.
It turns out riding a bike is just like riding a bike. The skin on my palms stings slightly as calluses etched from years of riding awaken. Unfortunately, it seems my ass has no such ingrained calluses, and right now I feel like I accidentally joined one of those college fraternities where guys paddle each other to prove how not gay they are. Seriously, how does anyone take up mountain biking when the only solace first-time riders have for their significant ass pain comes from some doofus in spandex and tap shoes assuring them that the pain will go away with more saddle time?
A thick cloud surges over the mountains and the formerly bluebird sky begins pelting tiny balls of ice. It's not until the flurry of cold bee stings attacks my skin that it hits me—this is always the way of the first ride. Getting back on the bike doesn't happen in one day, no matter how much I want it to. Instead, it's a process that began the moment I found myself off the bike and will end long after I've swung a leg over my old friend.
The battle between memories of strength and a much weaker reality is humbling and frustrating and a little vurpy, but who cares? The battle is happening on the bike.
Of course it's hailing. Of course it hurts. Of course my legs feel like bags of wet cement. The lure of mountain biking is in the obstacles—knowing that there will always be logs too large to ride, rides too long to finish and that no matter how well you know the trail ahead, it will find a way to surprise you.
When I walk through the door, I bask in the familiarity of this feeling. My legs are tired and my mind is quiet. The warm shower beckons. I stand in front of the mirror, smiling at the black silhouette of a chainring on my calf and the splatter of dirt up the back of my shorts. When I sit down to take off my bike shoes, the tenderness of my butt shocks me. I assure myself that the pain will go away. All I need is a little more time in the saddle.