I've always been a creature of habit.
I can tell you what the chicken tortilla soup tastes like at nearly every Mexican restaurant I've ever visited and almost all of the photos of me in fifth grade feature the same neon blue and pink Ocean Pacific shorts. I've even been rocking the same saddle on my townie bike for more than a decade, to the point where the feel of broken leather scraping the inside of my thigh reminds me of summer cruises to the grocery store.
These little rituals don't stop at mountain biking.
Early Sunday rides begin long before the first breath of unfettered morning air greets me at the trailhead. These rides take place when everyone in the household, human and animal alike, is sleeping. They're set into motion the night before as I prepare for my exit like it's a stealth heist to steal a sliver of dirt. My ride gear is already in a pile ready to go when a silent alarm pierces the quiet with little more than a vibration.
After dressing in the dark and tiptoeing around the house, I proceed to push the button that brings our obnoxiously loud coffee machine to life where it sputters and gurgles for the next five minutes before announcing its finish through by emphatically shrieking, "BEEP!" To further foil any plans of leaving quietly, I generally signal the end of my stealth getaway by stomping around the house in cleats looking for the keys in my hand or shouting various expletives upon realizing that the water in my water pack is now all over the floor. The ritual of screwing up yet another subtle egress is brought to a close when my hound dog taps down the hallway, assesses the situation, and gives me an annoyed groan before heading back to bed.
There's the ritual of surgical rides, the ones methodically spliced into over-stuffed days. They're nothing special, but their mere existence makes them prized excursions. The bigger rides that require lunches and loose schedules go hand in hand with watching shadows of bikes dance down dotted highway lines. I still remember years ago, when this ritual began by mounting the bikes to a rickety trunk rack and praying to the trail gods that the bikes were still there upon arrival. It wasn't a real road trip unless you checked your rearview for bikes a dozen times an hour.
Even though the ritual of warming up has been intertwined with winding threads of uphill singletrack for more than a decade, each time still results in a moment (or several) when I genuinely wonder if my legs will ever feel like anything more than lactic acid and bags of suck. Sometimes the feeling goes away quickly, while other times it seems to last until the trailhead comes back into view. But no matter what, there's always a place where the ache finally drifts away and the void is filled with a hunger to push harder. I'm never quite sure where that moment will occur, but I know it's always out there just waiting for me to reach it.
And then there's the familiar ritual of pleasure-pain, which seems to be very foundation of mountain biking. There's the elation of weaving between trees mixed with the whimper of muscles screaming to go just a little bit faster. There are rides in suffocating heat and the momentary crispness of a sweat-soaked neck meeting a hot breeze. There's the disappointment of rounding the final bend of a great adventure and the satisfaction that you've racked up more miles and memories than planned and that few things will taste better than whatever is in your buddy's cooler.
And, of course, there's the ritual of humility–the shared experience of tires and limbs and dirt laid out into a puzzle that's different from the picture on the box. It's these times when a familiar quiet can fall over the group with an unsettling speed, until a raspy voice mutters, "How's my bike?" That's the code to begin the ritual exchange, in which the rider on the ground pretends the fall didn't hurt as bad as it looked and everyone else pretends that they weren't really worried, but they dawdle and check over the bike slowly, because we all know it takes time for the shakes to stop. We've all been there.
After the ride, bikes take their places against trees and on top of cars as we grab seats on camp chairs and tailgates. Amid the obligatory rehashing of the ride, we talk about how good some fancy-pants craft ale is, but we all know there's something glorious about drinking ice-cold watered-down swill after a disgustingly hot summer ride. The sun fades behind the trees, but it isn't until the mosquitos have launched a full-fledged assault that we pack up and head home.
To me, a ride isn't really over until the ritual cleaning has commenced. Sometimes, this means jumping into an ice-cold lake and measuring the temperature by the amount of time that goes by until I catch my breath. Other times, this means being hosed down like a kid who comes home after playing on a pile of dirt all day. But to me, the end of a ride happens in a warm shower watching swirls of dirt radiate from my feet.
I'm not quite sure why I'm such a creature of habit or why I enjoy reliving the same moment over and over again, but I do. I'll put my coffee in the same cup, I'll pack my bag in the same way and I'll ride the same trails as yesterday. There are times when it's easy to feel in a rut as days go by, but not much changes. There's something a little magical about putting the same inputs into an equation as the day before and getting an entirely new result.
It's another ride, just like all the rest, but different.