Twenty-five years is a long time to do any one thing. Do one thing for that duration, and there are bound to be moments of repetition. Time will coil around itself, decades will collapse on top of each other, and what should be fresh tire prints in the ground will just be another layer of tracks on top of those, on top of those, on top of those already laid onto the tracks beneath them. At some point, this may feel like a futile repetition—the 1994-typed words of the first editor of this magazine echoing to haunt the present: "The only difference between a rut and a grave is the length of the hole … ."
Those words never really held much sway with me, but they have bounced in and out of my head whenever I have looked back at the path of my life. They were in my head again as I started up a long fireroad climb a little south of Santa Cruz last week. I first rode this hill in 1992, when I moved to the base of it, and it has been an indifferent monitor of my fitness or lack thereof ever since. It has also absorbed every one of my moods, ranging from friendly to foul, and, speaking of repetition, has found its way into several of these columns over the years. It's a couple hours of ass-kicking penitence (maybe 20 minutes fewer if I go back a couple decades and get some youthful quads and lungs), so totally familiar that going for a ride there requires no conscious thought on my part. Every inch of that hill is etched into me, the trail choices at the top occur by autopilot, and I can spend a day riding without ever once having to think about where I am.
So is this a rut? A grave? To me it feels more like a comfortable old hair-shirt, a sweat-tax reminder that even in its millionfold self-indulgent moments the sport of mountain biking requires that you put yourself into it, that you pay some sort of cosmic piper, that one way or another you will have to earn those turns. It's a familiarity completely devoid of contempt. It's repetition faithfully borne out beyond numbers into ritual.
A few years before I first climbed this hill, I had started riding mountain bikes. I think it was 1985 when I went on my first ride, and 1986 when I became hooked. So, 32 years now. I am 53 years old. That means I have been riding bikes for 60.38 percent of my life, riding this damn hill for 49.05 percent of it, and writing about some variation of that in this column for 45.28 percent of the time I have been on this earth. Except I haven't spent every minute of my existence since then riding, and I haven't only ridden this hill, and it doesn't take all of that time to write this column, but you get the gist. Like I said there at the beginning, 25 years is a spell. Since I can still turn the pedals, let's go with 'rut' as a far superior destination than 'grave.'
Repetition being the theme of the day here (that, or early onset senility), this seems like a perfect opportunity to insert a Neil Young lyric: "Grandpa said to cousin Jed/ Sitting on the porch/ 'I won't retire but I might retread/ Seems like that guy singing this song/ Been doing it for a long time/ Is there anything he knows that he ain't said?'"
Swear to God there's a Neil Young lyric for every occasion … is there anything I know that I ain't said? Probably not, a thousand times over. Sooner or later we all start stepping all over our own thoughts, every once in a while we might figure out a new way of looking through the same old eyes but for the most part, we just keep riding that ancient rut. Just like this hill, counting the pedal strokes and able to ride it in my sleep. Same ol' same ol', until we run out of heartbeats.
Except, no. It's not like that. Because every time, every single time, it's ever so slightly different. The season, the day of the week, the hour of the day, the green of the foliage, the texture of the dirt, the temperature of the air, the color of the sky, the pace of my breathing, the rate of my pulse, the tread on my tires, the size of my wheels, the length of my stem, the relative worn out-ness of my chain, and on and on. It's never exactly the same. Every single one of those trips up this hill has been unique.
But that's just how it feels for me. Pull back, look at it from a longer lens, and it's just some dude riding up the same old hill, at about the same old speed, at monotonously regular intervals, on a bicycle. Zoom out a little further still, and while to you and me this thing we are talking about is definitely climbing a fireroad and easily defined as such—and therefore way different than descending singletrack or hitting a jump line or getting fed to the pack in a criterium—once you get far enough out, it just looks like a lump of meat wearing itself out for no reason on a metal thing with wheels. Over and over and over again.
I can raise a toast to that. Here's to all of us: Cheers, fellow lumps of meat! Thanks for reading these repetitive thoughts and devolving spirals of words and Neil Young lyrics. Cheers to you, indifferent hill! Thank you for every trip that I've taken up you and for any more I may be lucky enough to take again. Salud, old rut! It is good to taste your familiar edges, to know you are always there, and to find that for now at least, you aren't capping your ends and getting shorter, deeper, more ominous.