Wait a minute" whatís this article about bikes doing in a magazine about whitewater? Why, you may ask, is this bike geek wasting your time going on and on about rolling singletrack instead of class four rapids? Why is this two"wheeled, land"tied bike nerd taking up valuable space better spent on articles about the newest kayaks or the best places to boat? Simply put, because we share a bond. Regardless of whether your garb includes a spray skirt or lycra shorts, you assuredly recognize that the sports are connected by a common thread of passion for the outdoors and an adrenaline"laced devotion to an activity that has, for most of us, become more than just a mere sport. So, Dear Reader, allow me for a moment to guide you into a world that might not seem so dissimilar from yours. This is a world on two wheels, a world that works in ways you water"folks might recognize.
At 11 a.m. on May 23rd, a plethora of mountain bikers stood at the ready, inches from the starting line at Rickerís Hill Orchard in Turner, Maine. It was a cold, wet, dreary day, and my spirits had been low to begin with. Iíd been unleashed on the world as a college graduate, and my job prospects looked as bleak and gray as the sky above. Iíd been struggling with an unhealthy dose of heartbreak, an overwhelming wave of "where do I go from here," and an almost laughably huge amount of "out of shape" syndrome. The spring, in other words, had not been kind to me. The race would follow suit.
At the start, the racers chatted about the course.
"Dry as a bone, finally," one racer joked as the rain started to plop down into the already"deep mudholes.
"Good thing I ran my slick tires today," mused another.
"Hey Matt," I said to a fellow racer and co"worker, "make sure you at least look pained as you breeze past me on the course."
Everyone laughed. I wonder how many of them knew that Matt didnít, in fact, look pained as he blew past me. No, all the pain was on my face, though it didnít start until halfway through my second lap. The course was unsurprisingly thick with mud and, simply stated, soupy. Like all the other racers, I spent more time running my bike than I did riding it, and it was the running that eventually led my legs to revolt. But before my legs gave in, my head did.
Midway into my second lap, I climbed a fire road of loose gravel and wet pits of sand. When faced with such a challenge during a race or fast ride, my brainís autopilot takes over and I find myself chanting a mantra in my head" "Miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go before I sleep." Thatís what I got from my English degree-Robert Frost keeping me sane on climbs.
But this climb was different, even different from my first and third laps. My mind never reverted to its favorite mantra, never began its automatic chant. Instead, I found myself hijacked by an image, a collective collage of my life up to that point. It was a conglomeration of thought, an elastic"band ball of smiles, tears, triumphant moments and embarrassing occurrences. It nearly knocked me off my bike, quite literally. It slowed me down to an infantís pace, and it occurred to me that this was an awfully strange time and place for such thoughts to drive to the forefront of my mind.
I was climbing at a crawl-Robert Frost must have been turning in his grave-and as I crested the top of the climb, I realized sweat wasnít the only liquid running down my face. They werenít tears in the sense that I was bawling or whimpering, but tears were nonetheless trickling down my cheek. I felt, in that moment, that I had lost a race more important than the Ricker Hill Orchard race (though I was doing a fine job of losing that race as well). The tears had jumped me, spurted out uninvited. I felt as if someone had attacked me from behind, passed me without ever having made a sound; no steady breathing of a competitor chasing me up the climb, no clicking derailleur. Just silence, then the attack. The tears had passed me and were heading for the finish. It struck me as odd that my eyes were wet, though I felt no real sadness or weakness. It seemed more as if they were a precursor to something else, the guy who gets on stage to introduce the main act, the person you really came to hear. No, they werenít really tears; they were just a doorway, an introduction.
Itís easy to call on a clichť here. You know the one" "As it turns out, ladies and gentlemen, my fiercest competitor during the race was myself." While this was certainly the case, itís not my point in relaying this story to you. My point is to show you how important that race was to me, and concurrently, how important the sport of mountain biking is to me. Itís probably pretty easy for all of you to understand this-you and your canoe or kayak on the river, the most difficult rapids youíve ever attempted staring you in the face, the unnamed and intangible spark you feel right before you give that first paddle stroke; that surge is why mountain biking is important to me. When we devote our energy to our respective sports, our bodies speak. They speak in languages not acceptable during daily life, and those languages are connected to more than just our arm and leg muscles or the steady beat of our heightened heart rates. They are connected to the mind and soul. They are connected to the memories that get projected on that huge black screen in our minds at the oddest moments, sometimes at the most pivotal and climactic seconds when we really need them. It is the language of "Me," and itís a language only I speak. You have yours, too.
The act of biking gave my mind and body an excuse to speak its language. When we stare at our computer screens at work or sit through classes at school, that language gets stifled, forgotten. It isnít until we sit on the saddle or slide the spray skirt over the boat that the language becomes a living thing again, a crowd of relieved voices all chattering at once. That surge can be so overwhelming as your body and mind work so hard to be the best it can be at the respective sports that we may find ourselves reflecting on the most obscure-but utterly important-moments of our lives, not simply because of oxygen deprivation or adrenalin, but because the language needs to be spoken, and it needs to be heard. As both the speaker and the listener of your own language, you may be able to understand why these are more than just sports we participate in. They are intimate conversations, personal "spring cleaning," and often just the kick in the ass we need to remind us to stop avoiding ourselves.
Now, water"folks, go get your boats, put them in the water, and keep your ears at the ready. You never know what you might hear-or when you might hear it.
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