I’m always conflicted when people exclaim that bike commuting makes them “feel like a kid” again.
If there’s a feeling of joy that people get when they bike to work, and if that feeling motivates people to keep doing it, I ought to be all for it. Right?
But I don’t ever feel this feeling. When I ride my bike to work, or almost anywhere else, I feel like a guy who is… just going somewhere, not in a car and under my own power. Or more likely: I’m lost in my own thoughts about something far removed from my mode of conveyance or its energy source.
When one is riding a bike on shared infrastructure, mingling with other users of said infrastructure, I think that’s a really good time to feel and act like an adult. You know: Use reason and good judgement; exercise impulse control — all of that higher-function frontal-lobe stuff that kids can’t be expected to do.
Bike commuting is really the exact wrong time to feel like a kid — if that means you are going to act like one. I want to rip my hair out every time I see a grownup behaving as if grownupishness is suspended — forbidden — when on a bicycle. And I see it a lot!
Boy do I feel like a killjoy right now.
On Sunday, after more than six years of living in Flagstaff, Arizona, I went on my first group mountain bike ride. It was the Cosmic Soulsice Ride — an informal event put on by Cosmic Cycles, a local bike shop. I was invited by my friend Matt Hall, who had illustrated the flier for the event.
Matt described it as low-key event; a leisurely ride around the San Francisco peaks. He rides a crappy, Chinese- or Taiwanese-made Raleigh mountain bike that makes my old Diamondback mountain bike look respectable (as long as there are no other bikes nearby). If Matt was up for this ride, how could I not be?
But when we arrived at the trailhead, it was Club Lycra.
I spotted my friend Adam Cornette (one of Flagstaff’s top mountain bike racers, so I’m told) wearing his game face. My personal sense of kinship with these cyclists was feeling strained. Delegates from The Slow Bicycle Movement – my people — were not representing.
Then it started, as a race, not a ride — as in somebody actually said “Ready. Set. Go!”
The first mile or so had some pretty interesting single track; rocky, muddy, and with a bunch of creek crossings. Matt and I made no attempt to keep up with the pack. But I found myself reaching for rusty old skills — trying to stay upright and on my pedals at all cost.
Then I had an epiphany: This is why I have an irrational hatred for pushing a bike up any hill — even a paved hill; even when pushing a bike would be easier and would hardly slow me down! It comes from the days when mountain biking was my main form of outdoor recreation. Many years ago, in my twenties
If you’ve never been mountain biking, what you may not know is that when you stop on a narrow trail, going uphill, perhaps with your two wheels straddling the root of a tree; it can be a real struggle to get going again.
On my commute these days, I ride this heavy single-speed Murray Monterey that belonged to my grandfather. And there’s one notoriously steep hill that goes on for only about 200 yards. Any rational person would allow themselves to push this particular bike up that short stretch. (Or use a different bike — one with gears.)
But not me. And now I know why: Post Mountain Bike Stress Disorder (PMBSD).
That psychological breakthrough alone made Sunday’s ride worthwhile.
But the more I rode, the more skills I felt coming back. I remembered how to float my center of balance over my feet, and rest less weight on my hands. I started throwing my front wheel across ruts and over rocks with little effort. I could climb some ragged hills that some of the other riders couldn’t climb that day — I saw them fail.
I remember this! I remember when I discovered this skill; that technique. I remember learning to pick my line many yards ahead. I remember learning to fix my eyes on where I do want the bike to go instead of staring at the hazard I’m hoping to avoid. I remember learning that, in some situations, I have more control if I release the breaks entirely and just drop into a rock-pocked gully.
Matt and I had a great time. We decided to abandon the 50-mile circumnavigation of this extinct volcano, and go right into the center of the cone — the Inner Basin.
When I reached the Inner Basin, I was ready to stop. But I decided to keep going until the trail forced me to put my foot down. And about one second after I made that decision, the trail complied.
We had climbed nearly 3000 feet in altitude over 15-and-something miles. Our round-trip would be 30 miles, not the 50 miles Club Lycra would do that day. But we were satisfied, and we took in a really beautiful day surrounded by Arizona’s tallest peaks.
The 15-mile return trip was all downhill. We zoomed past tall groves of aspen, and charred ponderosa pine. I caught air — just a little — once or twice. I did tiny little kickouts onto pinecones like target practice. The road rattled my wrists and shoulders violently at times, but I went as fast as I dared.
There was a point, tearing down a straightaway, when I stood on my pedals a certain way, leaned forward a certain way, with my back bent a certain way. A very old memory flashed — from before my first mountain bike; before my twenties; before high school even. It was joyful. It was how it felt — exactly how it felt — to be on a single speed bike, pedaling frantically toward a ramp made of plywood propped up on cinder blocks, with three of my dumbest friends lying on the ground on the opposite side waiting to be jumped over.
I felt like a kid again.
Ted Johnson lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and is the Communications Director for Grand Canyon Trust. Follow his hardly-ever-about-bikes blogging at Half-Hearted Fanatic, and his barely-ever-about-anything tweets on Twitter.