Cloud Riding

The clouds were low, and we were high.

Imagine, riding atop fluffy, billowy pillows. You can ride up and down their steep plumes, with no fear of falling, since a poofy soft landing will greet you.

Cloud riding is nothing like this.

Real clouds are wet, damp places. Riding in the clouds is riding in a fog bank, but wetter. Rain falls without falling. Everything is muddy and slick. The rocks are still there.

The good news is you can see where the water flows.

At the beginning of the ride, I was advised, “Water is your friend.” Follow the flow of the water. Watch how the water moves over and through the rocks. This is the path of least resistance. Let it be your guide as you flow down the rocks. Flow like water.

This is much easier on my new full suspension bike, which yields to the rocky surface, making me feel as if I am floating up and down the rocks. I flow over the rocks in my braver moments. Other times when I am not brave I walk and try not to slip on the slick surfaces.

I am flowing over the rocks. This is much easier than on my old bike. Flow. Be the water.

Suddenly I experience an intimate encounter with the rocks below me. Palms and thighs collide with stone. I look behind me, and spot a thick sawed-off madrone branch gently vibrating from the force of its collision with my handlebar.

Damage report: twisted handlebars, a bruised palm, and a heightened awareness for the greenery.

Telling stories

“The story of a ride like today is a freakin’ novel.” So says my riding partner.

He’s right.

Each ride is a story that stretches from the tendrils of the unopened lily to the straining and slowly decaying muscles of our bodies. It is massive rocks stacked like wafers, whose dimensions change with distance. From the trail, these tell a story of even symmetry and the ongoing patterns of layering in geological time. Up close, I imagine these massive structures talk about grain and texture, foothold and handholds, risk and wonder.

There is never just one story of a ride. It’s multiple from the start, and in the end I like to choose one strand that epitomizes what most needs saying. Today I need to tell the story of how impoverished telling these stories remains. Or maybe how fleeting they are. Or perhaps they are personal in a way that matters most to the one telling the story.

Ride reports are often long, and in my opinion, can read like the story of a longwinded and breathless child. “And then, this happened…and then, this other thing happened…Are you still listening? This is really cool…And then, something else happened…You shoulda been there…”

You shoulda been there.

Maybe that’s one of the important functions of ride stories. To invoke a yearning, in the self to ride again and in the other to join.

Ride reports often point toward feelings, sensations, and emotions. They are about burning muscles, fatigue, bonking, recovery, exhilaration, wonder, contentment, peace, adrenaline, focus, flow, one-ness, laughter, fear, hope, loss… These are difficult things to recreate in text.

Long rides–really any long endurance undertaking–can start to look a lot like a metaphor for life. Fresh-faced to weary, persistence pays off. It’s not always fun, but there you go. That’s life. This is a common trope in accounts of ultrarunning and “epic” ride reports.

Maybe telling the story helps us to sort things out. Sometimes a ride is not okay, and persistence does not pay off. Telling the story can help to reconcile the tragedies of varying sizes and proportions. They can give a series of events meaning and provide purpose, particularly in the face of futility and loss.

Maybe the little stories are practice for when we really need narratives that save us.

Breaking In

Today was a day to break things in.

A list of things better for the wear after today:

  • A new full-suspension mountain bike.
  • The mountain bike destination closest to my home, Rockville.
  • My left knee and elbow.

I approach the new with caution. When I let the bicycle careen down terrain that gives me pause, I am surprised at the ease with which it rolls over rocks and roots, both up and downhill. So different. No need to stand! Sit, relaxed and solid. Steering-eye-trail coordination is improved, and I doubt the thanks goes to my hapless body-mind. I still walk more than necessary on this new bike-trail site.

The trails are teachable. Their features are diverse, from narrow twists to short steep climbs to rocky descents. A little playground for practice.

My new body-bike survived the first fall, no worse for the wear save some superficial scratches at the joints. Remember, keep pedaling!

Out of True

Last week I replaced two spokes in my rear wheel after an intrusive stick stuck itself where it did not belong–between my rear derailleur and spokes. Luckily, the spokes gave up the ghost before I did, which meant metal bent and broke rather than muscles and bones. I made the repair at Bike Forth, and left with the rear wheel spinning true.

Unfortunately, I forgot a part. You know that moment when you finish putting something together and you feel really proud, only to find a missing part waiting patiently to be put in its proper place? And you have no idea what the proper place is? This was one of those moments. Being the stellar mechanic I am, I shrugged and shoved the silver ring of a spacer in my rear pocket where it was promptly forgotten and  probably spin-cycled.

The next day, I went out on The Ride. This is the Ride I’ve been waiting for, on The Trail that I’ve been thinking and writing about. A Trail Worth Fighting For. Others have called this trail “a work of art,” and I was ready for some culture.

Or so I thought.

The spacer I so casually neglected apparently held my freewheel securely in place. Fortunately, trailside repair kept my bike functional, minus my biggest chain ring in the rear set. Yet another minor technical issue in my bike’s litany of minor technical issues. At least my wheels are true.

Unfortunately, my body was not true this fine sunny day. Something was off. Slightly out of rhythm. Nerve synapses were not quite communicating. Muscles did not respond with their usual speed and power (as slow as that normally is). Eye-steering coordination felt just a bit off. I felt not quite present and slightly out of sync.

Then I fell. This was not spectacular crash. In fact, it was embarrassing in its mundanity. As I was WALKING my bike uphill, I slipped in the mud. Then it happened again. I laughed it off both times, though with a tinge of annoyance the second time.

Then I fell again. This time I was riding on a wide open fire road. I managed to nudge my front wheel into the one crevice along this ten-foot wide trail and awkwardly fall to the side, bruising my palm in the process. Bad falling technique.

The next fall was spectacular, both in execution and aesthetics. Braking synapses were still off-kilter, either too strong or too weak. Never just right. Add to this my less-than-true eye-steering coordination and the stage was set for devastation. The only thing that could save me was my refined falling skills.

Over the bike and into the deep loamy soil. I landed heavy on my left side. Later evidence of bruises and scratches indicated that my lower lip, and left breast, forearm and thigh took the brunt of the fall.

Though this crash affirmed the strength of my falling skills, it did nothing to bring my riding body into true. I awkwardly stuttered down what might possibly be the most wonderfully flowy trail I’ve ever ridden. This day, I could only experience the flow visually and intellectually, an as-if flow of an imagined rider much more attuned than my own stumbling bike-body.

I can see flow on trails such as this, but I cannot be flow.

Training. Regimented practice. Repetition. Attuning your attention to the one place most out of sync and making tiny, balanced refinements. Give it another spin. Another tiny refinement that requires the utmost attention. Only this and nothing else can exist when truing the body. Over and over, over and over. Cultivate attentive relaxation. Another way of saying flow?

What they don’t tell you about flow is that the getting there can be unbearably mundane. And exacting. Particularly for a body out of true.

Rhythms to Learn By

When learning music, repetition is important. This is likely why my housemate plays the same song over and over. I’m not complaining. I like the song, and he’s pretty good. He also plays a version of the same song sometimes while he’s cooking dinner. This is the song.

Repetition teaches bodily rhythms. Rhythms live in bodies. Perhaps this is why when we rode our bikes onto Wagon Wheel, a trail named after the old wooden wheel found during its creation, this song popped in my head.

More precisely, the words for the refrain of this song popped in my head.

As the song played in my head, I found comfort in its rhythm as I maneuvered the curves of the single track. I started softly singing aloud.

Wagon Wheel
 
Rock me mama like a wagon wheel
Rock me mama any way you feel
Hey, mama rock me.
Rock me mama like the wind and the rain
Rock me mama like a southbound train
Hey, mama rock me. 

Over and over my lips repeated the refrain as my bike rolled over the terrain without stutters and stops. The lessons of music repetition flowed into arms, legs, nerves, and balance. Perhaps the music simply distracted me from over-thinking my riding. Perhaps it made me ride more in muscle-memory moments than in fearful what-ifs.

Regardless, I plan to keep singing.

Stuck in Second

Some days you have to settle for your second choice. Today was one of those days.

Second rate weather. The rain wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t ride. Just a hazy drizzle with a tease of sunshine here and there. Not nearly as great as the sunny beach weather we’d enjoyed the past few rides, but rideable and relatively enjoyable despite the misty chill.

Second pick of trails. We really wanted to ride a long, lovely all-day route taking us into some of the most isolated trails of Marin county. As we climbed west, we also climbed into the fog. The mist pervaded. The chill penetrated our layers. The mud gummed up our tires, gears, and brakes. After multiple indecisive conversations, we abandoned our initial plan in favor of drier trails closer to home.

Second gear. 32 teeth. Ten more than I’d like. The gummy mud penetrating my chain exploited my overused small gear. Chain suck. To keep the pedal spinning, I found myself stuck in the second chain wheel up front. Harder for grinding up those sloppy, steep inclines.

Second soak. Hot tubs break at the most unfortunate times. Post-ride, we all looked forward to a dip in the hot tub. Broken. Fortunately, this sumptuous site also offered a sauna and cold plunge.

Second blog post on one ride. The first follows and precedes the second.

Sometimes second isn’t so bad.

Criminal activity

This is what illegal trail riding looks like.

Four of us grind up to the high point along the legal fire roads. The front riders dismount in a suitable scenic locale, remove their helmets and backpacks, and settle in. The slower riders soon join in, and everyone pulls snacks from their packs. Some have fold-up pads to sit upon, or brimmed hats to keep the sun off their faces. Homemade cookies are passed around, and a pipe full of marijuana is offered to any interested parties. We admire the view, and more veteran riders point out the area landmarks to me.

After fifteen to twenty minutes pass, folks slowly pack up their belongings and prepare for the descent. We begin by descending along a legal fire road, until the dirt emerges onto pavement. Two quick right turns and we duck under a barrier barring off a long-abandoned road. Here is where the illegal ride begins. We barely avoid two walkers spotting us as we dive into the overgrown brush lining a four-foot wide stretch of dirt.

The riders in front of me slow as the brush encroaches onto the trail, narrowing our passage. One long thin tendril stretches across the trail at eye level. Carefully maneuvering around this innocent-looking bit of greenery, one rider tells me, “This is poison oak.” I meticulously follow her example taking care to brush neither my body nor my bike against the offending leaves. We slowly pick our way through the dense foliage, much of which proves to be poison oak, a native plant to the region. We push aside more benign brush to make way for our handlebars, all the time walking our bikes along the narrow trail. I slowly pick my way along, careful to avoid the potential rash of a poison oak encounter.

When I emerge onto an open meadow, my fellow riders are gone. I follow the trail, even as it grows more indistinct and overgrown by grasses. Soon, I am following the trail of bent grasses left from a recently passing bicycle tire. I catch up at an abrupt gully, which causes us all to dismount  and carry our bikes down and up its steep sides. More poison oak greets us on the other side, along with a canopy of green with slivers of sunlight passing through the overlapping leaves high above. We pause and comment on how beautiful it is here.

The trail is more distinct here, and I can see how this used to be a road. No one has cleared the fallen brush from last season, making the riding punctuated by recurring stops to dismount and wend our way over and under fallen trees and branches. When we do ride, I worry about one of the many branches I ride over and through flying into my spokes.

We stop at a particularly branch-ridden section and clear out the fallen debris. Logs, sticks, small fallen trees all move away from the trail into the gully below. After around fifteen minutes of this, the trail is remarkably clearer. We ride on, stopping periodically for more fallen branches, clearing as many as possible.

The lower brush grows thicker as we descend, and the poison oak more lush. At one point, I am fairly sure that virtually all the brush on either side of the trail is poison oak. I shield my face and ride quickly through. Dismounting would only increase my exposure.

We finally arrive in an opening surrounded by tall oaks and a few redwoods. Sections of two massive redwood trunks rest on their sides with benches carved out. The wood has grown decrepit with time, but they still support our weight as we snack, drink, and chat. One rider offers the pipe again, and we all enjoy the sun-dappled patterns of the leaves that give this grove a particular vividness of color. We are deep into this illegal ride, relaxing without a care in the world.

Reluctantly, we eventually don our helmets and backpacks to prepare for the final descent. I am cautioned to be quiet in the last half mile of the trail, so as not to attract attention from nearby homeowners. We have seen no one along this entire overgrown trail, and we hope our luck will hold. The dangers of getting caught on illegal rides such as this are always at the end. Rangers are known to lurk near the bottom of popular illegal rides. We proceed along the final stretch soundless save the cracking of branches and the telltale whirring of the freewheel. Emerging out of the brush onto the pavement, we quickly bike on.

Safe.

Note: I wrote this after riding my road bike on a trainer on my back porch, watching video footage of this ride and listening to my field notes from the ride.

Conclusion: The best way to watch unedited footage of a bike ride is while biking.