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.

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.


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.