Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The day I quit mountain biking

( After the four-year hiatus: Me on the White Rim trail in April 2003)


Today I made it another 90 minutes on the trainer. My Netflix DVD ended so I started it over from the beginning. I really need to get back outside soon. But since I can't quite do that yet, I thought I'd share the story of my first and nearly last time on a mountain bike.

I still remember the date - April 7, 1999. When I think of that time, I remember myself as a giggly little girl ... but in reality, I was a junior in college. Back then, I had a boyfriend who - not unlike the one I have now - was better than me at pretty much everything. But unlike the boyfriend I have now, he was either unable or unwilling to reach into that vast reserve of knowledge and teach me the ways of the great outdoors. Whenever we went snowboarding together, I would spend an entire afternoon dragging my bruised knees down whatever black-diamond slope he abandoned me on. When we went backpacking, he would laugh as I juggled my gear - a full-sized pillow and a $10 sleeping bag strapped to the outside of my bookbag - and then bury me on the hike up. Then, one day, he suggested we go mountain biking ... in Moab.

"Sounds great," I said. And in my mind, I was thinking, how hard can this be? After all, I had a 10-speed as a child. I definitely knew how to ride a bike - or at least I believed that adage about never forgetting how. He took me to Poison Spider bike shop. "What would you like to rent?" they asked me.

"Uh, a bike?"

"Mountain or road?"

"Um ... for slickrock?"

"Rigid or suspension?"

"Uh ... huh?"

I think think in local bike shop speak that's code for "Give this girl the cheapest bike and the nicest helmet we have." They gave me a hardtail with a squeaky little suspension fork. We strapped it to the top of my boyfriend's car with bungee cords, then hauled it up to the Slickrock Trail.

"They have two loops," he said. "One of them is painfully easy, and the other is pretty fun."

"Fun," I said. (I mean, what would you say given those choices? However, I should have known from several snowboarding experiences that to him, "fun" was code for "you're not going to get out of this without permanent scarring.")

It's been long enough now that I don't remember much about how the ride started out. There was a little tentative pedaling, a lot of walking, and an uneasy distance between me and my boyfriend. I spent so much time fixated on white dashes scrawled across the slickrock that I began to lose track of him. And as I looked back, I realized that I could be anywhere on this vast plateau hovering over the Colorado River and he was carrying all of the water. I had to keep up.

I began to pedal harder, catching glimpses of his silhouette coasting effortlessly across a moonscape of red rock beneath the harsh April sun. I had a fair amount of elevation on him, but that perspective was lost on me at the time. I wobbled a bit and mashed at the pedals, feeling a surge of freedom and power. It was beautiful and fleeting, and it absolutely shattered the second I crested the edge of what can only be remembered as a sheer, sun-scalded cliff. My front wheel was the last to relish in that freedom and power as it sailed into deep blue sky before slamming into the side of the cliff. There was enough empty space below for the bike to turn a complete 360. If I had any grace or skill at all, I could have flipped a full head-over-heels turn and landed on my wheels. But instead, I set the twirling bike free and landed on my face in a pile of hot sand. By sheer grace, my legs must have hit the slickrock first because they ended up bloody and torn, but I didn't snap my neck.

I remember laying motionless in the sand - stunned. All I could think about was how my face felt like it was on fire - and with my eyes shut I almost convinced myself it was only sunburn. But as I rolled over and got my first look at my legs, dripping crimson from slickrock rash that would make even the most hardened roadie cringe, I thought, "My 10-speed never did this."

I staggered to my feet and collected the bike - no worse for the wear, although I admittedly didn't really bother to check. The boyfriend was nowhere in sight. I commenced limping along those white lines until I was convinced nothing was broken. Then I walked normally for a while, leaving a lightly sprinkled trail of blood in the sand. I think a couple more miles passed before I found him. He was sitting in the shade, sipping the water that he had waited so patiently to share with me.

"What happened to you?" he asked.

"Crash," I said.

"You feel OK to keep riding?" he asked.

"If it's OK with you, I'll probably just walk to the trailhead," I said.

"Hum," he said. "I think it's still about five or six more miles."

(Indifferent nod from me)

"You sure you don't want to try riding again?"

This argument went on for about a mile before he convinced me to at least try to sit on the saddle one more time. Then it was tentative pedaling ... a lot more walking ... pedal ... groan.

And when I wheeled the bike back into Poison Spider, legs still covered in dried blood that had only been half-heartedly scrubbed with a Subway napkin, the bike shop guy asked me, "So how was it?"

"Great," I said. And in my mind, I was thinking, "Thank God I'll never have to do that again."