Thursday, May 10, 2007

Noncyclist, interrupted

The first day I went into the desert, I rented a bicycle. Two days cost more than I paid for my first commuter bike, but it seemed wrong to go into the desert without a bicycle in tow. I told the people at Poison Spider that I wanted a hardtail. Rigid if they had it.

"Where are you going to be riding?" the bike shop guy asked.

"Probably just the road above the White Rim," I said, not even trying to mask my disappointment in that statement. "There's going to be some fast guys and I'd like a chance to keep up with them for 10 miles."

Bike shop guy just crinkled his nose as if to suggest he had never heard of anything more boring. "Well we don't have hardtails here," he said. "We only have full-suspension bikes. But if you want, I'll rent you my fixie."

I was meeting Geoff, Dave Nice and our Utah friend Bryan that afternoon at the Sovereign trail. I didn't tell bike shop guy that bit of information because I didn't think I'd actually ride with them much at all. But they were such a dedicated group, I couldn't resist the pull. Dave endured hours on a Greyhound bus all the way from Denver just to ride with us that weekend. Bryan chose to fight a nasty case of Bronchitis while plowing over slickrock on a Trek he rarely rides anymore (Bryan is currently a "roadie.") Geoff was preparing to bust out his first dirt century the next day, but everyone wanted to hit the Sovereign singletrack. Compared to that group, slight gimpiness was hardly a good excuse to skip a short ride.

Falling back into the flow of mountain biking happened surprisingly fast. I haven't ridden a dirt trail since September; not that it mattered anyway, because I hadn't really ridden a bike since February. Motoring along effortlessly at 10 mph, standing the whole time to avoid the pain angles and timidly stepping off my bike at most uphill obstacles, I still felt like I was flying across time and space. The trail was a mob scene - I think I saw more mountain bikers in those 10 miles than I have seen throughout thousands in Alaska - but I didn't care. I probably had some kind of silly grin stretched across my face for the entire wavering, pain-streaked, overcrowded ride. Self deprivation is a powerful thing.

The next morning, I was stiff but unwilling to completely give up on the White Rim. I planned this ride back in February, back when I still believed that recovery was an easy process. By the time it became obvious that my presence on the ride would only serve as a huge liability, Geoff had already signed on, as had two hardcore riders who are training for this year's Great Divide Race, Dave and Pete Basinger. Talk about a cool group. I was drooling with jealousy. I thought if I could set out toward the edge of the rim, I would almost be able to taste a trail just out of my reach. I thought that 20 miles of pavement would be better than nothing at all. So I set out with the crowd at 6 a.m., rain clouds hovering on the horizon and temperatures dipping below 40 degrees. With tailwinds and a downhill slope, it seemed to be over before it even began. I watched the three disappear over the Schaefer trail, in my mind filling the void with my delusions of competence and a gnawing defiance held back only by the presence of Bryan, who was preparing to ride with me back the way we came.

By noon that day, the rest of the group of friends and I had already shivered our way through the nature walk above Dead Horse Point and were looking for a better way to kill an afternoon. I convinced myself that the best way to shuttle Geoff back to Moab that evening would be to leave our vehicle at the trailhead and pedal myself into town - only 27 miles, mostly downhill. And as long as I had a full-suspension mountain bike, I reasoned, I might as well take the Gemini Bridges jeep road - catch a few technical moves and maybe a nice view or two before frittering away the rest of the day at the Slickrock Cafe.

I recruited my friend Monika to ride along. She rode my friend Jen's neglected Trek 4300, corroded and in need of a multitude of adjustments that I was too lazy to fix. Monika and I took it painfully easy, coasting down the road and stopping at scenic points along the way.

We hit a short, 300-foot climb about two miles from the highway. I pedaled the hill hard at first because it felt good to take quick gulps of the cold desert air, but fairly quickly slipped back against the pain streaks. I hopped off my bike to walk the last stretch. A couple of approaching motorcyclists stopped beside me.

"Are you having a hard time pedaling your bike uphill?" one asked.

"Um, no," I said. "I'm just walking for a bit."

"Because you know, you have gears on that bike that you can shift to make it easier to pedal," he said, pointing to crank on my rental ride, which was currently fixed on the second ring - where it needed to be, since I rode the entire day off the saddle. I couldn't tell if he was serious or just being a jerk, but either way, I didn't want to invite further condescending treatment by telling him I was walking because my knee had an owie. Instead, I got a three-minute lecture about the basic mechanics of a geared bike and how the levers work. All the while, I just smiled, nodded, and dreamed of the alternate universe where healthy Jill was riding her own bike on a 100-mile day jaunt down the White Rim trail, and this doofus had run out of gas somewhere deep in the desert.

The day clocked in at 45 miles, plus 10 the previous day, which I guess is arguably half as healthy as I'd need to be to ride the White Rim. Except for I wasn't healthy. I was an Aleve-popping hopalong who still had a three-day backpacking trip to complete. But I'd think back to plummeting down the sandy slopes of Gemini Bridges road, with a foreground drenched in a blaze of spring green and slipping effortlessly into the blur of motion, and I'd decide it was all worth it.