This was a thing I wrote for a contest a few months back. I can see now why it didn't win anything, but I was proud of how honest I made it. I bought my bike one year ago today, and it made a big impact on my life, obviously.
I didn’t like that guy.
He certainly wasn’t anyone I wanted to be. Thirty-four years old, tired, bombed out, and cynical. I was in trapped in this harrowing descent into being that guy forever. I’d had bouts of depression and spent enough time fighting with my wife that it was worrying. My pants and shirts didn’t fit anymore, and I went on a three month coughing jag eventually discovered to be acid reflux from a combination of stress, a bad diet, and getting fat. Just look at that round face!
My son was just about two years old, and it had not been an easy road. Some people have easy babies. Some people have lots of family and help around, and some people like us had neither. My wife and I were at home, where we both worked, with our son, day and night, every day just a scramble to get to the next, when it started again. I was worried that this kid was going to end up with the worst version of me, a defeated, bloated, cranky dude who was pissed off that the world hadn’t rewarded his talents, and that he’d missed his shot.
It wasn’t that things were terrible. We’d just moved out of New York City, specifically Queens, which had stepped on and crumpled a significant portion of our belief in the inherent goodness of people. Research, chance, compromise, and some guessing lead us to move to southern New Hampshire. I grew up in Maine, but got away as quickly as possible spending 8 years in Los Angeles, followed by 6 years in New York. After all that, it turns out I’m not a city person. I instantly found solace in the beautiful stars at night, the sounds of crickets, and the distinct absence of car horns and strangers randomly cursing at each other. But we were still stuck in the same rut, doing the same things, just in a larger, more serene setting.
That guy still needed a bike.
I was never an athletic guy. I puttered around at the edges of sports as a kid, even doing a year on the JV basketball team in tenth grade, where, possessing limited skills and almost no natural talent, I sat the bench with a vengeance all year. In my twenties, I was fairly regular with gym visits where I would pedal in place, and lift random weights according to magazine articles. Way back when I was about 15, I found myself very attracted to one of those bikes with fat tires.
The shape and idea of the mountain bike was always high in my esteem. I broke a Murray version of a mountain bike jumping off curbs, and when it came time to replace it, I went to L.L. Bean and cleared out my tiny savings account to buy my first real mountain bike. It was purple, rigid, and lasted over a decade. I rode it sporadically on trails around my home town, and even took it to an early bike park. I still remember the ache in my wrists the next day. I bought mountain bike magazines, and wondered if I’d ever bee able to afford the four figure machines advertised in them. It turns out that it would be a while. After going off to college, I never hit a trail again until my late twenties, when, living in Los Angeles, I traveled to Big Bear and rented a full suspension bike and rode down the mountain.
“Oh right! I love doing this! I need to buy a bike.”
Shortly after that, I moved to New York and there was nowhere to keep a bike, and nowhere to pay for it. That was my excuse anyway. Life’s disappointments are paved with excuses for why we didn’t do the thing we wanted to, or should have.
It took almost a year after moving to New Hampshire, researching all the while that was able to buy something. It turns out that bikes had gotten really expensive. A well timed work reimbursement arrived, and I agonized over asking my wife about buying a bike with it, instead of fixing stuff in the house that needed fixing. Every time I had a spare moment, I was off to one of the local bike shops, trying out different things. I tried hard tails, 26ers, 29ers, full suspension bikes, and was a little overwhelmed by the new designations of trail or cross country or all mountain. When I was trying to decide between a full suspension bike and a better appointed hard tail, the guy at the shop stopped me dead, asking my age, and then following up with “Do you really want to be on a hard tail bike at 40 or 45 years old.” It was sobering, but it certainly helped me make up my mind.
I literally thought about the bike every night before going to bed for weeks. My wife gave the OK, and on my thirty-fifth birthday, she suggested we go to the bike shop and finally pick it up. I panicked for a moment, because it turned out that the model I’d finally settled on was a little more expensive than we’d discussed. Again, she was accommodating and understanding. That bike was red, white, shiny, and so beautiful.
It snowed for the only time all winter the next day, my dreams of a cold, but dry winter ride delayed. But the freakish weather melted that snow quickly, and one morning, a week later, I hopped on the bike, riding off in a random direction, just to give it a try. I noticed a trail entrance in some woods a near my house, and I was off.
Now it was time for that guy to pay the price for being such a slob.
It was not a hard trail. It wasn’t that hilly or technical, or anything. I think I lasted 40 minutes at mostly very low speed, breathlessly returning to the house. It wasn’t that cathartic of an experience to be honest. Clouds didn’t part with divine inspiration. I was tired, and even though I knew I was out of shape, I was surprised at how much of a struggle it was to wrestle that aluminum thing up even small hills. I wanted to go back out again. As soon as possible.
Over the next few weeks, I found that I was blessed with a surplus of trails in the area. Within an hour in any direction, there was something other riders loved. My closest real trail system was a punishing rocky singletrack, far more technical than I was equipped for. I was instantly glad I went with the big wheels and front and rear suspension, except when I realized I didn’t have the skills to make some of the quick corners required of me, resulting in my flying off into the trees fairly regularly.
With a little more confidence, I started sucking slightly less wind. I also started falling more. My technical skills needed lots of work. There’s some accounting for instinct, but watching some videos and talking to people who knew what they were doing made a huge difference. My legs started to gain some serious scarring. I went over the bars once or twice and really shook myself up. I remember being more upset that it had happened so early in my ride, when I had precious free time, than I was about the blood running down my arms and legs, or the scratches on my new bike. Those wounds still haven’t gone away completely. I’m cool with that. A friend of mine informed me that I was giving off a Fight Club vibe, just short of proudly spitting broken teeth out to show how tough I was. He wasn’t wrong.
Because of the magic of the internet and a local Facebook group, I was able to meet up with other riders in the area. These were guys I had nothing in common with, and would never have met in the other parts of my life. But they were all, to a man, friendly and gracious. That was important because I was much, much slower than all of them. I got smoked by people much older, much younger, much fatter, and much thinner. I saw guys ride at a pace I literally didn’t think possible. I never heard so much as a sigh or an eyeroll. At least not until I got to know them a bit better. But mostly they were just happy to be riding. I went from only riding by myself to almost always riding with others, often new people I’d never met before, testing the limits of my introversion, and yet almost always with positive results. Today I'm actually real friends with some of them, which was another unexpected benefit in a small town where I don't really know anyone.
So what happened to that guy?
I’m not going to go so far as to say he’s dead, but his power is greatly diminished. He’s about ten pounds down from where he started, and a hell of a lot less stressed out. I try to find time whenever I can to ride, often having to get up early in the morning to fit it in at least two or three times a week. I am generally h
appier. So much of that stress and crabbiness disappeared behind me on the trails. I have more energy. I don’t want to eat junk food for therapy. Spousal bickering is way down, and I haven’t had a bout of depression in recent memory. It took me almost twenty years to get me back to this thing, this mountain biking that I have an unexplained affinity for, and I couldn’t be happier that I did. No matter how punishing a ride, and how much I want that awful hill to be behind me, or how many mosquitoes and ticks feast on me, within moments of the ride being over, I want to go back and give it another shot, even if my body is screaming at me to stop. I’m sleeping better. My clothes are fitting again. My wife is proud that I’m sticking to it. My son really wants a bike too. Getting my mountain bike, and hitting the trails is literally the best thing I have done for myself in years. It isn’t a cure all. It doesn’t fix the problems I had before, but the clarity of mind and fitness it provides, the outlet it is, has made everything better and easier. My bike has pounded that guy far off stage, and made everyone around me happier as a result.