I have a really old mountain bike.
It’s red, and for a long time it had one black tire and one blue tire, and everything on it was once laying around the mechanics’ area of The Pedaler and the Packer, a bike shop in Athens, Ohio.
My college boyfriend was a bike mechanic. I met him when I took an old Schwinn in for more reflectors, because I was riding home from class and it was dark and everything I wore was black. (It was 1995, and even all my hippie girl corduroy was dark colors. Also, I still dress like that. It’s an issue.)
He invited me to sit in the back with him, and I did, and then we ate ice cream together, and then we dated for several years, and then we broke up, and did that a few more times.
But he was an avid mountain biker, biked everywhere, through the Andes one semester and through West Virginia the rest of the time. At some point he asked me if I liked red or orange better, and I must have said red, because a carbon-fiber frame showed up that he outfitted with spare parts from the shop. We were in college, after all.
We rode all over the place. Roads around Athens, fire roads in West Virginia, carrying gear out and camping with friends. I was never an amazing mountain biker. It required more coordination and fitness than I had at the time. But I had a sense of adventure and he had a lot of patience, and we had a ton of fun.
We rode to grassy areas and he showed me how to clip into pedals, learning in an old loose pair of his, then how to balance myself in a standstill, try to hop in slow circles. I could make it about halfway before I did a slow fall, the insides of my knees black and blue from the bike landing on me over and over while he hopped up and down on picnic tables, balanced on whatever he could find. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it all, but in my memory it was hours of patiently trying things.
Eventually, he put new brakes on for me and warned me not to hit the front ones.
“You’ll flip,” he said.
“I’m fine,” I said, as we crested a hill near Snowshoe, West Va., “Just go.”
“OK,” he said. “I’ll see you at the top of the next one.”
He was off, hands in the air for some of it, then tucked in and flying down, rolling halfway up the next one before he had to pedal again.
I stared down the hill. It was dirt, some loose gravel. I started to get a little scared – it just seemed … steep. I told myself to just ride the back brake and everything would be fine. And it was. It was going well, I wasn’t too freaked out, and then I thought, well, maybe I can just … and I tapped the front brake and the next thing I saw was my bike going over my head as I flipped and slid down the gravel on my side.
I laid there. Looked at the sky. Heard footsteps coming.
“I hit the brake,” I said, when his face came into view.
He helped me up. We finished the ride. Later that day the road rash covering one side of me crusted over and bruises bloomed beneath it. Someone at a gas station on the way home gave him a dirty look.
It’s a long story to tell to say that I loved it. I loved being out in the woods. I loved riding my bike. It was a good life when it was good, great when it was great. And then things change.
But I still have that bike. I bought a road bike about 12 years ago, and for a long time, that was what I had. I rode my mountain bike with a Burley attached to it. Flipped over the handlebars in Newton Hills in 2001. Loved it. I’ve never done anything to it – I can’t. It’s trapped in an era for me that I can’t change, wouldn’t want to.
It’s a piece of crap covered in spare parts that reminds me of a house I lived in with three guys, where we paid $1,000 a month in rent, and in return had no keys, no screens, no dryer and a sump pump that you had to go plug in when it rained, standing on a cinder block in a flooded basement, hoping it would pump out all the water so you could relight the pilot light on the water heater and take a shower before your form and function of poetry class. When I left college, I left everything in that house. Dishes in the sink, food in the fridge, all the furniture. I took some of my clothes and left, never saw the deposit again.
The back porch was full of bikes – several mountain bikes, commuter bikes, the BMX bikes one of the guys still rode.
I love that bike.
And on this past weekend, Patrick took it to Spoke-n-Sport for me, and Peter Oien did something magical to make the rear derailleur actually work again, the first maintenance its seen since 1998, and I drove it over to Elmwood Park for the cyclocross race that Falls Area Bicyclists puts on every year. The week before, Patrick and I had gone out and he had made me practice getting on and off my bike while running. I was back in Athens for a moment, just trying something, in a field with my bike, someone riding slow circles around me.
I couldn’t do what he wanted me to – sort of swing myself over it while running, balanced on my upper body.
“I want to do it in the dark, in my yard, where nobody can see me,” I said.
“OK,” he said, and we slowly rode the course. He took out a piece of paper in my kitchen later and showed me how to try to take any of the turns, warning me not to go too tight or I would fall over.
It proved to be the most helpful thing he told me, besides, “Have fun.”
I’m no stranger to races – I’ve run 10 marathons, two ultras, dozens of half-marathons and 10K and 5Ks, triathlons, spelling bees. I like competition, and I like being outside, and I like trying new things. But still – it’s been a while since I did something I have no real frame of reference for, in front of everyone I know, in loops around them, my kids with cowbells and what little respect they have for me.
“You’re doing the beginner’s race. Sign this,” Patrick said when I got there, and handed me some paperwork and a number. Shannon Parsley pinned it on for me.
The anxiety peaked. “How do I get to the start,” I asked Gene Noble, as I stared at the rows of tape and couldn’t make sense of it. “Just ride the outside, and you’ll get there,” he said. I did and I did, and there were two other women in the back – Claire and Christina. Claire knows what she’s doing.
“I’ve never done this before,” I said to no one, and to them.
“Me neither,” Christina said. “I’m more of a runner.”
“Gah, me, too,” I said.
Solidarity. They were so nice. I felt better immediately – these people were friendly. They weren’t laughing at me. Patrick had assured me, when I asked him about 100 times, “Am I going to embarrass myself?”
These women didn’t care. There were only three of us among the 20 racers.
Friends, it was fun. It was more fun than I’ve had in a long, long time. I was reminded of how horrible I was at mountain biking, of how godawful my depth perception and vision is – yellow tape on yellow leaves was not kind to me – of how I should have honestly paid more attention to Patrick telling me how to get off my bike. Turns out, in the race I pretty much just hit the brakes completely and got off it like I was heading to the library.
We rode across the park, into the woods, over some roots, dodged some pumpkins, carried our bikes up a set of stairs and tried to get back on not looking like idiots. I feel like I couldn’t stop smiling, couldn’t stop thinking about how much I love trail running, how much I loved mountain biking, how much this was like both of them, smashed together on a pile of memories and a little bit of hope and a lot of people being really nice from the sidelines.
I passed Claire at some point, waited the rest of the race to see her again, because she knows how to actually turn her bike. Me? I just basically spent the entire 30 minutes with yellow caution tape touching some part of my body, forgot to move my feet and dug my pedal into the dirt while turning, nearly collided with barriers I struggled to see against the leaves, tipped straight over in the sand.
Toward the end, you ride up and down on the levee, and my poor turning got the best of me, and I got my pedal stuck on tape or a stake or something that made me feel like I was going to slide back down.
It didn’t matter.
I came through the finish, rode over to the pavilion where the kids were. Viv gave me part of her oatmeal cookie. Patrick gave me a hug. Jack ignored me, instead riding all over the little obstacle course with all the other kids. Claire and Christina both found time to come and talk as the day went on, fast friends from the starting line.
And for the rest of the day, I felt happy.
I did something I’ve never done before, and nothing terrible happened. There are a ton of things I’ve never done. I’ve never been to Europe or eaten sushi or been on a sailboat. I’ve never successfully ironed a shirt or picked the correct amount of change to feed a parking meter.
It doesn’t matter.
I had fun. I watched Jack borrow a bike from Harlan’s Bike and Tour and ride it all over all day. I watched Viv take her bike and actually pick it up and run up the stairs, doing her 6-year-old best to be her most awesome self. I watched my friend Kelly’s son Sam, 8, win the kids race, and beam all day with pride. I watched a dad chase his daughter on her bike with training wheels. I watched really fast men and women blow past, loop by loop. Watched those same people yelling for guys on fat bikes and people on tandems in the fun race at the end.
Mostly what I watched was a small festival pop up at a city park, watched a food truck do what I hope was a really good business, watched people get introduced to each other and dogs get petted and babies get held.
For me, it was a reminder that everything you do is built on something else, but it can still all be new again. To not be afraid to try. To remember that people really just want you to come on out.
It’s not what I’ve always thought of the cycling community. But it’s what I got on Sunday, and I’m pretty sure I’ll regret this when a dozen women show up and I come in dead last for the rest of my life, but I hope cyclocross can get some of the love that trail running has been getting the past few years.
As for running, I’ll do the same thing next week at the Newton Hills Ultra, where I really hope there are some new faces, some people who are doing this for the first time, who have never run a trail or never gone over whatever miles or have never done a race. And I hope I can be as kind to them as these people were to me, as encouraging and friendly and welcoming.
See you Saturday.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.