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I’m now a shadow of my former biking self, but getting better with every (fire road) mile.

After spending 2.5 months off the bike as a result of a spectacularly un-noteworthy crash and resulting surgery, I’m back on two wheels. It’s magical. It’s frustrating. It’s a whole new perspective.

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By Maureen Gaffney
 

My first time back on the bike—the same one that threw me, my Juliana Roubion (getting back on the horse and all that)—I headed out on the bike path near my house. Her multiple inches of suspension were very confused by this terrain, but it literally made me giggle. I was instantly transported back to the cul-de-sac in front of my childhood home where I felt my dad let go of the back of the flowered, plastic banana seat and push me off into a two-wheeled world of my own. Ah, freedom! But it’s always been more than just freedom, right? It’s hard to capture, why the riding of a bicycle is so… neat.

I quickly progressed back to the dirt and am now the fire road queen of Marin. Railroad Grade is, in ordinary times, a means to an end, a way to access the top of the mountain and the (very few) legal singletracks on offer there. Now, it is epic.

There are many things I still cannot do on the bike: A) clip in, B) stand up, and C) ride singletrack. Regarding A), I am a lifelong clipless rider. In fact, about 5 weeks before my downfall, I tried flat pedals with the accompanying shoes. Everyone’s doing it so it must be something good, right? I hated it. On a cellular level. I endured tomato-faced boiling rage every time I got stopped on a technical uphill. It is impossible to get started again. Yes, “impossible” is relative, and if I write this right, I’ll get lots of morale-deflating comments about how it’s as easy as sitting on a bench eating a sandwich, and I’m sure it is, for you. Anyway, I sold my pedals for a song 10 days before my accident, so I’m currently riding around on the Toys-R-Us pedals that bikes come with off the showroom floor.

B) Can’t Stand Up. This is another one of those things you, able-bodied mountain-biker, do all the time but give nary a thought to. Standing up, even just an inch off your saddle, is like digesting food or keeping your heart beating—you don’t concentrate on it, it just happens. The first time I tried to stand up on my pedals post-surgery, my left ankle became a primordial amoeba-like thing on the end of my leg, sans bone, tendon, and muscle. I returned to the saddle with a thud, bemused and dejected… but mostly dejected.

And that’s when I became “That Lady.” You know the one: flat plastic pedals with reflectors. Tennis shoes. Crooked helmet (though, to be fair, my helmet is always crooked. I have otherwise epic race photos that were defiled by my helmet dorkitude). Add to all of the above the inability to stand while descending, and you have quite a sight.

See? That’s a nice race photo from the 2016 Trans Alp. One could even think the guy in the photo is admiring my bike handling skills or the fact that I just dropped him, but in reality, he’s probably saying, “look at that lady’s crooked helmet. What a dork.”

Being knocked down three or four pegs is probably good for you in some karmic, character-building way. Because let’s be honest: we are human and we categorize. When you see someone–regardless of age, gender, or any of those other flimsy brackets–on a halfway-decent bike with relevant attire, you put that person into a particular biking bucket. You put a person on a 60-pound Walmart “Iron Horse” wearing Keds, jeans, and a backward helmet into a different biking bucket. You just do.

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By Maureen Gaffney
 

So now what am I? A conundrum, to be sure. Newish Juliana Roubion. Keds. Appropriate attire, yes, but poorly-applied (crooked helmet). Flat pedals yes, but the wrong kind.

Okay, but how does she actually ride? Going up she looks kinda normal–bit of a slug. But down? Good lord. It’s like someone strapped a sack of turnips onto a purple pogo stick and sent it down the mountain.

My first ride back on dirt was a warm September evening. So warm, in fact, that we later learned the mountain was closed due to high fire danger. But we were already at the top, enjoying an adult beverage, chatting with the West Point Innkeeper and his trapped and deliriously-happy pair of guests. We soaked in the views of San Francisco, the ocean dotted with container ships made toy-like by the distance, fingers of fog creeping silently our way. A little surge of deep gratitude and happiness lumped in my throat for a moment, but before I could move fully into the misty-eyed stage, the boyfriend said, “Hey, uh, you got lights?”

Talk about a buzzkill.

“Uh, no, not so much. You?”

“Nope.”

“Huh. How long have we been doing this night ride thing?”

“Oh, ‘bout 13 years.”

Practicing my fire road Zen at the top of Mt. Tam. Photo by Peter Repetti.

Now, the single most important thing at this stage of my recovery was to not crash and re-injure my ankle. So riding down a sometimes-rutted fire road in the inky darkness with no moon on offer was probably not what my surgeon had in mind. It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind, but the last time I did a night ride was at the summer solstice, so my brain neatly cut out the intervening two months that I was stumping around in a cast, a boot, a brace, and led me to believe that it would stay light until 9pm. I don’t know what the boyfriend’s excuse was.

Halfway down, the ghost-like outlines of the fire road were finally and completely snuffed out. While attempting to affix an iPhone-as-flashlight to the chest of the boyfriend by using a heart rate monitor strap, we saw lights coming our way. A friendly mountain biker dude escorted us off the mountain and kept whatever incredulity he was experiencing to himself whilst listening to us (okay, me) try to explain that no, really, we ride all the time, we’re legit… I swear! (As a reminder: Keds, Toys-R-Us pedals, crooked helmet, sack of turnips.) Sure thing, lady.

With every ride, my far-flung abilities come slowly back together. Muscles remember their job, posture re-adheres to the bike. I have not yet returned to singletrack, the fire road still containing a level of technicality I had not been previously aware of, and I anticipate frustrations and delights anew on my first post-accident trail. But the lessons learned are valuable.

Though I know it will fade as time goes by, I hope to keep at least a small dose of this awe, this “falling in love again” feeling for later times when a ride seems blah, or too hard, or just plain mundane. I hope to draw on these small joys like a tiny tincture. And I hope that my time spent as “That Lady” makes my brain pause the next time it wants to quickly categorize another rider. But most of all, I can’t wait to get rid of these #$@*! flat pedals!

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# Comments

  • Maureen Gaffney

    The “OP” (Offroad Princess? Original Penguin?) has in fact now migrated to good, real flats (Harrier’s on loan since I SOLD mine….) and yes they are certainly better than the Toys R Us ones (but I still don’t like it). To Douglass’ original Q re whether being clipped in added to the injury…unclear, but I have a sneaking suspicion it might have. My surgeon is a mtn biker and he went right to that question as well. However, when pressed if he thought that was why this happened, he (understandably) shrugged and said “Hard to say….”

  • Douglas Ko

    Sorry Maureen. Obviously Rick and I have spent too much time on forums or reddit. OP refers to Original Poster – but you can claim Offroad Princess if you want.

    I read your previous post about crash and it sounds eerily similar to my crash a month ago that made me swear off clipless to Nobby Nic tires. I was luckier in that when I washed out I landed on left hip (instead of my face) and I didn’t break my ankle – BUT yes my opposite right foot was still clipped in. I’m pretty sure I could have braced my fall better if I was not clipped in.

    Again – trying not to preach, but rather help you get your confidence back and have you on your way up and down the mountain again. I guess my questions would be around how the both the “better” Harrier pedals and flat shoes fit you? Do you have wide feet? What size feet are you? I never tried the harriers, but looking them up online, they do appear larger and wider than average flat pedal. But perhaps it’s too wide and the side pins are floating and not biting into your shoes. As for shoes? Are you using Keds (might not be supportive enough), running shoes (bad idea – that’s why I gave up on flats the first time I tried 12 years ago), or using the popular 5.10 MTB flats? 5.10 are a good choice – but I have found some flat soled lightly cushioned shoes to work very well with my flats.

    Finally switching to flats definitely requires some technique change from clipless. In my 1 week transition so far, I have found standing up pedaling on steep climbs to be one helpful technique – it does sound like this is another challenge area for you….so give it time. The other is around unlearning the ankle up habit to happens on clipless especially when “pulling up” on the the pedal. Instead with flats, especially on the downhills you gain more foot stability and less slippage with the heels down position.

  • bjeast

    Interesting article. I can relate, though in my case I’m getting back into mountain biking after too many years off. I quit because I dislocated my clavicle from my sternum up at Whistler quite a few years ago. A couple of my main biking buddies moved away and I just… quit. But I got back into mountain biking this summer, and now, in my fifties, I’m fairly fit again, but I notice that definitely don’t want to leave the ground as much as used to. I’ve had to readjust my expectations on the trail. What I used to launch myself off on the North Shore will not happen again. My knees are in worse shape for one thing. I was looking at pics of what I used to do and think “I used to do that?” But, hey it’s still fun and I love getting out! Oh, and I’ve been on flats for a long time! 🙂 Eleven knee operations later, I just don’t want to be clipped in. 🙂

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