I can count two occasions last year where I wanted nothing more than to be off of my bike, deep into a bathtub and a plate of nachos, yet was still hours away from a remote chance of that possibility. I’m not sure what draws me to these experiences, but every year, I endure at least a small handful, and if I’m lucky, it’s with a group of friends, where we can spread the exquisite misery amongst each other.
The first experience of 2020 that comes to mind, was a solo “gravel” “race” in Michigan. The course was a sandy, undulating 52-miles through the woody backcountry of the UP. Because of COVID, the race changed its usual mass start format to an on-your-own experience, where times were recorded via GPS and sent into organizers to tabulate the fastest results.
Figuring that I was at sea level and coming from altitude, I assumed I’d have an advantage, but I was wrong. After three hours of pedaling with very few breaks, I still had 20 more miles to go. I was alone with only my own brain to ransack for motivation, which was already preoccupied with anxiety and slight trepidation.
Hours later, as I pedaled my bouncy, plus-tired hardtail along frog-laden marshes and timber harvests, I still had no clue where the hell I was and when exactly I would be done. I started to run low on snacks and water. I had already run out of motivation, but with no possibility of calling in the saggin-wagon, I didn’t have a choice. During intermittent bouts of cell-phone service, I texted my fiance: “Please bring me a Coke and big bag of chips.”
Aching, hungry, and dehydrated I sat in the soft beige passenger seat of our rental car pouring carbohydrates into my mouth, wondering why I’d started the route in the first place. There was a definitive line where the fun ended and misery and determination took over. Sometimes the only motivation in these rides is pride that you’ve finished, and maybe an increase in fitness for the remainder of the season.
Four months later, I was frantically spinning behind a group of friends up a canyon road on my gravel bike, in store for a similar experience. After 20 miles of road, we’d turn our bars onto another 20 miles of trail, unsure of the shape the singletrack was in. We expected some snow, but weren’t sure how much. Some of us were on gravel bikes, some of us XC bikes. I was on inch-and-a-half-wide tires, a good compromise for rolling over a lot of road and singletrack in one day, but they would be my demise.
The first ten miles of trail were mostly dry, with an inch or two of packed powder in spots. I rolled through without a problem. That trail would be the 20-30 mile chapter in our 50-mile book of the day. About a mile or two into our ten-mile stretch of the Colorado Trail though, we made it behind a ridge that guarded the trail from the low-flying December sun.
Four inches of snow covered the trail and as soon as my front tire sliced into it, I sunk like a pizza cutter in a deep dish. For the next five to seven miles, it was mount, ride, sink, dismount, walk, ride, and repeat. After starting at 8am sharp with a 32° chill, we now had two hours of sunlight left, it was dipping back into the 30s, and I had zero patience left.
And again, there was no way out but forward; no opportunity to quit, or call for a ride. The closest road was still more than ten miles away. At the same time, I realized that my cold, hungry, maddening misery is something I love about mountain biking, and many of us have experienced these feelings to one degree or another.
With each finish of a notably painful ride, you gain resilience and the ability to endure an uncertain and uncomfortable experience. I assume. Some might also gain contempt for these sorts of rides, but since I’m an optimist I’ll go with the former. Deep inside of my brain, I love these experiences because they push me past my breaking point and leave me just a little grittier than before.
It’s obviously a huge time for mountain biking. So huge, that there are not enough new bikes for everyone that wants one. There are more trail networks, and bike-optimized trail networks than ever before, in areas that haven’t been thought of as traditional mountain bike destinations, and with e-bikes gaining access across the world, the bar for entry is being lowered, and so if it’s someone’s first time mountain biking, there’s a better chance than ever that they don’t have to return to the trailhead bruised up, hobbling on defunct pair of legs. That means that more of those first-time riders are going to try it a second time and a third time. “Suffering” will not be as closely associated with mountain biking as it was before, and I think that’s a good thing.
But, I hope that means that people can still ease into suffering every now and then. Start small. Make sure you go with friends to share the burden. Oh, and pack the appropriate items, like a tube and enough food so that you can suffer responsibly. Because the challenge of mountain biking, and going for really hard rides, is one of those aspects of the sport that I believe is life-changing, and good for you in the long run. It also doesn’t hurt to have some chips and a Coke in the car for after the ride.