It was two month since I had been on my bike, and it felt foreign. My muscle memory was more tuned to the exercise bike in my den than one that actually propelled me forward with every pedal stroke.
I was less than a half mile from home, but I wavered twice wondering whether I wore too much clothing, or not enough. A short hill loomed in front of me, barely steep enough to drop a gear, but I dropped two, stood on the pedals, and felt oxygen drain from my lungs like a leaking balloon.
Didn’t I ride that boring-ass stationary bike this winter to avoid this? How did it happen?
Welcome to first-ride blues, when your eagerness to ride collides with reality. But don’t worry, it doesn’t last long.
In fact, mine usually lasts about 15 minutes. Whether the first ride or the 50th of the season, the 15-minute rule applies. It’s that painful first climb when your legs and lungs rebel against gravity and exertion, or when you’re riding the flats faster than normal trying to keep pace with your annoying riding partner who’s always in better shape.
After 15 minutes, the body adjusts, and the ride feels normal.
Before long on that first ride, I was off pavement and back on long-awaited dirt. It was late winter, so the ride was a temperature time trial. As soon as it warms much above freezing, the trail thaws from frozen dirt to mud and solid traction switches to a snotty, slick mess.
I’m not an early riser, and a bit of a procrastinator, so I’m usually flirting with the wrong end of that timeline, and this ride was no different.
After a brief climb up the trail, which felt better than the first climb, I swooped through a twisty section of trail and felt my my front tire break free, and the culprit wasn’t the packed snow remaining on the edge of the trail. It was a warning sign that conditions were changing fast as the sun climbed into the sky and radiant heat warmed the ground, melting the frozen trail faster than it seemed possible with the air temperature still hovering in the mid thirties.
I rode to the opposite side of the ridge hoping a different aspect would keep the trails frozen a little longer, but I got caught in a wet section. It not only turned my bike into a mud-splattered mess, it also made me feel guilty for riding on a muddy trail.
I made a beeline for a sandier section and bailed off the trail at the first opportunity that didn’t include detouring off trail through the sagebrush.
The smooth pavement eased my guilty conscience, but my odometer showed about half the miles I hoped to ride. I pedaled toward home, but detoured down a rural road.
After a sloppy, semi-frustrating attempt at riding dirt where my fitness, bike handling skills and trail conditions all conspired against me, I found that steady, comfortable cadence. I felt at ease on the bike, and while I am not a roadie, I know road miles pay dividends later in the season, so I settled into the steady pedaling rhythm where riding becomes subconscious. This was the Zen I was hoping to find on the trail.
First rides don’t have to be perfect, even if we hope they will be. The simple joy of being on a bike should always override our need for perfection, whether perfect weather, perfect dirt, perfect fitness, or a perfectly-tuned bike.
Those springy, tireless legs we had at the height of last season will return with patience and persistence. Tacky dirt will also return at some point, and warm weather will stoke the spirit rather than blunt our enthusiasm.
A new season lies ahead of us like a new trail in a nearby area – kind of familiar, but still unknown. The only way to see where it goes is to start the journey, so let’s ride.