LIFE LESSONS IN
By C.B. Mackintosh
Sometimes life too closely resembles a bone-crushing mountain bike ride on the hardest trails you’ve ever encountered. Or, maybe it’s the other way around: a mountain bike ride reminds you of the toughest times you’ve had in life. In this piece, contributor C.B. Mackintosh confronts the messiness of life by drawing inspiration from the three rules of mountain biking.
I’m riding Kloosifier on too full a stomach. Half of the Blue Dog Thai chicken wrap before riding again would have been enough. I’m dying. It’s almost as bad as the time I fuelled up with a maple bacon donut and a double mochaccino. Only this time I’m alone. No one to distract me from my nausea and my ridiculously high heart rate.
So, I get back on my bike and keep riding. That’s why I’m out here on the Sunday of the long weekend in May after a difficult, existential, angst-inducing stretch of days. I can’t erase the pain and heartache of divorce, or fight the unfair parking ticket, or find companionship for my lonely heart today. But, I know that if I pedal, the bike will move forward and, eventually, if I keep on pedalling, I will reach the end of the trail. I will complete something.
Complete: to make whole or perfect.
I try not to think about the fact that I’m not quite halfway around this normally fun little detour off The Johnson, which combined with Kloosifier forms a 23-km loop. I already rode 17 km this morning out in Fairmont. The heat is sweltering. Back of my jersey soaked with sweat. Legs caked with dust. Hoodoos golden in the sunlight. Blue mountains in the distance. I can smell the earth and the evergreens as I wind my way along the single track, breathing too hard.
I am already thinking about that sign: the one that says “Easy way down” with the green arrow pointing left, and “Hard way down” with the black arrow pointing right towards the edge of a cliff overlooking Invermere. I tried to follow a friend down that route one time, but skidded to a halt at the top of a ridiculous looking slope that appeared to be better suited for wings than wheels and disappeared disconcertingly around a narrow corner. I had what I like to call one of my “cartoon bubble moments,” where instead of the words “SHAZAM!!!!” and “KAPOW!!!” appearing inside the zig-zagged outline, the word “IMPOSSIBLE!!!!” appears instead.
I’m gonna ride that this time, I tell myself.
If I make it that far. My riding is off. I shift too late on a grunt of a climb and get bucked off, my gears stammering, “WTF?!”
Or that might have been me.
“Sorry, sorry,” I say to my bike, vowing to do right by it next climb. I almost lose my rear wheel to a skid at the bottom of a swoopy curve (in this case, that’s a steep down, hard right) hitting the compression hard and almost taking a tumble as I attempt the turn. I stop to collect myself. Look ahead. Eff. Another steep climb. “Come on, come on, come on,” I mutter to myself and the chicken wrap, muscling my way up to the next plateau where the trail lures the uninitiated rider into a sense of complacency, because, Aha! There is the sign. Green arrow pointing left: Easy Way Down. Black arrow pointing right: Possible Death. Possible Death doesn’t seem so bad after the week I’ve had.
I remember the three rules of mountain biking my friend Dave taught me when I was first learning to ride:
This begins with fully committing to the path you’ve chosen. That tree you’re afraid of hitting? That death-defying drop to the right? Ignore those, because if you focus on them, guess where you’ll end up? (Hitting the tree, falling down the cliff.) Look ahead as far as you can down the path you have chosen. Look where you want to go, and the wheels will follow.
Fast or slow, you have to keep moving forward. Sometimes pedalling fast and hard is the best way over or through an obstacle on the trail, but for a steep descent, it’s usually best to go slow and steady and in control.
Which makes me laugh, and reminds me, hey, I’m doing this for FUN. Sometimes we go through things in life that make us lose our sense of adventure. We hurt so badly that we just want to hole up underneath the duvet and leave the world outside our door, where we think it belongs. But life is an adventure, and you can’t have an adventure if you’re not willing to get off your butt, outside your comfort zone, and take some risks.
If you play, you will get hurt. No one sets off on a mountain bike ride without embracing the possibility, the probability in fact, of enduring some bumps and bruises along the way.
I glance at the sign. I waffled the last time. Today, I am fully committed. The decision was made two climbs, one swoopy near-crash and a bad-shift bail ago.
I drop my saddle as I crest the hill. The cartoon bubble appears, screaming “IMPOSSIBLE!!!” It’s steeper than I remember, but I’m already dropping. If I bail now, I am guaranteed a fall, so my only option is to keep my wheels turning, get my ass over my rear tire, and apply even pressure to the breaks.
I recite out loud my mantra for fear: “Look where you want to go, and enjoy the ride!” The descent starts off wide – its pattern of rocks in the earth reminds me of cobblestone – then narrows as it approaches the bend. My arms are fully extended and my body has become one with the bike. I am riding the impossible slope, controlling my speed, ignoring the drop to my right and concentrating on the trail for as far ahead as I can see.
I should have a cape. I feel like a superhero. I might even be flying.
Christy Mackintosh is happiest when playing outside in nature. She is celebrating her 22nd year of “playing Life” in Banff.