Essay: Ignorance is bliss

Words by Helena Kotala, photos by Evan Gross

As someone who has been serious about riding bikes for a relatively short period of time, I still vividly remember being a beginner.

Well, to be honest, I started riding bikes seriously a long time ago (around age 10 or 11), even raced a little, but then lost interest after a few years and decided to take up admittedly more lame activities for the rest of my teens. Fast forward to my senior year of college, and I decided that I wanted to give this mountain biking thing a go again.

The extent of my riding at the time was around town to get to and from class, so I was rusty to say the least. But it only took one ride to get hooked again. I began riding trails several times a week, always on a borrowed bike, often a different one each time. Sometimes they fit really well. A lot of the time they didn’t. I rode singlespeeds, fat bikes, 29ers, full-suspension bikes, drop bars, steel, aluminum, carbon. A couple times, I even rode my husband’s bikes (he’s 6’3” and I’m 5’3”). Some of these bikes were maintained really well; others weren’t. Unless there was some glaring issue, I couldn’t tell the difference. I didn’t notice if my brakes rubbed a little or if my chain hadn’t been lubed in months. I just rung what I (or someone else) brung.

I routinely rode with people who were much, much faster than me. I walked most of the rock gardens I now clean without the blink of an eye. I left most rides with a new bruise, and wore it proudly to work the next day, excited to tell my coworkers about my epic adventure. I suffered hard. I pushed myself 110% every time just to remotely keep up—and even then, I still lagged far behind.

I’m sure I noticed a difference between all the bikes I rode. I’m sure I noticed that some were way too big and some were nicer to ride than others. I’m sure I got frustrated when I spent just as much time walking as I did riding and it seemed like my riding buddies were miles ahead.

But I don’t remember caring. I was stoked to be out there riding at all, and grateful to all the people whose bikes I borrowed (and crashed) and people who would get out there and ride with me even though I was slow.

Fast forward six years, and I’m writing about and reviewing bikes for a living. I am still riding lots of different bikes all the time, but now, in most cases, it is with the intent of picking them apart, discerning exactly how they ride, what components they are decked out with and why that is good or bad. I’ve ridden bikes that I love and bikes that I hate and I can tell you why. My fleet of bikes keeps growing and so does my wish list.

I ride almost every day, and pride myself on being good at it. Bikes are an integral part of my life. I have gained a lot of knowledge and experience and still have plenty to learn, and I’m excited about that. But sometimes I miss the early days, when I just didn’t know any better, didn’t care what bike I was riding or if I was last in the pack, and simply enjoyed discovering the raw pleasure of being on a bike in the woods.

  • Wigwam2

    This resonates. I converted a buddy to bicyclism – we did a lot of mountain biking, and he got better and better.

    Then he started to race.

    Suddenly the rides were much more stressful. We’d have to sustain our output to up our VO2 max, etc. It stopped being fun with this dude.

    I was 6 years old when I took the fenders and chain guard off the fat tire bike my grandmother gave me and started riding trails in local woods (the year was 1966 btw..)

    Today I work 15 hour days. Bicycling to me is the *antidote*, I don’t want it to be another source of stress. In a sense I ride now with the same naive serendipity as I did at age 6, just with a lot more power and experience.

  • Tim Grimme

    Thanks for sharing H! This is why the events you guys put on are so important–keeping the fun alive. Inspired me to get a slow roll going again down here. Gonna pick up some donuts announce on the local lists and have some fun in the woods!