Mountain Bike Trailer Park: Early Ride

Ed. Note: Mountain Bike Trailer Park is a regular column written by Uncle Dan that appears monthly on the Dirt Rag Interwebs. If you missed his previous columns, check them out here

Gravel Bike

My wife grumbles as the alarm sounds. It’s Saturday and she wants to sleep a little longer. She rolls away on her side as I kick my feet out of bed and flip the alarm off. I close the bedroom door softly.

Once downstairs, I switch on the coffee maker. I had already filled the water and ground the beans yesterday. There usually isn’t a lot of time on mornings like this because I like to sleep as long as possible too. It is the weekend, after all.

On the table are my clothes for the day, laid out last night. I dress slowly, the stiffness of sleep still lingering. Bibs go on first, then my heart rate monitor strap, banded around my ribcage. I pull on the skin-tight base layer, then zip the jersey on top. The bib straps don’t go over my shoulders yet. Instead, as I dress, I leave them hanging over the waist of my jeans. Bike shoes, helmet, gloves, arm warmers, and leg warmers are already packed in the duffel. Nearby sits my insulated bag. I pull the premixed drink bottles out of the fridge, along with a protein shake for after and a couple oranges. And a single beer in a cuzie. Into the bag they go.

Back in the kitchen, I gag down a big bowl of oatmeal with almonds and berries, an egg white sandwich, and an orange. It’s too early, and I don’t normally eat this much. My stomach protests, but I need the calories, so I wash the carbs down with a couple big glasses of water and a mug of milky coffee. I shove a banana in the pocket of my puffy coat to eat a little later, on the drive.

I tug my knit beanie over my ears as I head out the door, both bags hanging heavily off my shoulders. The sun’s not out yet. It’s dark and the cold and the dry air makes me cough. Days like today, I used to hesitate; why I would leave the house this early and in this weather for a ride?

No one will rise at my house for a few hours. They won’t miss me yet. For now, at least, I am not stealing hours from the kids, I am instead robbing my sleep. It’s a fine bargain.

In the garage, I grab my bike and load it on the rack of my crappy Jeep. The frame is cold, and my fingers start to hurt quickly.

The drive to the meetup takes about 15 minutes.  My car has just started to warm up by the time I arrive. Joe’s not here yet, so I pull out my phone and check the radar over our route. Weather is coming. I have just enough time to sip half my coffee from the travel mug while scrolling through pictures of my acquaintances’ dogs, kids, and breakfasts on FaceBook before Joe pulls up.

Joe’s chipper. He’s a morning person. I try to match his good mood. The coffee helps. We load the bikes quickly. I move my bags to his backseat. Joe has heated leather seats and GPS navigation, so I settle in and eat my banana in comfort. We have an hour or so of driving. On the ride we chat, swinging from family stuff to bike stuff to common friends and training goals.

Of course, there’s a pit stop. There has to be before a long ride. That’s why I kept my bib straps down. They’ll go up before I leave the gas station bathroom. I grab a fresh refill of my travel mug, Joe buys all the bananas in the gas station, and we’re back on the road.

We arrive at the ride start just as the sun is coming out. Looks good so far. It’s pretty clear and cold, not cloudy yet. We know this will change. Off come the jeans and puffy coat. On go the windbreaker, helmet, cap, gloves, and bike shoes.  My wallet and iPhone are transferred to jersey pockets, along with a handful of gels and Clif bars. Three bottles are loaded – two on the bike, one in my back jacket pocket.

The course will be mostly gravel roads, so I’m on my cross bike. Joe’s riding his hardtail 29er.

Our Garmins have found the GPS signal. It’s time to go.

The rollout is easy, fast, on pavement. We hit the gravel after about six miles. It’s late winter in Ohio, and the freeze-thaw cycle has left the dirt roads soft. This makes the trip up the hills a little harder, and the descents a little sketchier.

Joe and I don’t talk much. We are training partners, have been for years. It works well, because we are like-minded and our training plans are similar. As training partners go, we’re like an old married couple. Ride planning usually consists of a couple text messages mid-week.

We don’t really even stay together on the ride – if we lose sight of each other, we will wait at the next intersection. It’s usually Joe waiting for me, as he is early today. Joe likes to power up hills. I’m not a bad climber, but he’s better. My narrower tires sink in the dirt and I settle in for long, steady slogs up the climbs.

I don’t apologize when I catch up to Joe. I don’t have to. He doesn’t mind when he has to wait. It’s part of the deal.

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An hour or so into the ride, the wind picks up and the clouds roll in. The temperature is dropping. The winds are 20-25mph, and won’t stop for the rest of the ride. On the hilltops and ridgelines, I bend my back and ride in the drops to avoid being pushed all over the roads.

Each dirt road has its own, best line to ride, the surface more complex and organic than paved roads. I sometimes ride in the well-worn tire tracks, the center, or the berm; wherever the road presents the best purchase for my tires.  My lower back aches, but it’s hard to change position.  As I stand out of the saddle during the climbs, my rear wheel shoots loose gravel and skips. And if I rise from the drops, the wind catches my torso like a sail.

A few rain drops warn that the front is upon us, so we pause and put our phones and wallets in Ziploc bags. Now’s as good a time as any to eat a little and talk.  Joe wants to extend the route. I’m worried about the rain and all of the adult things I will still have to get done today. We roll on, sticking to the original route.

The rain is brief, but is replaced by hail. Fine hail, driven by the wind, it assaults our faces. Again, I ride in the drops, my face low, my cap brim barely shielding my eyes. I’m on a long, steep climb. I have lost sight of Joe. The wind swirls, and I search in vain for a ribbon of dirt on the road that is neither too soft, nor covered by loose gravel. I am in my lowest gear now, moving at little over three miles per hour. I could push harder, but I won’t. There’s a lot of riding left to do, so I hold a pace that keeps my heart rate low and steady – my endurance zone. As I round a bend and reach the summit, I see Joe.  He’s got his camera out, documenting my pain. He switches to video and “interviews” me:

Joe: “So Dan, how’s your ride today?”

“Brutal.”

“What makes it brutal?”

“Look around – the wind, the hail, the soft road . . .”

“So what would possess you to come out and ride on a morning like this?”

“What else am I going to do? Gardening?”

“No, you’re not gardening.”

“Yeah, nobody’s gardening.”

A couple hours later, we’re still in the wind. The hail kicks up again. The temperature has dipped again – now below freezing, nevermind the wind chill.

Now, I am dropping Joe. Attacking the climbs cost him a lot of energy. And, on his mountain bike, he’s unable to duck the wind as well as me. Joe’s gloves and shoes were a little too thin and his fingers and toes are growing numb. It’s his turn to suffer. I still have fuel in the tank, so I motor on, secretly a little proud of this rare instance of me waiting for Joe at the intersections.

On a rolling stretch of road, I start another climb. Left, I see a dog waiting at its front door to be let in again. Will he see me? Will he give chase? He does. He charges, I hammer up the hill. Adrenaline rolls through me and I forget my tired legs, my stiff back, and the cold. But I remember Joe – it’s usually the second rider that the dog catches. I turn to look, and fortunately, the owner has run out and called the dog inside.

Another hour or so and we’re back at the car. My Garmin reads five hours, 61 miles, and 5,700 feet of elevation. My base layer is soaked with sweat and the wind sends chills across me as I strip the windbreaker and jersey. As we rack the bikes, the clouds open with heavy rain. We duck in the car, grateful that we were not on bikes for the downpour. We guzzle protein shakes, eat bananas, and begin the ride home. One more stop on the way though. My legs protest as I stand out of the car at Wendy’s for hot coffee and French fries. As we finish the drive, we recount the day and plan our next ride. Our thoughts turn homeward, we silently review mental checklists for the rest of the weekend – we’ve already burnt our free time on this ride. I’ve got to get groceries and help my son with college applications. I’ll probably go to the office on Sunday when it’s quiet and I can get some work done. Joe’s got some home repairs and a daughter with cheer practice ahead. Back at my car, I part ways with Joe with a fist bump.

Joe and Dan

Sunday evening, Joe sent me the video “interview.” After dinner, I watched it, and laughed again. I didn’t see suffering in my face. I was smiling. I was actually moving pretty fast. I was having fun.

But I thought back to his question. Why was I out there so early on a cold, windy day? The glib answer is that I like riding bikes. But that’s too easy. The truth is more complex. I was out there because I could get a long, early ride in and still do all of the other adult stuff I needed to do on the weekend. I was there out of a sense of loyalty to Joe – this was the only time he could ride, and I like riding with him. I was there out of a sense of duty to myself – to stay fit, to get stronger, and to train for my upcoming race season.

Perhaps most importantly, I was out there because the ride was tough. On a ride like this, I’m no longer a harried husband and father of three. I’m no longer a desk jockey with a high-pressure job and ever-present looming deadlines. Rides like this are transformative. Out there, I shed the layers of my reality until there is only me, the clock, the road, and the conditions. In the ecosystem of the ride I am a different version of me, a version with the tools to meet this test – Lycra, food, strong legs, toughness, and resolve. So, I am out there, in part, because I am proud of the wind-chapped, sweaty, and sore version of me that exists, even after I hang the bike back in the garage and head to the grocery store.

Be brave, and HTFU.