2014 Dirt Rag Literature Contest: ‘A Break in the Weather’

Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.

A Break in the Weather

By Thomas Gada

Running in the summer feels like failure. It’s a missed opportunity to ride. But come winter, my perspective changes. While I never enjoy running, I accept it during the cold months. I’m often told a fat bike is the solution I’m looking for, but in reality its oversized tires won’t lengthen the short days so that I can keep riding before work or make me more tolerant of sub-20 degree weather. So I run. I run to stay in shape. I run so that I’ll be ready when the weather breaks.

If there’s a good thing about my reluctant morning jogs, it’s that I can let my mind wander in a way I can’t when I’m picking my way through a twisting singletrack. As my feet pound the pavement, I look forward to the adventures warmer weather and a winter spent tuning my bike will bring. But today, the salt-stained streets and icy patches on the sidewalk remind me that this is not the first time I’ve waited for winter to loosen its icy grip long enough for me to sneak onto the trails.

My ongoing feud with old man winter started when I was just a kid. I got my first mountain bike in 1988 for Christmas, during a time when most of my 12-year-old friends were hoping to see a new BMX under the tree. But not me. I had wanted a mountain bike since I had witnessed my older brother and his friends return from a ride with mud-splattered smiling faces the previous summer.

That Christmas, I woke to find a Mongoose Switchback waiting for me, and it was glorious. Twelve speeds, 1.5-inch tires, and upright handlebars complete with puffy foam grips. Hardly a mountain bike by today’s standards, but to me it represented endless possibilities. Despite the bitter cold, I had to take it for a spin.

I didn’t know where to pick up my local trails, but that was okay—they would be covered with snow. And to be honest, I knew I wasn’t ready to tackle them yet. Instead, I hit the neighborhood’s biggest hill, eager to see what my 12 speeds could do. Clumsily shifting my bike into the lowest gear, I spun my legs until they were jean-clad blurs. I was a bit perplexed as to why it was taking so long to get to the top, but that was okay. I knew I’d figure it out eventually. I was far more concerned with the adventures to come—I just needed to get through winter.

By the time I got home, I was struggling to brake and operate the above-bar thumb shifters with numb hands. I hobbled in, stiffened by the cold. “I loved it,” I mumbled enthusiastically to my mom through frozen lips. That night, and every night after, I dreamt of leaving the pavement behind.

Winter seemed to drag on, but I didn’t stop. Weekends or after school, I’d hop on the Switchback and see how far I could go. Then it finally happened. A few warm days melted much of the snow. The temperature quickly dipped again, but not before two previously hidden ruts carved into the frozen ground revealed themselves, winding away from the paved roads of the civilized world. A stubborn layer of snow clung to the ground, but I was sure I could ride it. I felt ready.

I stepped off my bike and lifted it over the curb.

My heart seemed to hammer against my ribs as I bounced down the doubletrack into the thickening trees. The trail dipped toward a pond. I paused to take in the sight. As silly as it seemed, the discovery was intoxicating. None of my friends knew it was here, and I wouldn’t have either without my new bike.

The trail meandered up a small hill. After a few tractionless spins, I realized the knobs on my tires were more for show than function. I got off and walked. The snow instantly penetrated my sneakers, numbing my already cold feet.

Eventually, the crude ruts connected to a crushed gravel dirt road. A plow had come through at some point, but left behind a compressed layer of beige snow. Even though it wasn’t a trail, it also wasn’t pavement, and I was eager to continue my exploration. The road twisted past some lonely summer cottages that overlooked a lake covered with ice that looked more like glass. The sand on the empty beach swallowed my tires as I pedaled past the unused lifeguard chair. My world was growing.
Then I came to the hill.

This was like no hill I’d seen before. Dirt, steep and punctuated with ice and snow. Technically it met the minimum requirement for being called a road, but just barely. There was nothing on it—no houses or driveways, no mailboxes or trashcans waiting for pickup. Just trees to my left, a stream babbling somewhere down a hill to my right. I needed to see where it led.

I began rolling. That’s when I first learned about different wheel sizes. By today’s standards, 26-inch wheels are small. To a kid just coming off a BMX, they’re wagon wheels. My bike gained momentum with startling ease. I flew down the hill with no idea how to handle a bike. My ass was firmly planted in the seat. Every bump radiated through my spine. My arms were locked like steel. Beneath my gloves, my knuckles must have been whiter than the snow.

Something in my mind started to tell me to slow down, but a voice in my heart talked over it. Just a little faster, it begged.

Cold snaked up my sleeves, leaving my arms red and angry. The cuffs of my jeans snapped against my cranks. My ears burned, even beneath my wool hat. Tears streamed from my eyes as I sped down the hill beneath a ceiling of overhanging pine trees.

Logically, I have to assume I’ve topped the speed I reached that afternoon many times over the years. All I know is that I’ve never felt like I’ve gone that fast again. But who knows? Maybe my finest moment on the trail was my first.

Then, I was on the ground, skidding across the dirt and snow. I suppose it was good that it happened so quickly; there was no time to be scared. Rocks and gravel bit my icy skin through layers of clothing. My bike skipped over the hardened dirt, grinding to a stop a few feet away.

I instantly realized how reckless I had been. Snowy and stung, I scrambled to grab my bike and get us both to safety on the side of the road.

The Switchback didn’t look new anymore. The pristine white paint was chipped in places, and the plastic front brake lever was dangling from its cable. My heart broke.

I began coasting down the hill again, this time feathering my rear brake to control my speed. The dirt road eventually turned to pavement. Sights began to look familiar. I soon realized I was near a friend’s house who lived in an entirely different neighborhood. The discovery of this secret new route softened the blow of the damage I had done to my bike. Just like my brother and his friends, I was an explorer. My pulse quickened at the thought.

Before I could revel in my accomplishment, I had to deal with my mom. I had nagged her for a new bike for months, then I crashed it after a few weeks of ownership. But as I pedaled closer to home, I realized something: it was worth it. Sure, I had dinged up my bike, but I also learned something. I learned what not to do. I learned something about limits and common sense. But I also learned about the exhilaration that could come with mountain biking and discovery.

I walked into my house and pulled off my hat with a gloved hand.

“How was the ride?” My mom asked. “You were gone long.”

“Amazing,” I told her. Then I proceeded to tell her a sanitized version of my story, with the crash occurring due to black ice, not my stupidity. She wasn’t happy, but I gladly dealt with the consequences. After all, I had lived an adventure. I hadn’t just watched one on TV or read about it. That was certainly worth a few stern words.

The next weekend I was at the bike shop getting my lever replaced. I asked for something metal—the first step in a lifelong upgrading obsession. Milling around the shop while they did the repair, I noticed big mushroom-like helmets on the shelf. Everyone in the magazines I’d been reading wore them. None of my friends had one, but I wasn’t like them anymore. I needed one. My mom happily footed the bill.

It’s funny. Not much has changed. I love riding in the winter, but I simply don’t get as many opportunities as I’d like. Running keeps me in shape better than those rides around the block, but it’s admittedly a poor substitute. While it gets my blood pumping from a fitness perspective, it doesn’t get my blood pumping with thrill of adventure.

The fact is, when I’m out there shuffling along on those short winter days, I smell the same frozen air as when I was a kid dreaming of doing great things on my Switchback. The cold bite on my cheeks—that’s the same, too. So if a break in the weather comes next week or next month, I’ll be ready to pounce. In the meantime, I listen to my footfalls on the frozen sidewalk and let my imagination go wild, reliving past adventures and plotting future ones.