Right now the riding season in northern Alberta is so close we can taste it. We can smell it too. Mostly it smells like mud, but as the sun warms the trees and melts the snow exposing the 6 month old rotted leaves the air fills with that nostalgic aroma, reminding you that lawn chair weather is coming. We did it, we survived another winter.
The longer days always make me anxious though. Although the thought of summer makes me too excited to sleep I also worry about what another riding season is going to do to my already battered and aching body. Getting old is as much fun as old people tell you it is and I wish I had paid more attention when I was 18. At 28 my winters are mostly spent trying to keep my joints and muscles healthy and strong enough to withstand another year of abuse. I do watch a lot of Netflix in the winter, but mostly from various red-faced, panting, and clumsily executed yoga positions, convincing myself that It’ll be worth it once I start pedaling again.
Any professional athlete or any athlete wanting to become pro is going to be well acquainted with injury and know that learning to deal with the mental aspect of time off is equally important to developing athletic skill. My paycheck doesn’t come from riding a bike, but being injured can still mean being unable to work which will probably affect my paycheck, and leads to the question ‘why risk it?’
In January 2016 I fractured a condyle on my femur which has wreaked havoc on my knee ligaments ever since. And it hurt a little. In January 2017 I blew out my ankle, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as the femur but it makes it two years in a row where my bike season has nearly been compromised before it began. I’ve had to accept that I don’t bounce like I used to. And it kind of stresses me. So is it time to accept defeat?
A few years ago I had scar tissue building up in both shoulders from repeated separations and dislocations to the point that I hung up my bikes due to the pain caused by riding. I never subsidized the lack of riding with another physical activity and so, of course, the pain got worse and my body started seizing up. At age 25 I felt what I think 55 feels like. Some time later and by the grace of God I was introduced to a variation of yoga. It was mentally and physically uncomfortable at first, but in a matter of months I was feeling limber and already rebuilding strength. I picked up a road bike as a way to exercise and experience the 2 wheeled freedom I desperately missed. Shane quickly joined in and road biking on road bikes eventually turned into trail riding on road bikes, and then dirt jumping on road bikes and inevitably led to my glorious return to mountain biking. I was back and feeling better than I had in years.
Its only while looking back on the years that I wasn’t riding that I could recognize certain symptoms of depression creeping in. I couldn’t find anything to replace what riding gave me. At that time I didn’t understand the importance of having a hobby or an activity that I was passionate about. The experience also taught me a powerful life lesson – time keeps moving but it doesn’t heal wounds by itself, proper recovery requires hard work and perseverance. I can’t imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t rolled off the couch years ago and forced myself onto a yoga mat, but I know I came close to never riding again.
Is mountain biking important? Absolutely, but whats more important is that its something I am passionate about, and I firmly believe everybody needs passion in their life. Work-eat-sleep-Netflix-repeat is no way to live.
Riding has taught me to push through the pain. The shoulder, the knee, and the ankle can only recover if I keep working. The top of the hill will only come if I keep pedaling. I have also learned to enjoy each moment for what it is. The endorphin rush from reaching the top of a mountain under your own power is amazing and the descent back down at mach-turkey is a pure addiction. But riding through the valleys can be serendipitous. The forest holds so much beauty. And cougars. But mostly beauty. Mountain biking is my gateway between routine and serene. I’ve begun to long for the moments under the forest canopy where the branches brush at each other in the breeze, or coming around a bend in the trail to find a deer grazing beside the path and then darting off because it hears me breathing like an ape.
The accomplishment may be at the top of the hill, or the end of the trail, but the beauty is often in the journey. These moments are happening all day everyday whether or not you’re out experiencing them. I often hear the expression ‘at one with nature’, but I’ve learned we can never be one with nature. Nature does not respect us, it will not bow to us or wait for us. The phrase I prefer to use is ‘in harmony with nature’. Living on an acreage just minutes from the forest trails has given me a thorough understanding of that expression. We can only be in harmony with nature. Nature is leading the melody 24 hours a day 365 days a year, it is up to us to join in the background, feel its rhythm and pick up the harmony.
Would I give up any of this because there is a risk that I might crash, endure more pain and time off? Nope. It is through injury and frustration that I developed an appreciation and respect for my sport and myself. Life is full of risk, and not all of it has rewards. Through trials and errors we learn to mitigate the risks. Playing in the woods on a bicycle can lead to untimely death or injury, trees are pretty solid, bears are pretty angry. Hockey can cause concussions, volleyball rolls ankles, and soccer can tear an acl as easily as skiing. Sports are dangerous, but they are also important and they are all beautiful in their own way (except maybe football). Would you stop playing the game you love because you might get hurt? No way. When you are passionate about something you learn to balance risk and reward.
So when do I accept defeat? When am I too old to play in the woods? I don’t think there is an answer for that. Maybe I’ll ride until I die, or maybe one day I’ll find something I enjoy more than weaving through trees on a ribbon of dirt. What I know for sure is that I will never be satisfied to just exist and let the burden of routine smother the desire to experience something new. The mountains are calling and they don’t leave voicemails.
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Words and iPhone photos by Tim Friesen
High-res Photos by Shane Wiebe