This post is based on an article I wrote in 1999, on the occasion of my first (and almost last) solo bike race. Back then, I submitted it to Dirt Rag, but they weren’t interested. In an interview several years later, just-retired Dirt Rag co- founder Elaine Tierney made what was, in my opinion, a snotty remark about having grown tired of seeing submissions from middle-aged women writing about their first race experiences. Yeah, thanks Elaine … riders like me were your bread and butter, but whatever. Anyway, now I have a blog and I can write anything I want, so I’m sharing this with you, dear reader.
The Valentine’s Day Challenge was a classic Pacific Northwest mountain bike race. Held in mid-February, at Tahuya State Forest on the Kitsap Peninsula, it was virtually guaranteed to be a wet and cold ride. Because the trails at Tahuya are deeply rutted, hip-deep puddles are not uncommon.
We were having one of those unfortunately classic Seattle La Nina winters where the count of “consecutive days of rain” starts to approach the triple digits. And I don’t mean simply that it rained every day. I mean that it rained, constantly, for nearly 100 days straight. A month or two before the big day, I had committed to drive my car-less friend Lisa to the race, but as race day approached this relentless liquid precipitation was beginning depress me in a big way and I simply could not see any good reason to drag myself out of bed early to go ride a muddy course in a race I was certain to lose anyway.
Apparently Fate had different ideas. I was hoping that Lisa’s ambition had become similarly soggy and that I would be able to beg off, but no, she called the day before to make sure we were still on and took my unenthusiastic “I said I’d give you a ride, so I suppose I should go, if you really want to go… (subtext: if you decide that you don’t want to go after all, that would be great, then I’ll be able to stay in bed tomorrow morning…)” as a challenge, so that evening I sullenly prepped my bike, packed my gear and went to bed with visions of muddy pain dancing in my head.
Since I had never been in a mass start race, and never raced solo, I had little idea what to expect. In the hours leading up to the race I tortured myself with a relentless mental loop, a hellish vision in which the entire women’s field surged ahead and left me gasping in their tracks. In my nightmare I crossed the finish line alone in gathering darkness, threw my bike in my truck, and skulked home in utter humiliation.
Fortunately it wasn’t like that at all.
Because what happened is what always happens when I get out on my bike. I gave in to the absolute, glorious insanity of mountain biking. It hit me as I was riding through my first knee-deep puddle. Here I was, a mutual-fund-owning, insurance-carrying, taxpaying citizen, cackling maniacally to myself as I watched my hubs disappear into the murk; giggling as rooster tails of gritty water splashed me in the face.
This set the tone for the rest of the race. The main feature of the course was water. In my life I don’t think I have ridden through as many mini-lakes and mud bogs as I did during this race. The best was a 35-foot-long puddle. It was so long that I ran out of momentum long before I ran out of puddle and had to get off and run through water that came past my knees.
By the time I finished the race my brake pads had worn down to nubbins and my rear derailleur cable was so gooped up that I was effectively riding a three speed. I was drenched from head to toe and completely coated with mud (inside my clothes too, I later discovered). And, undoubtedly, the happiest I’d been in several weeks. To this day I still don’t know how I placed and I really don’t care, I just wanna ride and ride and ride forever.
(Peeling the protective covering off my first ‘real’ bike fork, Tiger Summit, 2000.)