One of the most gratifying experiences human beings can have in a lifetime is a deep, abiding relationship. You never know when such a relationship might begin, and it’s not always easy to tell whether you’ve come across a relationship that’s got enough staying power to last a lifetime, or merely a few days.
Once found, though, there’s no denying: it’s worth it. As the two of you learn more about each other, discovering depth and quirks you would never have suspected when you first met, you can’t help but say to yourself, “This is what gives my life joy and meaning. This relationship, truly, is sublime.”
I am talking about, of course, the relationship between a cyclist and mountain bike trail.
Does the relationship between trail and rider spring to life fully formed? Do you know every waterbar, every spur, every ledge drop the first time you ride a trail?
No, of course you don’t. You wouldn’t want to even if you could, because that would take away the joy of early courtship, the rapturous early days of mutual discovery.
And that would be sad indeed.
So when you first hear about a trail, take it slow. Don’t just rush to the top of the trail in a car and bomb down it. Shuttling a trail is like introducing yourself to a beautiful woman by grabbing her butt. Sure, it’s been done — all too often, really — but you can bet that the trail will not respect you for it.
No, instead find out about the trail. Ask friends what it’s like, what it’s best qualities are. What days are best to ride it? What you should wear — baggies or lycra? Should you bring bottles, or is a Camelbak in order? This is your only chance to make a first impression with the trail, so make it a good one.
Next, introduce yourself to the trail by riding the whole thing. Preferably, do the uphill first. Acknowledge the trail’s fine characteristics, but don’t be too effusive. Excessive flattery sounds false, and the trail can tell the difference between honest appreciation and a tacky come-on.
Oh, the heady moments after the first ride on a new mountain bike trail! In your euphoria, you will want to tell all your friends about it — about the trail’s clever switchbacks, its teasing false summits, its rambunctiously fast and daring descent.
Can you sleep the night after such a ride? No! All you can think about is riding that trail again (if only it will have you). Sleep is kilometers — nay, miles! — away.
“Please, please, please,” you pray to St. Eddie, who watches over cyclists. “Let that trail like me as much as I like it.”
And then — at last! — the moment of the second ride arrives. Sometimes, alas, this second ride reveals flaws you didn’t notice in the rush of the first ride. Perhaps the trail is usually crowded, and you were just lucky the first time you rode it. Perhaps it is not as technically challenging as you remember from your first ride; it’s one of those master-it-and-move-on trails.
Perhaps it turns out that the trail is infested with mosquitoes, ticks, and angry, mutant wolverines, some of which appear rabid.
Hey, it happens.
More often, though, the second ride is your opportunity to notice exquisite, charming details you didn’t notice during the first ride, because you were taking in the big picture. “This trail has three distinct kinds of terrain!” you might find yourself exclaiming excitedly. “All in one ride! How is that even possible?”
“And here is a sidetrail that takes me on a quick downhill jaunt over roots and ledges, and through four switchbacks, before rejoining the main trail. I can’t decide which way is better, they’re both so good!”
You may find your emotions welling up, getting the best of you. In which case: pull yourself together, man. Trails don’t like blubbering pansies.
At the end of the ride, if you find yourself astounded to note that you somehow — impossible as you would have thought it just one day ago — like this trail even better now, well, you’re on the way to a long-term relationship.
Before long, you find yourself telling all and sundry that this trail is the best trail in the world. You can’t help yourself. And when it’s time to ride, you don’t even think about where to go ride. It’s a foregone conclusion. Why would you ride anywhere else?
The more you ride this trail, the better you get to know it. Now totally comfortable with the main features of the ride, you begin to explore different lines. Maybe try blasting up a difficult pitch in a harder gear, or perhaps seeing if you can ride the entire trail without ever putting your foot down.
You begin to notice even subtle things about the trail. You can tell the difference between how it rides in Summer and Autumn. You come up with names for certain moves on the trail — in-jokes that have meaning only you and the trail would ever understand.
Eventually, you stop calling the trail by its proper name. In your head, at at least, it’s “my trail.”
Ol’ Ball and Chain
Then, one day after riding your trail, you realize: you just did the entire ride without noticing a single thing. Your mind was elsewhere the entire time.
And don’t think the trail couldn’t tell, buster.
Soon, you’re wondering if maybe you’ve outgrown this trail. If maybe you’ve seen all it has to offer.
And then, one day, a riding buddy tells you about a trail that’s just been cut. It’s still a little rough and the line’s definitely evolving, but it has real potential.
You go ride it — you know, just to see what’s out there — and suddenly you’re no longer interested in “your trail.” All you can think about is this latest piece of singletrack. You don’t even feel guilty, because hey, it’s just a trail, right?
You heartless bastard.
Months go by, during which you rarely — if ever — ride your trail. You make feeble excuses (“It’s out of my way” or “It’s Winter and covered with three feet of snow”) for not riding out on what used to be your favorite trail. Oh, sure, from time to time you run into each other and you halfheartedly promise yourself you’re going to go riding there sometime really soon. But you never do, do you?
Until one day.
For some reason, you wake up with your old favorite trail fresh in your mind — you’ve been dreaming about it. Your dream has brought it all back to you: the intensity of the climb, the rush of the descent, the joy of a perfectly realized series of switchbacks.
How could you have been such a fool?
You rush back to your trail — for you now realize that this is truly the best trail in the world — and you ride it again.
And it’s just as you remember. It’s like you’ve never been apart. It’s perfect.
But some day, as you’re bombing the descent and a heretofore unseen exposed root end expertly threads your front wheel’s spokes and brings your front end to an immediate halt, launching you up and over as if your bike were a trebuchet, and your body flies twenty feet toward a welcoming boulder field, you will finally understand the gravity of your sin.
Sure, the trail was willing to take you back. But you were a fool to think you had been forgiven.