My first real experience with riding a mountain bike was over Labor Day weekend 2008. I had a fairly nice mountain bike that I'd occasionally used for shuttle duty on kayak expeditions, but I'd never really ridden it off road. Then my brother told me that a local state park had a mountain bike trail system. Huh, whaddaya know about that - they make trail systems for MOUNTAIN BIKES! After one trip I was pretty much hooked.
Thing is that I was SLOW. Of course newbies are always slow, but I remember timing an early ride where it took me 1 hour 5 minutes to ride the easiest 3.0 miles of the trail system, which included a half mile of road. Even though it's relatively flat in northeast Ohio the hills were killing me. I found myself having to stop and walk up almost every one, gasping for breath. I have some respiratory problems that usually don't cause any trouble, but leave me out of breath with a relatively low level of exertion. But I was never one to stop doing something I enjoyed simply because I had no aptitude for it, so I just kept on riding.
Within a year my fitness level had improved quite a bit. I'd lost some weight, though not as much as I had hoped since my legs seemed to get bigger every time my stomach got smaller. My coordination and balance improved, pushing my cross country skills from "newbie" to "intermediate" level. And by the next year I was able to ride up every hill in the park. I was still panting like a dog at the top, and often ended up in granny gear to finish - but I could do it. And another bonus - with the improvement to my breathing I stopped getting respiratory infections like I had been for the last several years. I haven't had a single pneumonia hospitalization - which used to be at least a yearly occurrence - since I started riding.
But I'm still slow. My technical riding skills have greatly improved, my leg, core and upper body muscles are much better - but I still have a limit set by my breathing. The way I put it is to say that my legs can write checks that my lungs can't cash. When I'm out riding and I see these healthy young riders speed up a hill that I took several minutes to grind my way up, I can only grin and keep on going. And since I'm usually a solo mtbr my slow speed doesn't really affect anyone but me.
Then I got involved with the creation of a new mountain bike club in our area, Rust Belt Revival Trail Coalition. It took a bit for it to become an official IMBA chapter, but it wasn't long before that first group ride was scheduled. So I bit the bullet, crossed my fingers, oiled the chain and headed out to my first group ride. At the trailhead it turned out to be a pretty small crew - the president, treasurer and me (secretary) - but I warned them right off the bat that they would be fast and I would be slow. And though they assured me they were 'going to take it easy' it wasn't five minutes before they were gone into the distance.
Well, I knew I was slow, and I knew that they would definitely ditch me on the climbs. But I had hoped that my regular riding routine had given me enough chops to at least keep up on the downhills. Turns out I was wrong. I spent a couple of days feeling old and slow, not wanting to ride, and being embarrassed by my glacial pace.
But the next week I decided that I was going to take a 'mental health day' off work and spend it on my bike in the woods. I mentioned it to my brother, who also rides, and he unexpectedly was able to get some time off and accompany me. So on a fine and sunny morning we headed east into Pennsylvania to get some riding in at Kennerdell tract of Clear Creek State Forest. It turned out to be a great day for riding - not as blazing hot as it had been, with temps in the 70's and a nice breeze on the ridge tops. We started out on a trail that I hadn't ridden before and headed off into the lush Allegheny forest.
Three hours later we were back at the car - hot, sweaty and dirty. The ride was one of those where everything just seemed perfect, one of those days that will stay in your memory forever. We rode a mixed bag of flowy contours, rocky technical features, and steep downhill trails with a short session of riding in the abandoned strip mine. There were no real crashes, injuries or broken bikes. We didn't get lost or dehydrated. And though I could barely muster strength to pedal the last half mile it was an absolutely great, totally fun day of riding.
The GPS said we rode something over 10 miles, with over 1600 feet of climbing. If I compare those numbers to the some of the serious riders they look like a nice slow recovery ride. But for me it was an all out ride, pushing myself as hard as I could. And I decided that was what was important - how my performance relates to ME, not how it relates to other riders who are 30 years younger than me and have never had to deal with any sort of respiratory problem. On the ride home, and really for the next several days, all I could do was just grin thinking about the hills and rocks, the wind in my face and the sweat on my back.
That's what makes it real for me. Doing what you can, while you can still do it. I may not be the greatest mountain biker in the world (or even in my town) but I'm out there putting a smile on my face rather than sitting on a couch with a beer in one hand and a Twinkie in the other. I'm going to give it my best shot until there's no way I can ride at all any more.
So now I'm putting together a 'Super Slow Riders' email list for pickup mountain bike rides at the local park. I know there are other slow guys out there who also spend most of their time riding solo. I think that riding mountain bikes for the social aspect is absolutely silly, but there isn't anything wrong with a little bit of company on the trail. And maybe we can push each other a bit, get a little friendly competition here and there. And who knows - I might actually find someone slower than me!