I am at the car, heaving my mountain bike back onto the roof rack. Mud-spattered shins. A water bottle too befouled to drink from. I lay a towel against the back of the seat. My wife drives this car most days.
I am on the ground. What a surprise! Some practical joker has deflated my lungs and is standing on my chest. Too funny. Eventually, and without panic, my breath returns. I have been here before. Damage report: Right palm bruise-y and scraped, left buttock screaming, right shoulder sore, left ankle mildly sprained. Friends get and give the thumbs up. We ride on.
Setting out, you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach. Anticipation. Nervousness. These aren’t butterflies. You poured coffee on those. This is excitement. Even as an adult, there is some magic to riding mountain bikes with your friends.
Sometimes the scenes are more powerful when they’re shown out of order, as in one of Jean-Luc Goddard’s movies, or in one of my favorite ever novels, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. This is non-linear story-telling.
Non-linear stories do two very interesting things. First, they remove episodes from their context, which allows us to see them differently, sometimes more completely, and second, they underline that often, despite our experience, the current of our lives isn’t as linear as we perceive it. Think of Heller’s Catch-22 or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
I don’t ride mountain bikes a lot, but when I do, I usually fall off. The main mistake I make on the trail is assuming that the difficulty of the conditions will increase and decrease in a linear fashion, and that is almost never true. What is, in the moment, hard, for example a rooted, rocky uphill section, may become instantly and entirely impassable by someone of my underwhelming skill set. A single stone in the middle of the path might put me off, even if I don’t think it ought to be there. A sharp right-hand turn running crossways to a root system is an unfair development in what had been an entirely enjoyable bit of single track.
Or think of that hard road ride you do with your friends. When you’re not all the way fit you sit on someone’s wheel and you try hard to stay there. When the pace ramps up, you go with it, but you think, “I only need to hold this for a minute.” I often think that right before I get spat out the back. Other people’s accelerations are almost never linear. That’s why I hate them.
Life is not a smooth-lined chart, with graceful transitions. It’s an EKG, with spikes and troughs, and the patient is hardly stable.
A month ago I was spinning toward real fitness, able to hang on all those fast group rides, able to pull when I needed to, and to do big miles when time permitted. I was feeling pretty good after the winter doldrums, and I was looking forward to a big summer in the saddle.
Then the rain came and baseball season started. A mild winter served up a warm, early spring here that last about 8 days. Then we entered a long spell of raw precipitation. This would have been a challenge to ride through, but challenges are what we’re after, right?
But, I have two boys, both of whom are playing our national pastime. They each have games on Saturdays and Sundays. That alone would eat some cycling time, but couple it with the heavy rain we’ve had, and you get rainouts, reschedules and midweek, after-work congestion. I began losing saddle time at an alarming rate. Stones in the path. Greasy roots channeling me off into the bushes.
Then I did an international business trip, which, while good and successful and fun, also included no cycling. This is the great irony of working in the bike industry, that you can devote your life to an endeavor you thereby no longer have time to pursue. So I missed a solid week off the bike there as well.
And lest it suddenly seem I am complaining, let me walk all this back a bit. I like watching my boys play ball. They’re still young enough to be charmingly awful at it, and yet they don’t mind and still have fun doing it, much like their father on a mountain bike. And coming out of a drought, we need all this rain, even if it does push the family schedule around like a shopping cart with a bad front wheel.
The irony is that the more scheduled my life becomes (we are completely beholden to the family’s shared Google calendar), the less predictable it is also. What looks like a clear opportunity to ride today, turns into a ball game or a rain out, or a rain-out reschedule which requires the rearrangement of necessary life tasks like laundry or grocery shopping. My form is, quite understandably, not high on the list of the family’s priorities.
And so, much as I assume, when rocketing down a rocky descent at the very edge of my technical ability and the stopping power of my disc brakes, that things are bound to get easier any second, I also believe (mistakenly) that the calendar will open up any time now, and I’ll be back to my normal mileage and fitness in no time.
It will require a hard right, across a root system, over a large stone, but I can make it. It’s all about momentum and belief and a lack of fear, right?
Sometimes the secret of a non-linear story is that events which seemed important in the context of time, e.g. my cycling escapades, are not actually important to the overall narrative. Sometimes the point the writer or filmmaker is trying to make is that, by passing everything through the wrong filter, you are missing the cherished sled, burning in the blazing fire, the childhood lost to life’s striving.
As you lay in the middle of the trail, a rock for a pillow, a branch stuck in your ribs, you think it’s about you and your bike and your friends, when in reality it is about the fickleness of weather, the charm of kids playing in a park, and a load of laundry that needs to be done. You would have missed that rock if you had been paying attention to the right story line.
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