Issue Thirty Four

TRAIL DAZE

The Sensations of Singletrack

WORDS x Kath Bicknell
PHOTOS x Harookz & Kath Bicknell

23 May 2018
Part One

Glitches

My arms are stretched out in front of me. Hammered. Tired. Happy to push through. Water hits my head, falls down my cheeks, runs down my back. I blink it out of my eyes and keep looking ahead. All kinds of different scenes flash by, each matched to different sensations, movements and a curious, excited energy for whatever comes next. Inner monologues on long descents are broken by conversations on the flats with new companions. The day passes by in fragments. Disconnected moments. Partial half-articulated thoughts.

While my mind is still flying through the trails, my body is slow, lumped into a fancy shower in a monastery-turned-hotel. I smile at the strange familiarity of the moment – minus the fancy-ness – habitually washing the mud out of my clothes before riding again tomorrow. Every now and then, words fall from my mouth out loud into the empty room. Little glitches fill the evening, my inner world bubbling over while my actions take on a faulty automaticity.

In the same way the motions of an ocean voyage continue back on dry land, sensations from the trails carry on into the evening. I know these sensations well. It’s Trail Daze. That feeling you get after back-to-back days on thrilling singletracks. It’s been such a long time between drinks, which makes this one even sweeter.

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Part Two

Mud You Can Trust

One by one we dive into the unknown. My gaze is narrow, fixed on the trail in front of me. I can’t feel my hands and wonder whether I’m using the brakes. “I must be, my speed is in check,” says a voice of reason somewhere in the back of my mind. The outside segments of my legs are so cold I can’t feel them either, but they seem to be holding me up. The trail has turned to mud but it’s not a type of mud I know. It doesn’t seem too slidey, which is enough information to make it feel like mud I can trust. I twist around corners, mainline my way through extended rocky straights and keep my eyes planted firmly ahead. I revel in every movement, marvel at the connection between bike, body and trail, soak up each second as it unfolds.

I see some of our crew walking. I can widen my field of vision enough to know they’re OK but I can’t widen it enough to tell who is who. I have no idea if each approaching segment will throw me off too but it all feels comfortable so far. I quickly process the ground in front of me and calibrate it against the controlled feedback coming through my feet and the bars. I commit to riding and sliding through the mud until the decision to step off the bike is made for me. This is riding on instinct. Deeply ingrained skills, a fluid sense of balance and remarkably quick adaptations allow us to react in and to each moment a few metres of trail at a time.

I hear the noise of another rider’s tyres behind me. Scanning backwards, I see a flash of orange. It’s Georgia Leslie. Georgia rips. I lift my energy and we tear through the trails together. Laughing, yelling, bodies weaving through this historic landscape. Trail bikes have changed the scene so quickly in some riding cultures, but others are growing in different directions. E-bikes, race bikes, gravel bikes, so many ways to move.

We pass some of our crew waiting part way down the trail to make sure everyone’s safe. They give us directions to the next meet point. We share our excitement then rocket on ahead. Data tracking apps like Strava don’t know how to capture moments like this. It’s a combination of landscape, trail, history and group culture that make an experience like this one that stands out. We were out there for over seven hours but the ride:non-ride ratio was a lifestyle driven 1:1.

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Part Three

Fragments

We’re not here for any ride. We’re in Aínsa, Spain as part of Specialized’s ‘Trail Days’ global media event before the launch of their new Stumpjumper. (You can find the articles we all wrote elsewhere now. If you add ‘women’ to your search terms, you’ll find a couple from me.)

As I sat there in the shower, dazed and delirious, I found myself wanting to write another story. This one. An exploration of fragments. An article that’s not about what we ride, but why. And how. The moments. The bigger picture journey. The colours and sensations of memories that outlast any incredible ride.

We explore the ruins of a past community I know nothing about. We clamber up a dusty staircase in our cycling shoes, carefully testing each brick for support, hoping they’ll hold. How high can we get and still get back down?

A lookout. We stare at each other and past each other, measuring our effort part way through the day. We take in the surrounding region from up high.

We stare up from down low. Wind, gravity and grey rock give the landscape around us moonlike feel. If only the moon had mountains like these.

Sean Estes, who rivals the Energizer Bunny for energy, cheerfully tells us there are about seven river crossings and a long climb on the road before lunch. When we ride through the fifth river crossing I begin to think maybe he was telling the truth. I ride alone up the road climb, fuelled by an emergency doughnut, enjoying a rhythm of my own. I look sideways at the view for as long as I can, not sure if I’ll ever find myself riding this road again.

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Part Four

"Nice Riding"

This group is an unusual one. Incredibly capable riders who never, verbally, give away how skilful they really are. Riders like Georgia, Sean and our ride guide Yuriy Tomas who work around the world for Specialized in PR. Riders like Ned Overend and Matt Hunter who are known as much for their own abilities on the bike as their drive to grow the sport more broadly. Riders from other bike publications, Zach Overholt from the US, pumped that his arm is working again after a big rehab period, David Arthur from the UK who assures me that riding the Cape Epic (a dream of mine) is an achievable task without having to train the house down, Julien Nayener from France who has a smile that rises further up his cheeks than you would think possible, Rafael Oliveira from Brazil whose YouTube channel is such a big hit that I want to learn Brazilian Portuguese just so I can tune in. There are around twenty-something of us all up including other media, product designers, professional tinkerers and engineers.

These are people who have been riding long enough that so much can remain unsaid. People who recognise that on a ride like this one, if you want to hit the trail with more speed, you hold back and leave a space rather than elbow through in front. If any of us ride up behind someone, we’re happy to watch them enjoying their own experience rather than squeeze on past, fixated on our own. It hits me that these are all people whose day jobs, while fuelled by their own love of the sport, are very much about wanting others to experience these sensations.

One by one people look at me and say, “Nice riding.” “Nice riding too,” I’d say back, a little surprised but unable to say why. Then they’d look me in the eye and say it again, making sure I knew that they meant it. Something felt strange that shouldn’t. It took until that fragmented moment in the shower, soaking in the lost familiarity of Trail Daze, before the impact of such a simple compliment sunk in.

I’ve been rehabbing an unusual injury over the last couple of years, which I’ve written about on Eskapee before. On that ride in Aínsa, I suddenly felt like a mountain biker again in a way that had been missing, a way that reflected the shared physical experience of the sport at this level. Those “nice riding” comments, from people who knew nothing of this injury journey, made me realise that in working so methodically at getting better, I’d missed quite how far I’d come.

I think we’re all guilty of this at various points in our lives. We become so focused on improving we forget to fully appreciate the remarkable abilities we have.

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Part Five

Ned

We hit another world-class descent. This time I find myself jumping in behind Ned. I’ve always loved riding behind other people, whatever point they’re at in their own riding journeys. I discover something new every time.

While we were out there on the new, yet-to-be-released Stumpjumper, the links to history and heritage were more present than ever through Ned. He rode a much earlier model to win the first cross-country world championships in 1991. It wasn’t just the prestige of Ned’s riding history that had me excited. It was the chance to ride with someone whose love of the sport means he is as much a part of the mountain bike culture now as then; someone who has seen our sport change and develop more than most.

There’s a sense of ease and joy evident in the way Ned rode up various pinchy climbs that made me want to sit up a little higher and tap along with a little less effort. On this descent, I marvelled as he found rock after rock to smooth out his line choices through the mud, rocks I wouldn’t have even noticed. With trail eyes developed from years on cross-country bikes, there are ways of processing the dirt that come so naturally to his mode of piloting the bike. It reminded me of the speed and playfulness that comes from that extra thought and finesse. There were so many highlights of this trip. Hanging off the back of Ned’s wheels, marvelling as these quick moves, mimicking, failing and loving the mud lines just as much, was certainly one of them.

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Part Six

Becoming Biker

Philosophers of skill and cognition write about skilled action as something that is never completely old and never completely new. We don’t simply repeat past movements, we re-make them.In my own research, I argue that skilled action is a process of context-sensitive reinvention.This rock, this mud, this trail, these riders around us, this new bike, our own physical limits, abilities and ideals – they all encourage us to move in subtly (sometimes dramatically) different ways.

Each time we ride, even over a single obstacle, we carry traces of our past and intentions toward the future. It’s these histories, these futures, and their relationship to the present that we read in the bodies and attitudes of others. This is why we can often tell more about a person by how they ride than the things they say. Where they are in their own biking journey, where they’ve been, where they want to go. Having recognised things I value and respect in others, maybe this is why their “nice riding” comments meant so much. This ongoing experience of making and re-making the movements of riding is why new equipment, new trails and new people to share them with can feel so enthralling, absorbing and fun.

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Part Seven

Trail Daze

Back to that moment in the shower, processing Trail Daze and why it’s such a nice sensation to have. It feels like day three of a stage race, where you’re pumped from everything that’s been, weary but strong, exhausted but buzzing, excited for what’s to come.

But it’s better than that because we were never there to race. There’s no sense of competition driving everyone to milk the most out of themselves or forcing critical self-reflection after the time on the clock measures the day’s worth. We ate real food. We stopped for lunch. The equipment we used and the reasons we were there became a backdrop to the experience. We rode with each other rather than against each other, so happily becoming biker again and again.

Yes, Specialized brought us part way around the world to learn about their new bikes but, for me, the experience was far greater than the sum of the shiny parts. Riding with new, likeminded friends offered up so much more. A powerful reminder of why we ride. And how, as memories fade to fragments, it’s the sensations of riding that remain strong.

 

 

 

  1. Casey, E. S. (1996). The Ghost of Embodiment. Is the Body a Natural or a Cultural Entity? In Michael O’Donovan-Anderson (Ed.), The Incorporated Self: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Embodiment (pp.23-43).Landham, US: Rowen & Littlefield. 
  1. Bicknell, Kath. (2016). “Equipment, innovation and the mountain biker’s taskscape.” In H. Thorpe & R. Olive (Eds.), Women in Action Sport Cultures: Identity, Politics and Experience, 237-258. Palgrave Macmillan.
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The End
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