24 Jan 2018

GOING FLAT

WORDS & PHOTOS x Dean Campbell

I bought my first proper mountain bike in 2000. I was excited at the prospect of adventure this new machine would enable. For the first time, I had front suspension. I had shrugged off the weakness of cantilever brakes for the much more powerful V-Brake, and finally grew up and had a set of SPD style pedals – my first-ever experience riding clipless.

A whole new world opened before me. I could now jump the bike more easily over obstacles. I felt better connected to the bike, and I finally started to understand what “spinning” was all about.

I rode this way for 17 years, trading SPD for eggbeaters, and even taking that bike across Africa as part of the Tour d’Afrique before retiring it in favour of a full suspension bike. The new bike was great. I adapted my riding style and found I could better float over rough stuff that used to have me hanging onto my hardtail like a mechanical bull.

I dabbled in other kinds of riding, and got my hands a road bike, and later built a touring bike. I picked up more crank brothers pedals for those as well.

But nagging at me – especially with the touring bike – was the misery of walking in my bike shoes. They weren’t terrible, and years of use had softened them enough for me to have a reasonable gait. But as soon as a smooth surface came into play – like the tile of a grocery or convenience store during a mid-ride snack stop – I all of sudden had to take the halting steps of an infant, worried the metal toe cleats and hard plastic lugs would have me skating like a Disney fawn on a frozen pond.

My full suspension bike is now nearly a decade old, and while I know it would be fun to upgrade, my cash flow has been directed elsewhere – worrying evidence that adulthood has a strong grip on my life. A new bike would have – I told myself – reignited my interest in mountain biking. After 17 years of riding, and working in the industry first as a mechanic, then as a writer, I was burned out. The late winter ritual of watching my favourite bike videos wasn’t getting me primed for spring, and instead of excitedly tearing apart the bike to clean and rebuild, I just stared at a machine held together by dirt and squeaks, a reminder that “I just wasn’t that into it.”

Then I had an idea. I dug around in the parts bin and found a set of flat pedals. I don’t know where they came from – hand me downs from someone – but they had most of the screw-in pins, and the bearings seemed semi-fresh.

All of a sudden the bike seemed new. I ran the seat a little lower and enjoyed the more “enduro” feel I was getting. And then I tried to ride. My feet came off, a lot. My shins took a couple of good hits before I wised up and bought armour; incidentally, I haven’t once had a pedal strike while wearing my pads. I felt like I was back to square one. All the skills I thought I had amassed over time were long gone without the crutch of being clipped in.

I started an online course called the 12-ride flat pedal challenge. Developed by Ryan Leech, I hoped this would be key in getting me back to a more skillful place. I started spending more time in the saddle, working through the lessons. I made mistakes, had stumbles, but it started to feel more and more natural. Finally, I went out to ride some gravity trails at a local ski hill. We got to some off camber rocky sections, the kind of features that have “consequences.” The kind of trails, that clipped in, would have unnerved me.

I dropped in, got halfway through and the bike slid out from under me. I stood up. Wearing regular shoes meant there was no clattering skating across the rock – zero drama, zero injury. I walked over to my bike and picked it up. Zero damage. I walked back up the trail and tried that section again, this time getting through with no dabs.

Riding flats helped me feel emboldened. As I learned to pressure the pedals more, I got the bike to do more underneath me. I pumped more features, and dropped the bike a few times, and it didn’t matter. I was fine. I was having fun. I was riding more.

As with riding, my life has hit plateaus on occasion. Interests turn into fascinations, infatuation, next into rituals, then routine, then recognition that “it” isn’t really doing it for my anymore. It’s a curve I’ve seen in other aspects of my life, so much so that the cycle has become a sort of meta-routine.

So while I was getting comfortable on flats, I’ve also been getting a new foothold in other areas of my life, launching into new business, living in a new city, making new friends. I’ve bruised my shins, spilled some blood, and cursed with vigour. And I’m doing it all with the excitement felt when dropping into a new trail for the first time, and the thrill of my first real bunnyhop on flats.

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