Traction

I’ve just been reading the blog of mountain bike legend (legend is easy to use in the small world of mountain biking; such a young and small sport can only accommodate so many personalities, that people know exactly when to use the term) and Ergon Athlete Dave Weins. He was talking of Technology, the Interwebs, Music, and Traction.

Now, I’ve been racing for two years, and only really doing well for about six months, so how can I counter or question anything that such an athlete has to say? His conclusion, quite simply is that it all comes down to traction; my mountain bike thrives on the connection between itself and the dirt, and I agree entirely that modern technologies have strengthened that connection to allow me to ride faster and longer with fewer interruptions.

Now the point of contention.

For me, Traction and Music do not go together. Music and Mountain biking do not go together. I certainly know, and ride with, people who are always wired into an IPod, IPhone, or other such device, in fact, I know people who cannot even leave their IPhones alone for 5 minutes (even when driving, but that’s a bigger annoyance that I’ll save for another day). I never ride off road with Music, and I never ride with people with Music, and my reasons are simple. When I leave my house, this is what happens:

I clip clop over the wooden floor in my cycling shoes – that harsh metal sound that only cycling shoes make. I fill my water bottle in the kitchen, listening to the water rising in the bottle; I don’t even have to look to see when it’s full. I walk through the kitchen and creak the garage door open, click the light switch, and hear the squeak of my tires as a wriggle my bike from the hook. I shut the door, the draft makes it slam, and as I wheel my bike towards the road, the free hub whirrs in anticipation. I hop on board and the tires buzz on the driveway as they take my weight, and splash gently as I cross the drainage ditch by the road. Cycling through town, I listen for cars; morning drivers more concerned about finding a Starbucks with their IPhone than worrying about my life on the side of the road.  I can hear, by the sound of the leaves rustling, what the wind is doing, and whether or not I should be heading for a sheltered trail, or out into the open. The trailhead beckons, and I wait for that moment when the tarmac gives away to gravel. Almost like bacon hitting a pan, the sizzle of the gravel under my tyres signals the beginning of today’s venture. The noise changes as the gradient steepens, I can hear the turn of my pedals loading my back wheel, the rubber gripping and turning, holding onto the dirt. The chain, which should have been oiled before the start, complains harshly as I clunk into an easier gear. The noise reminds me; smoother, faster lighter of the pedals. I reach down and take a drink, the bottle top pops open as I grab it with my teeth, and the reassuring fricative sound of the bottle sliding back into its holder tells me its secure.

A silent noise, if possible, alerts my attention to the left, where a foe runs behind a tree – I’m the first person it has heard since dawn, and my passing presence is judged not a threat, it continues to graze just metres from the trail. The distraction causes me to graze a tree with my arm, the bark scrapes at my skin, a dry rasping sound which nature intended us to avoid. I come away lucky, with just a scrape, and continue to the top of the trail. My breathing becomes rhythmic; I can hear in my head the timing of lungs, legs and bike. Each turn becomes easier, but that makes the pace faster, and the breathing harder. The top is in sight, I let the whir of my tyres slow to a gentle crackle, and brake for the first time, the rotors giving off a gentle hum as they are used for the first time. I hear my suspension release as I put a foot down and admire the view. The silence, like that deer, stuns me, because it isn’t silent. The road I turned off 20 minutes ago, now 1000 feet below, accommodates a lone car, the motor whining off down the canyon to the daily grind. Above the pinion forested foothills, the hubbub of the Front Range rises into the morning sunlight and mixes with other unidentifiable sounds of the forest. The trail that I’ve ridden a hundred times tells me the creek around the corner is raging, and I prepare for the wet cold splash of the run off crossing the trail. After my lazy minute has expired, I take off. Gravity is now my friend; the squawking of my un-lubed chain is replaced by the clatter of it hitting the chain stay and I overzealously approach the first corner. I apply my front brake – beckoned by a warble of its own – and my Lefty fork compressed with a whine as my weight transfers forward onto my front tyre. It responds with sounds of its own. The single most important sound of mountain biking: TRACTION. It grips, it lets go slightly, and the sideways movement pulls against the tread. Each of these in balance tells me what I want to know – how close to the edge am I? Every time I‘ve ridden my bike, I‘ve listened for that sound. The noise has meanings to me that only another bike rider would know. I hear the tire letting go, the suspension wheezing under pressure, and know I’m on the edge. I learn into the corner, focusing on the creek I can see ahead. My bike lets out its own creak, the back wheel scrubs into place with a reassuring judder, and I know I’ve made it, this time, around the first and most important corner. I click click click into a harder gear and pedal towards the stream, loading the tires as much as my ears tell me and launch into the air, the rear tyre briefly catches the water and flicks drops of refreshment onto the back of my calves, and the front tyre splashes briefly into the other side as I come up short. I settle into the trail. Noise to ears to brain to muscles, I listen and respond as the music of the singletrack plays out in front of me. I slow as a rider approaches, brakes gently warbling, and say hello, although I receive no response as the rider is wired into their private universe; one I’m not invited to, although its one I would rather not join.

I make my exit from the trail, todays playlist winds to an end as I splash back though the gutter by the side of the road and clunk noisily out of my pedals and up the steps. I open the door to the sounds of the kettle boiling highly on the stove, and the coffee grinder performing it’s once a day duty, signal the return to reality. I spend the day cuing the playlist in my mind. I will be ready for the next rendition.

Jamming my headphones into my ears and blinkering me to the rich surround sound of bike riding seems perverse and weird. I ride for a lot of reasons, but one is to feel connected; not to the digital world, but to the outside space, that can only be enjoyed with full concentration.

I ride bikes because it makes my heart beat faster, and I like that sound.