October 29, 2020

How to take a “Fun Ride” through Fear (even if it’s the Long & Hard way).

I was 56 years old. I had just started mountain biking at 52.

My only real exercise before mountain biking was going to aerobics classes. I’d never challenged myself like I did on the bike. I’d never done anything dangerous.

Danger felt good.

Looking down at the single track kept me focused. My breath was in rhythm with my pedal strokes, just the way I wanted it. And magically, I chose the right gear to make that climb.

It wasn’t a race. Only a “fun ride.” Twenty-five miles of grueling fun, to be exact. Two hundred riders had lined up, ready to ride. I was one of them and, to be honest, I was scared.

***

It was our annual trip to Sea Otter Classic, the world’s largest cycling festival. Every year, it draws nearly 10,000 professional and amateur athletes and 70,000 fans. It’s named in honor of the cute little sea otter that flourishes along the Pacific coast.

I’m a mountain biker, chicken sh*t on the descents but kick-ass on the climbs. Well, kick-ass in my legend-in-her-own-mind imagination. I look forward to this time every year when I get to meet the real legends of mountain biking—talk with them, gush over them, watch them race.

The course starts out meandering through the trees—Monterey pines, coastal live oaks. But let me tell you, that cool start through the trees was just a tease.

I was wearing my favorite red cycling jersey. SheBeast is the brand. Really expensive. Who pays 120 bucks for a shirt? I bought it on sale. I loved it. Loved the way it hugged my body. Loved the way it made me feel like a sexy athlete. My bike shorts were perfect too. We called them “butt pants” because of the diaper-like feel of the chamois on your butt.

The beginning of the ride was pretty gentle. The canopy of trees kept us shaded. The climbs and descents weren’t too challenging—just enough to get the blood pumping. There were a few switchbacks but nothing too difficult. The terrain wasn’t bad. All of this was surely a ploy to lull us into a false sense of victory.

When the real climbing started, I knew I needed to pace myself. Too quick a burst of energy would burn me out.

Set your pace, Kathy. Go slow. Be steady. Don’t look too far ahead.

I thought of Tinker Juarez, one of my cycling heros. Still winning races at 45, long dreadlocks breaking loose in disarray from underneath his helmet, he was one of the most decorated racers to ever wear a United States national jersey.

Tinker rode a Cannondale Scalpel. I rode a Cannondale Scalpel.

Tinker, give me some of your winning juju. Let me make this climb. If not Tinker, let me channel Sue.

Sue Haywood was my number one shero. She rode for Team Trek and was ferocious on the bike. She was emotional and never hesitated to break out in tears at the end of a race. Boy could I relate to Sue. And she was a brilliant climber.

Channel Sue, Kathy. Channel Sue.

We were about 17 miles in when that lung-busting climb started. It was a long hill, and there was tricky terrain to navigate. Ruts, holes, loose gravel—all there to unnerve the riders. I was clipped in. Choosing the right line would be vital to staying upright. Lots of riders stalled out on that hill. One mistake and I would join them.

Lean forward, Kathy. Modulate your pedal strokes. Don’t spin out.

As I’m hammering up the hill, I become aware of cheering. My husband had made the climb and was at the top cheering me on. There were about 40 spectators on the sides of the trail, eager to watch the riders try to make this climb. We were all struggling, and the cheers were motivating.

For just one second, I looked at the crowd and realized they were cheering for me. Holy sh*t, they’re cheering for me! Acknowledging my effort. Carrying me up the hill with their voices.

“Get it girl! You go girl! Climb that bad boy! You’ve got this!”

And I did! I climbed that crazy hill! I made that whole climb without stopping, without wavering. Eyes on the trail, legs steady. I did it!

The exhaustion after the ride was satisfying. I imagined I was Sue. I shed a few happy tears of release, just like Sue would. I got to meet her that year at Sea Otter. I still have a picture of me, Sue, Mary McConneloug, and Lea Davison after their big race, our arms around one another, victorious smiles. Four kick-ass mountain biking chicks.

And I learned some good lessons that day. I learned about how consistent effort pays off, how steadiness can take you where you want to go. I learned that I, too, could be fearless.

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