A few years ago I tried mountain biking at a women’s retreat. It was tough, as it had been many years since I had last been on any kind of bike. I didn’t know anything about gears, or how the seat should feel. I didn’t know about seat height and frame size. I fell many, many times on our beginner course–although I was able to navigate in and around the cones, so I’ll give myself that! We did some cool tricks on the bikes with a lot of guidance from our instructors, spent a beautiful morning outside on trails near Chattanooga, and had fun, even though I ended up with a bit of a contusion on the leg I kept falling on (the left one, which heretofore I will call my super leg!). I had a big trail running event coming up and was not interested in being injured, so my decision at the end of that clinic was that mountain biking probably wasn’t for me.
I already had two really enjoyable ways to be on the trail: hiking and trail running. I knew that I’d keep trying the third thing that had piqued my interest, which was outdoor rock climbing. I eventually had some success with climbing that same summer, on the second Flatiron in Boulder, harnessed to a rope with a friend and climbing instructor by my side, and his wife supporting me on the other side!
That was the summer I met Laurel Darren, owner of Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a hiking and guiding company based in Scottsdale, Arizona. We’d encountered each other just below the top of Hope Pass on a chilly morning outside of Leadville, Colorado. The previous year, I’d gotten this far and booked it down the other side of the mountain only to be gently pulled off the course by the medic at the bottom.
This year, however, I was almost a full three hours ahead of where I had been the previous year, and Laurel, a volunteer at the event, accompanied me down those three miles and across the final five rolling miles to the finish. We talked, we sang (Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” to be specific); there were quiet stretches, and there were moments when we discussed the deepest parts of ourselves. And we had only known each other for a few hours.
That’s what the trail does to you. It opens you up, it closes distance between folks who live different lives. You get to be in community with each other because you both don’t know what you would do with yourself if you didn’t have the outdoors—if you didn’t have the opportunity to feel the trail under you, to feel the cold, crisp mountain air on your face, to even feel the sensation of a cactus spindle pricking your hand (yes, even that). These are all gifts of the trail.
Photo by Laurel Darren
Which brings me to a few weeks ago. Or actually, let’s backtrack to about a year ago when I became part of the Salsa family. Truth be told, I was really excited about the gravel bike and the fat bike. I was going to have SO MUCH FUN riding around the dirt roads here in Vermont through all seasons! And I would also have another mode of being outside as I healed from a pretty gnarly torn meniscus. You know how the story ends–I became a little obsessed with riding. I had—and still have—a great coach (Max!) who pushes me and has shown me the wonders of being on a bicycle and finding adventure with the help (and sometimes hindrance tbh!) of two wheels.
I wasn’t too excited about the mountain bike, though. I kept have flashbacks of falling onto my left leg as I tried over and over to do tight turns on a beginner course. I cringed at the thought of going down steep hills on a trail and freezing, becoming paralyzed with fear, resorting to walking the bike down—because that’s exactly what I had done.
I had to have a lot of conversations with myself to the tune of “You can do this.” to “You have to now—this is your job.” to “You know you want to, even though it was hard and unsuccessful that last time.” The brain of the endurance athlete started to kick in.
Well, I knew exactly who to turn to. Laurel had been trying to get me to come out to Scottsdale for a long time, just to TRY IT AGAIN. She assured me that she would move at the pace that I wanted and needed, while pushing me a bit so that I could further hone any skills that I would learn.
So that is how I find myself with some residual cactus spindles in my left hand.
Photos by Laurel Darren
I traveled to Scottsdale for a three-day one-on-one with Laurel. My Salsa Timberjack arrived at Rage Cycles, where they put my bike together—lovingly, I might add! And then we were off. The first day, we covered the basics: shifting gears, positioning my body ideally for uphills and downhills, pedaling positions (Chest up! Shoulders relaxed!), and how the bike responds to tension in the body.
Photos by Michelle Craig Photography
There are so many things to think about, as well as a requirement to simultaneously be in the moment and looking ahead and planning for the next moment. We reviewed tight turns, steep downhills, and keeping my wits about me on uphills. Laurel even asked me to re-do an uphill or two because she knew I could, even though under my breath…
I had a big cry once on an uphill where the, let’s just call it, unfortunate-incident-that-resulted-in-a-painful-impaling happened.
She came over to me and assured me that yes, even ultramarathoners and NBA players get frustrated RIGHT HERE IN THIS SPOT because this is different, it is difficult. You’re using your body in a different way than before, and it’s not necessarily intuitive. When my face dried, we finished the ride, and I had learned many things about myself. This experience also reinforced my why, my purpose, my whole existence as someone who continually tries new and challenging pursuits.
Despite the humbling steep incline at the start and the nosy cholla that attacked me while I was getting off the bike to attempt said incline, despite the chafing, despite the lack of mileage (sorry, endurance runner here…), I was hooked.
Photo by Michelle Craig Photography
It’s a wonderful feeling when you ascend a hill and are greeted with the expanse of the afternoon desert, with its goldens and oranges and glowing saguaros; you eagerly and excitedly await the next day of riding with a little soreness, some cactus spindles in your hand, and the willingness to do it all again, if only to take in that view that will knock you off your seat.
Photos by Michelle Craig Photography
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I'm a cross-country coach, author, public speaker, mother, antiracism educator, and ultramarathoner. I found my way back to cycling while recovering from a running injury and I am hooked! I love inspiring others to push themselves and I want to spread the message that anyone can be an athlete.