This essay was reader-submitted for our essay series on themes of joy, bliss, lightheartedness, and wonder.
We enter the pale, dusty singletrack one by one, giving the rider in front of us breathing (and braking) room. I wait my turn, gloved hands steady on my handlebars, one foot on the ground, the other on my pedal, rocking my bike a little in anticipation. My mind replays the coach’s mantra for cornering: low, lean, look. Ahead, hidden by dense forest greenery and twists in the trail, we hear hoots of success. It’s my turn. I stand up and pedal hard. Here we go! I eyeball the trail sign as I flash by it: Roly Grail.
“I’m 53 years old, riding a mountain bike along with 100 other badass women gathered to enjoy a sport we love and want to learn more about.”
I’m 53 years old, riding a mountain bike along with 100 other badass women gathered to enjoy a sport we love and want to learn more about. We are at Kingdom Trails, a renowned trail network in Vermont’s lush Green Mountains. The attendees at Elevate, a mountain bike summit for women, range in age from 20s to 60s (maybe older!?). Looking around, I guess our average is mid-40s. For the whole weekend, we sweat and ride and laugh, sharing knowledge and stories and beers. Not responsible for anyone but ourselves, we zip along trails on bikes with the abandon of children.
No matter our skill level at this event, we are all nervous about something: not keeping up, getting lost, getting tired, crashing, getting hurt, failing to ride rocks, roots, bridges, jumps. These are adult fears. They keep us safe…sometimes too safe.
“No matter our skill level at this event, we are all nervous about something.”
Pedaling into Roly Grail, I let it rip. I keep my fingers off the brakes for the mere seconds I need to rocket through a berm. I lean my bike into a smooth curve and emerge with speed and shoot down the straightaway. I crest a small dirt hill and feel my tires leave the ground. Airborne. A “woot!” rips from my throat and a smile nearly splits my face. I zip down the trail to join the rest of my cohort. We stop to regroup, all high-fives and “AWESOME!”s.
As an adult, I love riding bikes with women. I ride with guys, too, and learned to ride from my husband, but there’s subtle magic in the absence of testosterone. In my mountain biking experiences and at this event, women wholeheartedly support and cheer each other on. Together, we acknowledge our fears. We tackle them with guidance, practice, camaraderie, friendship. This is not a competition. When we feel confident enough to take risks, we can fly.
“When we feel confident enough to take risks, we can fly.”
Riding bikes meant freedom in my childhood. Our semi-rural neighborhood in central New York was quiet and safe. All summer long, our pack of neighborhood kids zoomed from house to house, from backyard to fort-in-the-woods, and back home before dark, with no fear and little supervision. The only thing that slowed us down was an occasional flat tire (and the wait for someone’s dad to fix it) or stopping to stroke the velvet nose of Mr. Pyke’s Quarter Horse, Snip, saying hello to us over the fence. On bikes, we were alive, present, carefree.
Recently, I helped a friend practice teaching an advanced skills clinic for women mountain bikers. Three of my friends and I played students learning to ride a drop or a jump. This practice involved riding with speed off a wooden platform, launching into the air and landing on a dirt trail to continue riding. This is not my forte. Usually, I don’t even ride the “baby” jumps. She describes and shows proper body position, roughly explains the physics of the act. She demonstrates, making it look floaty, effortless. Her bike barely thumps the ground when she lands. The more I look at the wooden structure, the larger the distance to the ground looms in my mind.
“I try again: head up, weight sunk into my pedals, crouching, not too low, not too high, no braking, no braking, no braking.”
I watch my friends go first. Not perfect, but success. My turn. I roll off the platform, crouched, ready. Too slow, my front tire drops heavily, but no crash, no consequences. The fear subsides. Let’s do it again. And again.
I make small adjustments according to the coach’s suggestions. Watching the videos she takes, I see what I cannot feel. I try again: head up, weight sunk into my pedals, crouching, not too low, not too high, no braking, no braking, no braking. I roll off and glide through the air—wheeeeeee! I can feel that it’s exactly right: the speed, the float, the easy bounce down onto dirt. We all shout “YES!” in unison as each of us lands with success. I feel like I’m 12 again, flying down the hot summer tar of Aitchison Road flanked by my neighborhood posse, hollering into the wind we make as we cruise, shouting with delight about nothing and everything.
“Be open, be childlike, try to let go of your adult fears, whatever they might be.”
Joy is effervescent, anti-gravity, irrepressible, timeless. Remember an activity you loved as a child: It doesn’t need to be fast or aggressive or dangerous, just fun and maybe involve a little risk or a little vulnerability. Give it a try again. Be open, be childlike, try to let go of your adult fears, whatever they might be. When you immerse yourself in this activity and crest the hump of insecurity, joy can rise up in your throat and tumble out—laughter bubbling up like birds trilling in your chest.
Cris Cadiz is a freelance writer who loves sharing the journeys and dreams of people and places she treasures, from her backyard to across the globe. As a tourism writer, she cheerleads for noteworthy people, organizations and small businesses throughout New England. An avid traveler and outdoor enthusiast, she’s always planning her next adventure.