Eastern spiritual philosophies often teach that true satisfaction only comes by renouncing the “self ,” material possessions, and desires. Unfortunately, that eliminates mountain bikers from ever attaining an enlightened state of being—we are way too invested in our gear and the chase for another squirt of adrenaline. Our enlightenment comes in small doses: the moments of total focus and concentration where we cease to think and simply react, the sudden realizations that even though we’ve been pedaling hard, we haven’t felt any pain during the previous ten minutes, and the times when our brakes seem totally unnecessary. During those trance-like periods on the bike, we are as close to being one with the universe as we will ever get as a cyclist, and those times are what keep us coming back for more.
Mix our latest-and-greatest gear-driven sport with the culture-at-large of fear and competition, and it’s not a stretch to wonder if our ego-driven heads will ever relax enough to forget about all the BS and lose ourselves in the experience. Luckily, trailhead image concerns fade quickly when the parking lot is out of view, especially on solo rides, which, to me, seem more conducive to “finding Zen.” Once on the trail, with a well-tuned bike running silently beneath you, and your heart rate pulsing just below your functional threshold churning out a pace you could hold all day, your subconsciousness starts to take over as your mind drifts into a sublime state of bliss…
Morning rides are special to me, as the twilight before sunlight spills over the ridge lines and the fresh, contrasty light during the hour afterward makes everything seem clean and simple. Just being on the mountain during this time puts me in a good mood, especially if I’m the first human out that day, which is revealed by the presence of animal tracks in the soft dirt or sand of my go-to sunrise trail. Following a bobcat’s or deer’s or even a rabbit’s footprints brings a smile to my face and validates my decision to get up early. On a recent ride, after following deer prints for a while and then zoning out on the trail unfolding ahead of me, a sudden rustling to my left jerked my gaze in that direction, and I locked eyes with a buck hidden in the chaparral next to the trail. This interaction lasted only a second, yet stayed with me for the rest of the ride. As I continued pedaling, I began to think of how many other animals I have unwittingly ridden past in the dim early morning light. I gave thanks for the plentiful deer population in these hills, providing the apex predators with a safe, reliable food source, negating the need for them to seek other forms of nourishment.
If you know me, then you know how I feel about climbing: it’s a necessary evil, and if I never had to do it again I wouldn’t. I also believe there is something to the adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” and so I have come to embrace my old foe. Now, one of my favorite feelings provided by mountain biking occurs when my bike is quiet, the trail is (at least sort of) smooth, and I enjoyed a big plate of pasta the night before. The resulting ability to hold a strong, steady pace, accompanied by rhythmic breathing from the diaphragm, brings about a calm, almost meditative state resulting in “alien abduction” rides—”Woah, I’m at the top already? How did I get here? I don’t even remember pedaling!”
Of course, once the trail turns downhill, the little details are even more rewarding: the crunch of tires hooking up around a turn, the bursts of speed gleaned from natural rollers, and the silence when your tires leave the ground. Finally, at the bottom of the trail, back at the parking lot where riders in matched polyester kits and those in jeans and T-shirts are ignoring each other, you pull up in a rush of spraying gravel and heavy breathing, completely oblivious to the snot trail down the front of your jersey. As highlights of the ride crowd each other out in your mental replay, you realize you’re floating, returned from the elevated state that comes from complete immersion in the moment, and you didn’t even need to fold yourself into the Lotus Position to reach enlightenment.