Roadie, mountain biker or cyclocrosser, it’s getting to be the time when we dust off our ‘cross bikes and hit the dirt. But do you remember your first ‘cross ride? The impossibly steep learning curve? We’ve got a tale of one person’s  humble beginnings of a ‘cross career for your enjoyment.

by Karin Tobiason

Karin Tobiason - Learning to ride and how to wear gloves

Karin Tobiason - Learning to ride and how to wear gloves

My good friend, Christine Vardaros, is attempting to turn me into a biker. Not the rough leather-wearing kind of biker but that of the tight lycra-wearing variety with sausage casings for clothing and silly helmets. Admittedly, I have been known to don a lampshade or two but these cycling helmets really take the dork-cake. Christine agrees with me and then nonchalantly instructs, “You’ll look better if you turn your helmet around. The pointy end goes in front, not in the back.” And that is my starting point.

Christine enthusiastically dresses me up in pro-level cycling gear and I’m looking like an athlete from helmet to shoes.  She even includes a pair of Sponge Bob Square Pants cycling socks, a fine complement to the $6000 custom cyclocross bike she perches me on. I’m like the cycling equivalent of a ski bunny with all the best gear and not a wit of ski slope prowess. I’ve never heard of these brand names with the exception of the cartoon socks but Christine assures me that I am wearing bike rider couture. I think I hear her snicker when I turn to fill my water bottle but I’m shallow, I care not.

Protection and Healing are priority #1 when learning 'cross

Protection and Healing are priority #1 when learning 'cross

I’m looking and feeling ready to hit the outdoors.  Before we take our first pedal stroke, Christine instructs, “No one will know you’re a beginner if you learn how to correctly mount and dismount the bike.” She tilts the front wheel and effortlessly sweeps her leg over the bike. “You try it,” she encourages. After one miss followed by a success, I’m set and feeling like the professional that she in fact, is.

Outside, we go. As we head toward the stairs leading to the street, she lifts her bike over her shoulder and instructs me to do the same. My bike weighs less than my purse, which defies all logic. Christine then mounts her bike and pushes off the curb to cross a busy street towards the dirt track. I follow her but I cannot gain enough momentum to actually start pedaling the bike so I end up using one leg to propel myself to the other side as if traveling on a razor kick scooter. A driver lays on the horn. Christine turns around, smiles and congratulates me on getting my first ‘butt in spandex appreciation praise from men’ honk. I, however, know better.

We ride over to the cyclocross track to check out what’s to come – our final destination. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at; I mean it’s a dusty dirt track that hasn’t even been manicured. “That’s for jumping over,” she says pointing to a two-by-four plank across the field. “On the bike?” I ask incredulous. She nods with the reverence of Grasshopper honoring past Kung Fu fighting traditions. “But first, we’ll do some road riding before you hit the dirt,” she concludes and elegantly sets off on her bike toward the street.  I push my bike along behind her scooter-like, trying to catch up.

We ride down to Tiburon and around Paradise Bay past the Wine Festival on the San Francisco Bay waterfront. I stare at it longingly until I remember I’m wearing spandex and the fear of my every lady lump being seen inspires me to keep going. The road is mildly hilly, nothing I can’t push myself to do. It’s a beautiful day. I feel cool. Athletic even. Christine tells me she’s going to ride ahead to fulfill her training requirements of ‘fast intervals up hills’. Shortly after she pedals away like the hotshot she is, I top the small bunny hill and begin the descent. My bike begins to tremble, I try to steer the handlebars into correction just like I learned to ride my first bike with handle streamers, banana seat and training wheels.  But I lose complete control of the bike and slam into a metal signpost.

I unwrap myself from the post, pluck off the dried leaves, spank the dust out and lift my bike back onto the road. The bike looks fine. My leg is cheese-grated and beginning to raspberry. No problem, I’m an athlete. I tilt the wheel, swing my leg over the top and try to erase the fear of hurting myself.

Three deep breathes and I’m ready to push off again. I wait for a couple of other riders to pass. It’s a group of perky Team-In-Training riders who upon passing me, lift their pudgy pink arms skyward yelling, “You can do it! Just keep going!” as they slowly wobble on down the road in front of me.  “Eff-off!” I want to yell after them but don’t.

Christine circles back pedaling at what can only be described as ‘light-speed’ and I tell her about my crash. I point out my injuries like the wimp I am. “I shouldn’t have left you alone,” she says with concern. She stays with me the remainder of our ride. I realize later it wasn’t to keep me safe. She did not want to miss another fall. When a beginner falls, she is initiated with a round of applause, I find out. Christine really wants me to have a meaningful experience so she sticks close by assuming I’ll be going down again soon enough. I learn that bikes are supposed to be steered with one’s hips, not the handlebars. This makes no sense – a unicycle steered by one’s hip yes, but a bicycle, no.

On day two, an email from Christine blings in, “Wanna ride? I need to get out and just move my legs- no effort.” Focused solely on the words ‘no effort’ I lob back a response -YES.

A couple of hours later, we are riding down a back street in a nearby neighborhood. “I used to date a guy who lives in that house,” she says pointing to the house we are passing.  As I turn to look at the house, the bike and I take a digger onto the pavement.  It wasn’t even a cool one with exotic acrobatics, I just tip over like the tricycle rider in the old Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In comedy from the late 60’s.  She offers a quick initiation applause while side-eyeing the front door of her former boyfriend’s house.

Blood is streaming down my legs, gravel sticking out of my sad knees. You know she’s a loyal friend- one eye on me, the other eye on the house- she stays by my side. A lesser person would have abandoned me as road kill. A car stops, rolls down the window as I’m picking my head up off the pavement. “She’s fine,” Christine whispers and furiously waves the car onward. I get up.

A cop drives up seconds later “I saw a bicycle go down” he says, “That would be me,” I offer in case he may have missed my bleeding flesh wounds and crooked helmet. “All is well here,” Christine says, still furtively watching the house and wildly waving away anything that may attract the owner of the house to the street. The neighbor’s dog starts barking at us.

“We don’t have much time before the numbness goes away and it will start hurting,” she advises. I tilt my wheel and throw my bloody leg over the bike thinking, yeah right, and push off to ride home. I would have bet she said that to avoid a confrontation with her ex until approximately twenty minutes later when I’m standing in my bathroom with a washcloth in hand. And, the courtesy anesthetic fades. I need a wooden block in my teeth to endure the pain of washing away the road crumbles out of my knees. She was right.

While bandaging the lower half of my legs she calls me, ‘The Road Warrior’. There is no question she is making fun of me but admittedly, I like the sound of it. My neighbor drops by with bigger bandages and more accurately calls me ‘The Big Baby,” it’s more truthful. I am a big chicken who is in fact afraid of hurting myself.  “I’m a Road Warrior,” I say with a growl asserting my athletic fearlessness but all I’m doing is assuming Christine’s personality like the chameleon I am.

Christine hits the streets to go home, Evil-Canivaling off the side of a curb completely unaffected by the danger of it all. A Road Warrior… I muse…I strut around all night pretending to be a daredevil athlete. I feel sexy and empowered in a way that only an adrenalin rush can make you feel. But as my bandaged body throbs in pain, I revert back to being myself, my true chameleon colors righting themselves back to the Big Baby.

“Want to finally hit the dirt, Sport?” Christine’s call comes in the next day. “I’ve already hit the dirt, twice,” I laugh at my own wit but my ribs ache so my chuckle evolves into a sigh.  “I’ll swing over to grab you,” she hangs up before I can offer an excuse.

OK, maybe just one more time, I’ll go hit the dirt.  And maybe I’ll hit the barriers too.