It's December now, and Leah's and my evening rides no longer begin in the daylight. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge as sunset's last gasp of crimson sank into the horizon. The low-angle light gave the ocean surface a startling depth of texture, with white caps and indigo shadows etched into every tiny wave. There was a clear frost to the air as we climbed over the Coastal Trail and dropped into the encompassing darkness of Rodeo Valley. The thousand-foot hills of the Headlands loomed overhead like black summits.
"It's pretty cool how you can ride bikes from the city, and twenty minutes later end up somewhere so dark and quiet," I said.
"The Marin Headlands are magical," Leah agreed.
We climbed over the ridge into the next valley, which was even frostier than Rodeo. I was trying to get the hang of my clipless pedals, which I put on my full-suspension Element precisely so I would get more used to clipless pedals. It felt awkward and uncomfortable as I navigated these now-unfamiliar trails, reduced to intimidating contours and shadows by the white beam of my headlight. I hesitated often and crept over tiny ruts as though I were maneuvering a steep rock garden. Mountain biking these days ... what's wrong with me?
The night was clear and stunning; every time we climbed over the ridge, we could see sparkling detail in the sea of city lights across the Bay. The the west, there was only the Pacific, black and infinite. I loved being out there, but continued to fight with my bike, wrenching it over rocks and once tipping over while I was still clipped in, unable to free my left foot from the pedal. Argh, clipless. But there was a deeper, more pervasive feeling than my clipless frustrations — something I've wrestled with every time I've ventured onto trails with my bike since late last year. Fear.
I caught up to Leah, who had unclipped at a tight turn where she crashed the last time we rode. "I can't believe I stopped here," she said. "Ever since I crashed ..."
"I'm the same way," I replied. "This is why I only get worse at mountain biking, not better."
It's difficult for me to deny anymore. I am afraid on a mountain bike, genuinely. And it's not that I believe this fear is something I can't or don't overcome, but I do need to acknowledge it's there. This fear rose to the surface after I crashed in Steven's Creek Canyon in August 2011. The resulting injuries were not serious, but thanks to exposed nerve endings deep in my elbow, did develop into the most physically painful experience I've been through yet. It left an impression. One I'm not proud of, but I have to be honest. Trail riding hasn't been the same since. And I find myself avoiding challenging terrain, becoming rustier and more timid by the week. Friends like Leah are encouraging, but I'm not sure what to tell her. Yes, I need to practice more. But what should I do about an activity that doesn't bring me the same level of joy that it used to, largely because I'm afraid? It a difficult, but genuine question.
I was going to write more about this today, my fear and how I can overcome it, but like most of the rest of the nation, I feel somber and sad after the Friday morning school shootings in Connecticut. It's not a day to dwell on bike fear. As we reflect on tragedy, there are a lot of voices demanding solutions, each one trying to be louder than the next. I suspect it's not a question that can be answered, but rather a symptom of an infected culture — one that's been fearful for far too long.