Growing up in the hills of Kentucky, we rarely road bikes on paved roads and cement sidewalks. So when I attempted mountain biking, it wasn’t so different from what I already knew.
When I was about 10, my younger sister and I got brand new BMX bikes, which were perfect for navigating the neighbor’s farm, bombing down steep hillsides, launching rickety backyard ramps, and on rare occasions, hitting up the BMX park in town. How we managed to get through childhood with little more than a few stitches and some bumps and bruises I’ll never know.
Several years later, I wanted to buy a bike to enjoy my newfound adult freedom living in the city. But since dirt was more familiar and much more exciting than asphalt, I set my sights on an off-road model figuring I would be able to do both.
As one might imagine, mountain biking wasn’t exactly huge in Kentucky in 1995. But as luck would have it, I had a couple co-workers who were hip to ways of the singletrack. They would routinely show up for an evening shift disheveled, hurried and exhausted, grins painted across their faces from a full day of riding in the woods. Their stories set my imagination on fire and I started asking questions.
Looking for bikes, I stumbled on a used Barracuda in the classified section of the newspaper. A girl who raced mountain bikes was selling it and the bike came with a hefty $500 price tag, which was more than I expected to pay. I soon learned from Kevin and Logan, my knobby tire inclined co-workers, that Barracuda was one of few companies making small enough frames to fit a petite girl like myself. They were based in Durango, Colorado and manufactured by Yeti and 3D Cycles. Five hundred dollars was a steal.
“If I buy this bike, you have to promise to take me mountain biking,” I announced to Kevin.
“Sure, I guess so,” he said, obviously unsure and only mildly convinced that this was a good idea.
A few weeks later, Kevin, Logan, and I loaded up Kevin’s pick-up and headed for the trails at Hueston Woods State Park in Ohio for my first ever mountain biking experience. The guys gave the Barracuda a quick once over and me a few short words of advice.
“Follow us. You’ll be fine,” Kevin said.
That was literally all they said before darting off into the woods. I doubt they actually believed it. I certainly did not.
“Speed is your friend,” Kevin said as he blazed ahead.
“Trust your tires,” Logan would echo as he swiftly glided through sharp dusty turns.
Before long, I was pedaling with every ounce of power I could muster from my dainty 115 pound frame, fighting to like crazy to keep up. I rode with toe clips in a loose cotton t-shirt and a pair of horrible, baggy, polyester bike shorts designed for a man. I doubt I drank enough water that day, and I certainly didn’t think to bring a snack.
At one point, late in the afternoon, I blasted up a steep hill to where the guys were waiting. Without hesitation I rolled by and quickly bombed the much steeper backside. Throwing out whoops and hollers, which has since become my signature descending call, they watched in horror and disbelief.
I came to stop at the bottom. Upright and giggling with sheer delight, I turned to see Kevin and Logan still perched at the top of the hill.
Their faces said what neither would. They hadn’t actually been waiting for me but evaluating the steepness of the descent. We laughed until Kevin informed me, with a serious tone, that I had to climb back up because “that isn’t the way we were going to go”. At that moment it became clear that I would be just fine and that the mountain biking duo had just become a trio.
Almost every week during the summer for the next two years, Kevin, Logan, and I went mountain biking. Logan would take the lead because he was the fastest and I would follow Kevin and his highly tuned ability to pick great lines. After each ride we would grab a quick bite and then I would pass out between them in the front seat of the pick-up while we hauled ass to get to work on time. We would each do our best to sling drinks and ribs all evening long with exhausted smiles. Blasted from leaving it all on the trail every single time, there were nights when I could barely carry a tray.
Despite the comfort I felt on that first ride and the ease with which I learned to keep up and hold my own, it was a long time before I felt comfortable riding with anyone else. Kevin and Logan had been incredible ambassadors, always treating me as an equal. Eventually I broke out of my shell, and although I was one of only a handful of women riding in the area at the time, I always found a comfortable place in the community.
For years, that Barracuda was my guiding light. When she got old and tired I took her to the first bike shop she knew in Kentucky. That visit resulted in a new fork and date with the shop owner who had been her keeper for years. He raced with her previous owner and often prepped her for race day. Soon after, we were a couple and I became an integral part of the business. I started riding road bikes, dabbled in racing, and eventually turned my attention to bicycle advocacy.
I think it’s safe to say that when I went out for that first mountain bike ride, I never really came back. Since that day there have been few things that I ever want to do more than rip through tacky singletrack and whoop down steep descents.
Almost twenty years later, my stomach still turns with excitement for every single ride. I’m still honing my skills, charging into new territory like the big dirt jumps at the downhill park. As I sit here poised for spring with that old feeling in my gut, I imagine catching the first lift up at Steamboat then raging down Rustler’s Ridge over and over and over until my body aches, and then looking for a shoulder to pass out on in the front seat of a pick-up truck for the long ride home.