In­spi­ra­tion: Find­ing My Moun­tain Bike Groove

Mountain Bike for Her - - Contents - Words & Pho­tos by Tracey Croke

I still pinch my­self when I think about where two wheels have taken me. I never thought in a mil­lion years I would be moun­tain bik­ing. I’d only seen the ex­treme down­hill stuff and the stunt-pulling su­per­hu­man launch­ing from death-de­fy­ing heights. I had no idea that there was a place in the sport for peo­ple like me.

My bike has taken me to some in­cred­i­ble places. To­gether we’ve trav­elled widely, climbed some of the worlds high­est passes, rid­den epic trails and ven­tured to re­mote cor­ners of the planet. I of­ten won­der if I would’ve had so much fun with my bike had I not been di­ag­nosed with a de­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease at a young age that forced me to re­assess my life and live for the day.

I’d just turned 17 when I first ex­pe­ri­enced a se­vere and de­bil­i­tat­ing pain in my spine and down my legs. This mys­te­ri­ous pain came and went for over a decade. Even­tu­ally, I was re­ferred to a Rheuma­tol­o­gist who spot­ted the signs im­me­di­ately. I’d just turned thirty and was living in the UK when I was di­ag­nosed with Anky­los­ing Spondyli­tis: com­monly re­ferred to as AS; some­times short­ened to Anky Spond; or (my par­tic­u­lar favourite) Anky-what???

Anky-what is a pro­gres­sive, in­flam­ma­tory dis­ease, that mainly af­fects the joints of the spine. The cul­prit is a mal­func­tion­ing im­mune sys­tem. There is no cure for Anky-what and it can even­tu­ally cause the spine to be­come rigid (known as bamboo spine) which has hap­pened in my case.

This con­di­tion is par­tic­u­larly tricky as it of­ten es­capes tests in the early years, which means

there’s a de­lay in di­ag­no­sis. Sub­se­quently, the cor­rect treat­ment to slow the pro­gres­sion usu­ally only starts when the joints show ir­re­versible dam­age. Even to­day, the av­er­age on­set to di­ag­no­sis pe­riod is still eight years. It’s the same story in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and the UK.

The good news is that Anky-what is re­lieved by ex­er­cise and ag­gra­vated by rest. There’s al­ways some level of pain to con­tend with whether I’m up a moun­tain or sit­ting on a sofa watch­ing TV. Sit­ting ac­tu­ally ex­ac­er­bates the con­di­tion and move­ment eases the pain, so get­ting hooked on re­al­ity TV shows is not in my best in­ter­est. I find there is al­ways a bright side to th­ese things.

Although it wasn’t fun hav­ing my twen­ties robbed by a de­bil­i­tat­ing, mys­tery ill­ness, when I found out what it was and how to deal with it, I thought, hm­m­mmm, I’d best crack on with all those “one day” dreams while I still can. With de­te­ri­o­ra­tion ahead of me, I drew up a wish list of a gizzil­ion things I wanted to do.

Some wishes on my list were small and would only take a few min­utes, hours or days. Other more am­bi­tious dreams such as “I want to achieve a black­belt” (tick), “take a sab­bat­i­cal and travel the world” (tick), and ”space travel” (still to do), would take a tad longer.

Ev­ery now and then I pick up the list and take an­other look. I was about to en­ter my mum­ble, mum­ble decade on this planet when I though it was time to try some­thing new. My spe­cial­ist raised both his eye­brows at moun­tain bik­ing.

“Cy­cling is a good idea but I wouldn’t

rec­om­mend moun­tain bik­ing,” he said. On top of that, my de­te­ri­o­rat­ing spine had made my ribcage less flex­i­ble, which in turn re­duced my lung ca­pac­ity to around 70% of the norm - not con­ducive with an ac­tiv­ity that re­quires sud­den bursts of ex­er­tion.

For­tu­nately, over the years, I’d be­come an ex­pert in jus­ti­fy­ing my dreams. I was determined to ride a moun­tain bike even if it was just on flat grav­elly paths. In my mind it was a teeny-tiny toe dip into the moun­tain bike world. That’s when I dis­cov­ered there was more to the spec­trum of moun­tain bik­ing than fly­ing down rock faces in full-face hel­mets.

I met my friend Claire while study­ing mar­tial arts. In that pe­riod I’d de­vel­oped my fit­ness, dis­cov­ered a new level of de­ter­mi­na­tion and the real mean­ing of per­se­ver­ance. All that came in handy when Claire found out I’d bought a moun­tain bike. “Come out with me, we’ll start on the easy trails,” she said. There’s no harm in giv­ing it a go, I thought, and we headed off to Wales.

I was re­ally sur­prised where my knobby tires would go and how much the bike ab­sorbed the knocks. Best of all, (once I was sen­si­ble) it didn’t ag­gra­vate the pain. Thanks to Claire’s en­cour­age­ment and in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm, I was on the red trails by the end of the day. As for my lungs, I de­vel­oped a knack of main­tain­ing fast breath­ing for long pe­ri­ods.

The next thing I knew I was in a team with Claire signed up to the Snow­do­nia chal­lenge in Wales which in­volved fifty miles of moun­tain bik­ing, a hoof up and back down Mount Snow­den and a pad­dle in a Canadian Ca­noe. We en­tered it for fun and ca­ma­raderie more than any­thing, but by the end of the race we were one of only two all- girl teams to cross the line. I’d spent eight hours on the go and re­alised a new level of en­durance.

When I moved to Australia, the moun­tain- bike-love con­tin­ued with new mates who showed me the trails. Some would hang back so I could fol­low their wheel to learn the lines and oth­ers taught me the skills to get me up, down and over the tech­ni­cal stuff - as well as stand­ing in the per­fect spot to catch me when I got it wrong. Just like the UK, I found Australia’s moun­tain bike com­mu­nity full of en­cour­age­ment and a pay-it- for­ward mind­set.

As much as I loved the lo­cal trails, it was when I put moun­tain-bik­ing and travel to­gether, the pinch-me mo­ments re­ally cranked up. The river of en­cour­age­ment from a world-web of moun­tain bike friends (cou­pled at times with a lit­tle wine-fu­elled courage) just kept flow­ing. Do you fancy giv­ing Australia’s long­est off-road bike trail a crack? Why not! (Ching) Hi­malayan passes? Count me in! How about a pi­o­neer­ing ex­pe­di­tion in Ethiopia? Pinch. Pinch. Pinch.

It’s not been easy by any means. I still have aw­ful days. Those days can turn into a week or longer and I’ve ques­tioned my­self more times than I can re­mem­ber - usu­ally when I’m slog­ging up a trail in a re­mote cor­ner of the world at high altitude feel­ing my re­duced lung ca­pac­ity and get­ting pinged off by ridicu­lously small rocks. In those chin­strap mo­ments I al­low the doubt­ing demons to get in. They tell me I’ve been on bor­rowed time and it’s over. But there’s a sup­port crew who say it’s not.

Any­one who has rid­den the lo­cal trails or those epic jour­neys with me, taught me a skill, tweaked my bike, or just shouted some words of en­cour­age­ment as they passed me by - they have all played a part in keep­ing the demons away and help­ing me find my happy bike groove.

I still watch rad bike movies in awe of the su­per­hu­mans who star in them. At the same time, I’m con­tent to get my thrills in a dif­fer­ent way. The beauty of ad­ven­tur­ing on a bike is that there are no medals for the fastest rider. The prize is the jour­ney, the ex­plo­ration, the un­known as much as the renowned, the ed­u­ca­tion, the new friends and con­ver­sa­tions, the im­mer­sion in cul­ture and just get­ting out into the world - all doable for an av­er­age rider with a de­cent level of fit­ness if you can get on the bike day af­ter day.

It’s sur­pris­ing where a teeny-tiny toe dip on a grav­elly path will lead. As a writer, it’s fu­elled me with end­less sto­ries. As a per­son, it’s filled my soul. And af­ter living with Anky-what for more years than I care to ad­mit, I’ve cre­ated a whole new list - just for my bike groove.

On top of the World: Holy Prayer flag bat­man - Did I just do that?

Tak­ing on the 980km Maw­son Trail self sup­ported, which at that time was Australia’s long­est marked off road bike track.

One of the first two women to ride the sin­gle-tracks in the Simien moun­tains and sum­mit Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s high­est peak. Photo Credit: Tom Healey

Hav­ing fun on the dicey Manali to Leh route in In­dia. Try­ing to avoid be­ing swept off the edge.

Grin­ning de­scent in the Simiens, Ethiopia.

In train­ing for the Snowies Moun­tain Bike event.

Sin­gle­track en­durance train­ing in New South Wales.

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