January 7, 2003
Letting Go

ytd: 49.46

"Don't ride your brakes, OK?" David says. "Just relax and let go." And he sails off down the hill ahead of me, a blur of new Spandex and old Buttercup Yellow.

"Just relax and let go."

Easy enough for HIM to say: he's been doing this stuff for forty-plus years. It's a different story for me. Downhills are one of those acquired riding skills that I haven't finished 'acquiring,' just yet ... along with hairpin turns, changing flats, tightening my toeclips, blowing my nose into the wind sans Kleenex. Actually, at this stage of my cycling development, downhills are still almost as much of a challenge as UP-hills. I'm OK on familiar rides. I'm a regular speed demon when we're zooming down the *whew* side of the Moraga Hill, for instance. But on unfamiliar rides -- like the trail we're following today, along the California Aquaduct -- it's tough for me to detach from fear long enough to allow the laws of gravity and karma to take control. Even when I'm enjoying a descent, I can never completely erase the vision of me flying over the top of the handlebars and landing nose-first on the pavement. I can't just 'relax and let go.'  At least, not yet.

But I'm working on it.

As David races ahead of me down the hill, I follow at a safe distance behind him, hands obediently poised near (but not on top of) my handlebar brakes. I must admit I feel a sense of pleasurable recklessness, zipping down the hill with my butt in the air and the wind screaming past my ears. It reminds me of rolling down my great-grandmother's steep gravel driveway in an ancient Radio Flyer, while my little brother sat behind me shrieking in fear. It's that same lovely *Oh My God I'm About To Die* mixture of terror and exhilaration.

OK, I'm thinking as I begin to pick up a little speed. Maybe this doesn't completely suck.

Ahead of me, David suddenly turns a corner and disappears into a small tunnel running beneath an overpass. Moments later I hear him call out a warning: from this distance, it sounds like he says "Bump!" I instinctively grab the hand brakes and squeeze them gently, in anticipation of a rocky road surface ahead. As I reach the mouth of the tunnel, though, I don't see bumps or dips or holes in the road: instead, there is the unmistakeable glimmer of pooled liquid, just ahead.

Puddles! He must be warning me about puddles!

I squeeze on the front and rear brakes with a little more force, hoping to slow myself down before I hit the water. Otherwise I'm going to be rooster-tailing dirty rainwater straight up the back of my pretty new bike jacket. Except that in the bazillisecond just before I hit the puddle of rainwater, I can see that it isn't water I'm heading for, after all.

It's mud.

And it isn't just a small isolated island of mud, either: it's an entire CONTINENT of mud -- black, wet, thick, sticky as fudge batter -- running from one end of the tunnel to the other, for at least thirty or forty feet.

And I'm heading straight towards it at 28 mph.

There isn't time to swear or stop or vomit or do much of anything besides pulling uselessly on the hand brakes some more. I slam into the wall of sludge with a thud, skidding briefly sideways. For one heart-stopping moment, it feels like I'm going to tip over and *enjoy* a spontaneous mud bath, right here in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. But miraculously I manage to brake to a wobbly (and upright) stop, dead in the center of the tunnel.

Shakily, I climb down from the Butt-D-Luxe and find myself instantly ankle-deep in goo. Looming in the darkness, a few feet in front of me, David is as stuck as I am. We look like a couple of mastodons in a tar pit.

"This can't be a good thing," he says grimly.

I try pushing my bike forward a little bit, but it doesn't want to budge. In fact, the mere effort of pushing on the handlebars nearly tips me over again. So for the next few seconds I stand completely still, barely daring to breathe ... carefully contemplating my next move. Pedalling is out of the question: mud is packed into every nook and cranny of The Butt D-Luxe, including the tires, the brakes, the gearing system, the parallel flange indicators. Rolling it forward won't work either, obviously: I can't get any traction. Ahead of me, David is facing the same dilemma with his Cannondale.  Eventually we decide that the only way out is to forcibly lift our bikes out of the mud and lug them, one treacherous step at a time, out of the tunnel. It takes me twenty minutes just to carry my bike ten feet. I wrench my bike out of the mud ... I take a couple of slippery steps forward, lugging eleven tons' worth of Butt-D-Luxe by the top tube ... I drop the bike back into the mud and catch my breath, before repeating the entire wearying process. Eventually I reach the mouth of the tunnel, where the mud blessedly ends and dry trail picks up again. Exhausted, I lay my poor muddy bike on the ground and collapse next to it.

David and I look at each other. We've got mud in our hair, mud on our bike clothes, mud in our teeth, mud in our eyebrows. (Three days later, I will still be picking mud out from under my fingernails.) My white athletic shoes have completely disappeared beneath four inches of sludge: I look like I'm wearing a pair of fuzzy brown bedroom slippers.

"Maybe," I say very primly, "we shouldn't have gone quite so fast through the tunnel." 

David at least has the good manners to look chagrined. "You're right," he says, scraping the bottom of his shoes on a patch of gravel next to the trail. "We should have been more careful."  The tunnel was as much of a surprise to him as it was to me. This is our first time riding the California Aquaduct Trail, and neither one of us is completely sure what to expect. If he'd known there was a tunnel at the bottom of the hill, he says, he certainly wouldn't have urged me to ride so fast. And he asks me if I want to turn around and blow off the rest of the ride.

I consider the idea for a moment.

Two-Years-Ago Secra, just starting out on her bike after three decades of athletic inactivity, would have almost certainly been heading back to the Subaru quicker than you could say "I'm A Big Fat Party Pooper." (And she would have made her poor hapless fiance carry her -- AND her Schwinn Cruiser -- back through the tunnel.)

One-Year-Ago Secra, on the other hand, probably would have gone on to finish the ride, but she would have been pissy and morose about it, and she would have sighed a lot and ridden very slowly and complained about mud in her hair, and she would basically have made everybody around her completely miserable for the rest of the day.

I like to think that 2003 Secra has accumulated some critical *Pluck Molecules* in the months since then.

"Nahh," I tell him. "Let's keep going." It's 10:40 a.m. on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning. We have forty-six miles of scenic, unexplored, virtually deserted trail stretching out in front of us, and an entire day to explore it. I resolutely begin to scrape the first layer of goo from the bottom of my shoes.

What can I tell you? I may still be a wuss on the downhills ... but at least I'm no stick in the mud.

tunnel o'mud

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get well soon, vince!