It all started with an email – out of the blue.
“We are pleased to invite you to be part of Xterra Langkawi 2015…”
To which I replied with a little background to myself, adding ‘you realise I am no where near as fast as the pro and that off road triathlons are most certainly not my forte?!’
In fact, it first occurred to me to mountain bike at university. I joined the mtb group, with my hybrid bike and thin wheels. We went deep into the woods of Durham, on top of a huge muddy decent, a very narrow route with all sorts of obstacles, wet leaves and a huge fall to one side. Everyone whizzed down at top speed jumping over the obstacles and looking pretty slick — leaving me behind, terrified. I looked around, found the nearest tarmac road, walked my bike over and scurried home at top speed, drawing the biggest mental red cross over the idea of ever attempting to mountain bike again.
This new year, a friend, in fact one of the instrumental people who got me hooked on road cycling and triathlons, sent me a text: ‘What are you doing for new years?’ With my previous new year plans just fallen through, I asked what exactly was brewing in his mind. ‘Mountain biking!’ he replied. For the lack of anything else to do on new years, I had to accept. And frankly, if there was to be anyone in the world who could help me overcome my mtb phobia, it had to be Will with his never ending patience, good humour and useful tips! And so it was that I finally mountain biked for my first time on the very first day of 2015.
Maybe I should have broken down in detail for the people at Xterra Malaysia simply how incompetent I was at mountain biking… because for some reason they still wanted me to race, and to race as Elite. One would have hoped that at least I would have a grain of sense and reason within me and cordially bow out of the challenge. Alas! I somehow ended up accepting the invitation.
I headed out to Portugal, to the loving arms of my friends in Tri Training Harder, who have been helping me with my training this year. Philip sent me to the local bakeshop in search of way to learn mtb skills. Tiko at the bikeshop told me to stick around the bike shop as someone was on his way who might be able to help me. A guy walks in and I vaguely understood he was the guy I needed to talk to. I plunged in immediately: ‘can I please join you guys in your mtb sessions?’ I couldn’t understand the reaction on his face, so I continued. ‘I have a race coming up in just over a month and have no idea how to mtb.’ ‘You want me to teach you how to mtb?’ He asks, even more confused. ‘Yes please!’ I couldn’t let go of this opportunity! Joining a coach/mtb club was my only hope of learning how to mtb. Realising that I’m not backing down, Jean Pierre told me to meet him the following afternoon.
The following day I got on the mountain bike and huffed, puffed and sweated like I’d never done before as I snailed towards the meeting point. Tiko took one look at me, inspected the bike he had rented me and said: ‘the good news is, this bike is so slow and heavy that you’d immediately feel considerably stronger and faster when you get on a proper mountain bike for your race.’ (Tiko, I’m counting this). Jean Pierre finally comes along. ‘So where is the rest of the group?’ I asked. ‘What group?’ asked JP. It was then that I realised that I had cornered a random guy who had walked into the bike shop, thinking he was the mtb coach or club coordinator or something. I had been so insistent that poor Jean Pierre did not have the heart to refuse to take me out on my mtb!
Allow me to explain that the language in common between me and Jean Pierre is French. As my very special friend, Guillaume, will testify, I probably understand 5% of what’s actually being said in French, and guess work the other 95%. And when I’m whizzing down the mountain at top speed, clinging on to my brakes for dear life, not knowing whether to close my eyes in fear and hope for the best, or stay witness to the pure folly of what I had landed myself into… that 95% is not to my advantage. ‘Lache les freins!!!! Lache les freins!!!!’ JP kept shouting. He was probably telling me to slow down, no? And so I slam on the brakes, skid, slip and roll over the rocks and thorns and finally come to a halt, bike to one side and me on the other. I may not have learnt much mtb on the first day, but trust me, my French is better for it. I will never forget that lache les freins means let go of the brakes…!
3 hours later, 2 of which had been in the pitch dark, knackered, bruised and legs shaking with adrenaline or maybe fear, JP finally decides that I have probably had enough for one day. I thank him profusely, highly apologetic that I had actually managed to talk him into taking me mountain biking… but he was happy to take me out again. Usually, I’d be more considerate about burdening other people with my inaptitude, but frankly I have no idea how I’m going to handle Xterra Malaysia. Here was hope and a rare opportunity, I had to accept his incredibly kind and generous offer.
There’s something so extremely beautiful about mountain biking. The way you’re in the heart of nature, away from cars and tarmac… the beautiful wild flowers that paint the landscape, the setting sun, the freshness… it is so incredible. And there’s also the element of seeing myself progress, of having to actively and consciously overcome my fear/phobia of mountain biking. On the third session, JP took me down this steep, bendy descent, full of obstacles. JP stood at the bottom encouraging me on, but I just stood there horrified, my entire body system locked down. I could not bring myself to tackle that slope. In the end, knowing I had to make a move unless I decided to spend the night in the mountains, I half rolled, half scooted my way down to JP. He looked at me and said. ‘you’ve got to give it another attempt.’ I couldn’t let him down. And so I went up again, and this time managed to stay on the bike on my way down. He took another look at me and said, ‘again’. And so I went, this time, with hardly a trace of fear. I am the luckiest girl on earth to have the awesome support of JP! Conquering fear can feel so liberating.
On the last day, a few of JP’s friends joined us, donned in kit that read ‘The Ghost Boys’. That final ride was like a dream: cycling into the sunset, intoxicated by the smell of the lavender fields, smiling from the core of my being, joking and laughing away even though I barely understood what the others were saying in Portuguese, and trying my hardest to chase the others whilst staying on my bike for once. I was tangibly so much more competent than when we first started, it was unbelievable! JP later confessed that he kept on telling the other goes to up the technic level of the course until I finally fell off my bike. HAH!
‘Jean-Pierre’ I said, as we were saying our goodbyes. ‘Give me one year – next time we meet, I’ll keep up with you on a mtb.’
Having said that, I still have no idea how I’m going to deal with Xterra Malaysia – which is just around the corner. If only I had a grain of sense and reason within me!