Outdoor Life Summer Travel

Let ‘er rip (or not)

August 21, 2015
Mountain biker in the Alps

Photo by U.J. Alexander/Shutterstock.com

Overcoming fear and disappointment in the Swiss Alps

It is nine o’clock on our first morning in Davos, Switzerland, and Radek and I are standing at the base of the cable car station, bikes in hand, waiting. Our accommodation package includes a free lift ticket for the Davos Klosters ski area, and we have paid 10 Swiss francs each for a bike pass. We have never biked in Switzerland, although Radek has spent hours reading internet commentary posted by Czech mountain bikers who’ve ridden these trails. I have tried to mirror his enthusiasm, although the overwhelming emotion I feel is fear.

Driving from Austria to Switzerland the night before, the Alps were obscured by thick blankets of clouds. The land on either side of the winding, mountainous pass was green, studded with rocky boulders. Waterfalls trickled in the distance and brown, black and gray-colored cows wearing large metal bells grazed among the rocks in the valley. The scenery was ideal. I only wished we’d come to hike the trails instead of bike them.

In our marriage, I am the cautious one. We’ve been together for more than thirteen years, but I still haven’t gotten used to this role. Growing up, I was adventurous – on snow skis, on water skis, on my bike. “Let ‘er rip,” my dad would say and I’d hear the call as a signal to let loose, to get used to the speed. I wasn’t afraid then, at least, not that I can remember. I did have my share of bike wrecks and ski crashes, a few of them memorable enough to carry scars through to adulthood. Still, I always thought of myself as a speed queen.

Although I jumped at the chance to visit Switzerland, I knew Radek well enough to anticipate that without the kids in tow, he would have an ambitious plan. When I asked him point-blank what kind of trails we’d be riding, he told me not to worry that there were different types of trails for different ability levels. We’d try some out, and then we’d see. He wasn’t fooling me though.

The gray clouds obscure any view of the Alps, but at least it isn’t raining. While in line, I check out other mountain bikers. There is a group of men in their 30s and women in their 40s, one who might be 60. Their bikes are dirtier than ours, and they have hard-core mountain bike gear – helmets with chin guards, biking googles and protective knee and elbow pads. Their helmets are clipped to their packs, not on their heads as mine is. They wear sturdy, flat-bottomed sneakers, not clip-in biking shoes like Radek and me. Getting through the double turnstile, they handle their bikes with an easy grace. Meanwhile, I get stuck in the middle gate not able to get my bike ticket through the reader.

For our first ride, Radek selects a panoramic route that starts at the middle mountain station. Panoramic sounds good to me. I hope once we are higher the clouds will thin out, and we might see the mountain peaks. Once aboard the cable car, my heart sinks when Radek says he isn’t sure if the car is going to stop at the middle station. But it does. The other bikers look at us quizzically and gesture for us to get back on the second cable car to the top. Radek ignores them and heads toward the trail sign marked panoramic.

Calming my fears, I tell myself that I can do this. For the past two years, I have biked mountain trails in the Czech Republic, although this the first time I’ve taken my bike on a ski lift. We start out with a tough ascent on a slippery rocky hillside, and I find myself forced to hop off and push my bike. Cows on the hillside are looking at us, but they do not move out of our way. After a few hundred meters, we hit a narrow, rocky trail along the edge of the mountain. The steep drops are enough to scare me into total concentration. Radek is often out of sight ahead of me on the switchbacks. At one moment the sun appears, and we take a few photos.

Just as I think that my fears are of out proportion, I lose my concentration and hit a rock. I land smack in a poopy mud puddle, my bike still on the path above me. My left knee and right upper thigh throb from being poked with the bike’s handlebars, my shorts are soaked through to my underwear and one glove is wringing wet. Realizing that Radek doesn’t know I’ve fallen, I climb to my feet and begin to push my bike up the path. Radek looks in disbelief when he sees my muddy mess. I try to laugh it off, but I’m rattled.

I know that I don’t have the technical skills for this terrain, but I thought I could get by on heart and determination. Now, I just want to get off the mountain. I start biking with one glove and a soggy bottom. I fall again when my bike bumps the side of a rocky trough I’m riding in. I give up and start walking the bike down the mountain. The trail grows tougher – it’s a multi-use biking/hiking trail at parts – even Radek has to walk through the boulders.

By the time we reach a path that I can bike, I’m exhausted. I am annoyed with Radek for overestimating my abilities or underestimating the trail. At the same time, I’m saddened that a part of me thought I could do it, too.

When we finally get to the bottom, have lunch in Davos and put on dry biking clothes, Radek says, “So, now I thought we’d go all the way up.” Usually agreeable, this time I refuse. He is disappointed but acquiesces and finds an easier route. The easy route turns out to be a slow, tortuous climb up the mountain in the rain. We remark that Swiss have a different scale for easy than we’re accustomed to, but I am grateful that it’s a gravel path not a rocky trail. At the end of the day, I wipe out again. In my haste to get out of the way of two cars, I bump my wheel against the sidewalk and tumble. I scrape my other knee and ruin what’s left of my attitude.

When we get back to the apartment, we argue. How can I explain to my husband that I do like mountain biking, yet I’m terrified of it? How can I explain that I don’t trust myself downhill on the rocky trails, yet when I ride a trail successfully, flying over the rocks and around the curves, I get a bigger thrill than I have since I was a kid, and my Dad yelled “let ‘er rip.” Despite my performance and my husband’s doubtfulness, I am not ready to give up.

A faint hopefulness stirs. I have taken a cable car up a Swiss Alp and biked down it. It is an accomplishment though not what I’d aimed for. I’d aimed for perfection, but I have to settle with getting down the mountain in one piece, albeit smelling like cow manure.

The following day, Radek and I stick to the gravel trails in the valley. It’s raining harder and neither of us wants to repeat the previous day’s performance. We bike to St. Moritz for lunch by the lake and talk about adjusting expectations for our next mountain biking trip.

I know one thing, before I head up the mountain again, I’m investing in knee pads.

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