Puppyhood is short. Out of a dog’s life, puppyhood lasts less than a year, about 1/12th of a dogs life, or about 8%. For humans, puppyhood is a bit longer, but still a tiny part of our lives. If I live to be 100, and you define childhood as ending at sexual maturity, then my puppyhood lasted for about 14% of my life. Even if you extend that to the point where the brain ceases to be its most plastic, at around age 25, that’s still only 25%, and it’s all concentrated at the front end of our lives. It’s over now, and it’s never coming back.
That means that about 75% of our lives are spent in decline, both cognitively and physically. It also means that we should be especially careful about children and childhood, to ensure that the brain learns a multitude of things that will serve it well throughout its long life: how to ride a bike, how to create art, how to play music, how to speak another language. The phrase “it’s like riding a bike, you never forget,” really only applies if you learned how to ride a bike when your brain won’t ever forget it.
I have friends who never learned to ride a bike as kids, or didn’t learn to drive a car until they were adults, and they never seem to have the ingrained skills that come with learning something like that early on. One of my friends learned to drive a car in her early thirties for the first time. While she’s a good and safe driver, it’s obvious when watching her that every movement and decision takes conscious thought. She drives an automatic transmission deliberately and with constant attention to what she’s doing. I learned to drive at 15 years of age, and drive a manual transmission without giving the actions of my hands and feet a second thought. I can hold a conversation and listen to music at the same time as I manipulate a 3000-lb vehicle with ease.
I learned to ride a bike as a kid in California. I think I was 6 when I got my first bike, a white “Spirit of ‘76” Schwinn(?) that I got for Christmas. I learned with training wheels, and then they came off and I was free. Free to the end of the driveway, at least.
Then I turned 8 and we moved to a small mountain town in Colorado. The bike went into the garage and never really came out again. There weren’t mountain bikes back then. My parents weren’t avid cyclists, I didn’t have friends who regularly rode bikes and the hills around my new house were steep, so everything sort of worked against bicycling continuity for me. I didn’t really get back on a bike until I was in my 30’s, and then only sporadically. When I was a kid in Colorado I skiied, I rode horses, I swam, and at the tender age of 17 I took up snowboarding with the most complete dedication and all-absorbing enthusiasm I’ve ever had for any hobby or sport.
When I was in my late 30’s I started commuting to work on a Trek hybrid with the idea of losing weight (I was 200 lbs at the time), and Marcus started mountain biking. We would also do road rides together along the paved routes by the river. I liked riding bikes, but have always been fearful of falling. I took a nasty fall off a Peugeot road bike in about 2009, and after that bastard bucked me off I became even more hesitant.
Then in 2014 Marcus took up BMX again, a sport he’d loved and excelled at as a kid. After a couple of months of watching Marcus rip around the BMX track, I took it up, too. No one was more surprised than me that I liked it so much. I instantly related to BMX more than I ever did to mountain or road biking, and I think it has to do with things I did and skills I learned when my brain was young.
For me, BMX is a bit like combining horseback riding with snowboarding. I know, that sounds ridiculous. Let me explain. Going over jumps on a horse you learn a sense of balance in the air at different points; forward over the horse’s neck on takeoff, gripping with the knees and lessening the forward lean on descent. You learn about looking around toward the next jump well in advance. Standing in the stirrups and standing on pedals is a similar feel. Going off jumps on a snowboard you also learn things about balance in the air, about snapping the nose up followed by the tail (like a skateboard Ollie) on takeoff and about changing balance to match the slope on landing. In snowboarding you learn about cornering, fall lines, carving, and absorbing small obstacles and impact. All of these skills apply in BMX.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend a lot of time in the air on my BMX bike. I’m mostly firmly wheels down. But going over an obstacle that describes an arc is very similar to the sports I’ve just described. The parts of the obstacle require the same responses on the ground as they would in the air: the pre-loading and compression at the base, the lifting, de-weighting and absorption at the top, and the re-entry and re-weighting on the backside of the obstacle to create the pressure known as “pumping” that propels you toward the next obstacle. Pumping came absolutely naturally to me on a BMX bike, and the so-called “rhythm section” of the BMX track, where several obstacles of similar height are placed at fairly regular intervals and pumping is at its most effective, is still my favorite part.
Even with all of that experience drawn from other sports, I find myself at a disadvantage on the bike. In competition (which is my least favorite part of the sport), I’m often riding with women who competed in BMX as kids and internalized all parts of BMX to the point that it became second nature. They may have stepped away from the sport for years, but when they came back to it, well, it was like riding a bike. To me it feels like no matter how hard I train, I will never attain that level of innate connection to a bicycle.
My point with all of this is that I wonder what to spend my time on these days. After my marathon is finished, I need another goal. I always need another goal. If I don’t keep the goal post moving ahead of me I tend to stagnate and founder, and that’s just not good for me on many levels. Multiple goal posts are even better.
Do I spend my time doing activities that I didn’t do much as a kid, things I’m not innately good at and in which I may never excel, like art or bikes? Or do I revert to something I was good at as a kid, like swimming and snowboarding, and work on being excellent at it? Sometimes I waffle so hard on this question that I end up stuck, doing nothing at all. The benefit of that is obviously zero, so I have to figure out whether it’s worth it to me to learn something new, or to try to get better at something in which I may never excel.
I think the answer is that I don’t have to excel. I have to keep my brain as young as it can be. I think tunnel-vision is a detriment to continued brain elasticity. I should do all of the things. Maybe the results of all of them will appear half-assed to others, but I will be constantly learning new things about each, and I will absolutely try my hardest. To that end I think one of my next goals, beginning October 1, will be to train for the 2022 BMX World Championships. It will be my second time at Worlds.
The beauty of the BMX Worlds is that I can’t hope to win, but I can sure hope to finish somewhere in the middle. UCI rules have set the age groups so that the women’s amateur age classes end at 39. Anyone over 40 is lumped together (this is an improvement over when I competed there in 2015, with barely a year on the bike, when the cutoff was 29: all women over 30 were put in the same class. I was 44.) At age 51, I will be racing 40 year olds who have been racing their entire lives. I will be racing 60 year olds who took it up last year. The journey, therefore, will be more about being the best that I can be in that moment than competing for the glory of a title. That’s my kind of competition. I enjoy beating the shit out of myself more than anyone else, in fact I EXCEL at it, so this is an excellent goal.
In an article about what it was like to fall short of her goals at the 2021 Olympic Games, professional mountain biker Kate Courtney said: “To deny the struggle is to deny the very thing that allows us to triumph in the end.” I embrace the struggle, it’s the best part of the journey for me. So what it really comes down to is what your personal measure of “triumph” is. In my heart, I truly don’t think that has to be winning or being the best. For me, and maybe for anyone taking up something they love late in life (and also because I’m the self-proclaimed queen of mediocrity), it has to be something else. For my marathon, it will simply be finishing. In making art, it will be learning new skills and techniques and creating something I’m proud of. For BMX, maybe it will be applying my best efforts at preparation and competing at peak physical condition. Maybe it will be the joy of participating in an international arena with like-minded women. Maybe it will be setting an example for other women my age. It will most definitely be doing something I love to the best of my ability, and I can’t really ask for more than that.