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One mountain biker’s skinny-tire awakening

Katie Klingsporn writes about turning to road cycling to get over a knee injury — and falling in love with it

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I’m a mountain biker.

A cross-county cyclist whose need for rides borders on compulsive. A sucker for grunty climbs and any trail that winds through an aspen grove. I love the pale brown undulation of ribbony singletrack, the sticky traction of Slickrock, and the way the forest folds me into its quiet rustle.

So when I first swing my leg over this insubstantial little machine, this road bike, and reach for the bars, it feels all wrong.

Nuh-uh, I think, leaning over awkwardly as I pedal it away from the Durango Cyclery for my first test spin, proceeding to push the shifter inward with my right hand because it is the only option that is presenting itself.

Thirty seconds later, I’m standing over the bike about 50 feet from the shop’s door, trying to unpuzzle the gears. I had accidentally pushed it into its highest mode while attempting to climb up the street, which ground me swiftly to a halt.

I fumble and fumble, but for the life of me, cannot unlock the mystery to downshifting. It takes a sheepish trip back into the shop to discover the whole shift-with-the-brake mechanism.

On my second, more successful spin, I discover that the bike does indeed fit. And soon enough, I’m at the register, paying for my first ever road bike, and, in spite of myself, admiring it. The black and purple Trek, which had come in days before as a donation, is sleek and sturdy. Light enough to hold up with a finger. Fast looking. It also has a distinctive 90s flair that brings to mind the TV show “90210.” As a nod to that, I call her Brenda, and off we go.

It’s a foreign feeling, this road cycling thing, and a bit unexpected. That’s because I had long observed the sport of road biking with an indifference that bordered on distaste. To me, it seemed like an activity that entailed huffing exhaust fumes, sharing the road with loud trucks, and a bunch of agro guys who are busy cheating when they aren’t shaving their legs.

Why would you endure that, I thought, when you could have the solitude and beauty of singletrack?

But that was before a slow-motion bike crash on a steep section of trail outside of Telluride left me with yet another knee injury. My initial strategy of ignoring it turned out to be futile, and after spending a couple of months glumly sidelined from the kind of big summer rides I love, I succumbed to an MRI and got the diagnosis: torn meniscus. Sick of feeling like I was trashing my knee, I scheduled a surgery. My fifth.

Being a veteran of the rehab process, I thought spinning a road bike would be a great option for getting stronger in a safe way. But when I half-heartedly launched a bike search, I didn’t really expect that it would be so fruitful, and so fast. I was able to buy Brenda five days before surgery, getting out on a test ride to make sure I would be comfortable on her before stowing her in the shed.

She didn’t stay there long. After convalescing for several days and spinning a stationary bike at physical therapy, I pulled her out on a glorious sun-dappled Sunday when I couldn’t stand to be caged indoors any longer, pedaling her down the river trail and back. A small ride, but one that made my spirit flutter with liberation. Injuries have kept me down; bikes have brought me up.

In the days and weeks that followed, Brenda and I spent many an evening chasing the ever-shrinking golden light of fall through country roads, up hills, and across river valleys. What started as five-mile jaunts quickly grew to 16- and then 35-mile rides as my strength came back.

I grew to love the way she responded and accelerated, the way she whipped around corners and pushed nimbly up inclines. I found something meditative and soothing about achieving a cadence on country roads. And as my legs pumped and my wheels spun, I began to process the jumble of my life: the recent uprooting of my home for a new job, the uncertainty of my future, and the pain of what I had left behind. With Brenda, I could file away at my problems until the edges seemed a little less sharp.

And to my surprise, I grew to genuinely love this little bike, purples and all.

When I finally got back on my mountain bike, six weeks out of surgery and a little timid, it felt hugely triumphant. Rolling into the parking lot after the ride, I was buoyed by the happiness of a dusty, sweaty jaunt on singletrack.

But the return of the knobby tires hasn’t relegated Brenda to disuse.

She was there for me when I needed her most, and anyway, I rather like her company.

 

Katie Klingsporn is the former editor of the Telluride Daily Planet, where she fell in love with trails through aspens, and is now the arts and entertainment editor at the Durango Herald. She remains a mountain biker at heart, but don’t tell Brenda.