I didn’t know Kirk Hamilton was a rider at first. I find it funny but it was actually a lot later on that I found out he was an Elite level XC racer and bike afficianado. I’ve since had a pleasure of riding with Kirk (or what might be better described as, trying to keep up to Kirk) and it’s been interesting getting to know him better. He started where I am now, just a wee Novice racer with a big dream, and he successfully made those strides to get up through the ranks. I was fascinated by that story because, I wanted it to be my story – with every ride and race I wanted to get faster and be able to move into Sport and then maybe even Expert. Who knows if that will ever be in the cards for me, but, as our next Feature Rider, Kirk will explain himself that this kind of progress can come with a price.

So without further ado:

It happened.  After eight seasons I had enough, I was burned out from racing my mountain bike, I was finished and frustrated, wanting nothing more than to hang up my shoes and helmet and do something, anything, other than ride my bike.  Somewhere along the way in the summer of 2008 I lost my way and I forgot to have fun.  I grew tired of the seven-day routine of the weekly race regimen and viewed training days with the same disdain as cleaning the bathroom: something only done out of necessity…

Sittin' idle

How did this happen?  I mean, I loved bikes, I loved everything little thing about them: the feel of a clean and crisp gear change, the touch of a brand new pair of riding gloves, the sound of stepping into my pedals, and the thousands of other facets of the cross-country mountain bike racing culture that I had become accustomed to.  Friendships forged in the heat of competition and camaraderie of communal suffering were what kept me continuing the routine long after the flame of competition was snuffed out, but even those strong bonds could not make me commit to the final few races of 2008.  I headed into the off-season for the first time without thinking of training or even bikes.

The fall of 2008 was an exercise in organized chaos.  Moving into a brand new condo, managing the pressures of work, and anxiously awaiting my brother’s safe return from Afghanistan provided me with more than enough distractions to keep me from thinking about the disappointment of walking away from racing, and even riding for fun was not something that I felt compelled to do.  I simply got caught up in the minute details of life, and did not really care if I ever turned a pedal in anger again.

Kirk shreddin' the trail

Eventually in the winter of 2009 a friend of mine approached me and asked me about my decision to quit racing.  We started talking about the race scene in Alberta, and I realized at that point that I still wanted to be a part of it.  Despite his prodding, I remained steadfast in my intention of taking a break from racing.  He relented, but on the condition that I come and help out a few races that he and another friend of ours were putting on.

Once the snow melted, I admit I had a few moments where I questioned the decision to take a break from racing.  I was only slightly jealous of my friends heading off to big races across the continent; however, it being the early season, this jealousy was tempered with the relief of not having to ride in the many snow squalls that are known to occur in Alberta before the May long weekend (it snowed then too).  I should mention that in no way did my decision to stop racing mean that I would quit riding my bikes altogether; however, I decided that I needed to focus on riding to relearn how to enjoy it again, and I forced myself to become a fair-weather rider, rather than the die-hard cyclist that I had evolved into.

I tried to ride for the fun of it again, whether it was a 20-minute spin through the trails outside my door, or long days in the saddle somewhere in the mountains.  I didn’t care about power outputs, caloric intake, or efficiency.  Rides were starting to become more about the feel of the trail and the little moments of glee that even a few meters of perfect singletrack can provide.  It seriously felt like a sort of rehabilitation that I was putting myself through, and I was starting to like it.

Canada Cup Race

Eventually the time came to fulfill my end of the agreement I struck with my friends and helped them pull off a few very successful races in the Capital region.  This was the first time for me to experience a race from the organizing perspective, and it felt good to give back to the racing community and I encourage everyone who has ever participated in a cross-country mountain bike race to do the same.  It felt pretty good to be in that atmosphere again.

In July, I took my girlfriend to Whistler for a vacation and we spent a few days on the mountain riding the various downhill trails that criss-cross the mountain.  Those few days on the hill were amazing as I got to share my passion for riding with my girlfriend, and she quickly fell in love with the sport.  Soon she too was ogling the latest offerings from Santa Cruz, Trek, and Intense.

After our trip to Whistler, I was recruited to ride on a four-person team at the 24 Hours of Adrenalin in Canmore.  Before you go and suggest that I broke the promise to myself about not racing in 2009, I would like to qualify my statement somewhat.  I do not consider team relays true mountain bike racing, we were just in the event for fun, although I am sure there were moments in the early morning darkness where I questioned my judgment.  Even though I convinced myself that this was a fun event, I started to feel the twinge of nervousness that I used to feel before a race, and I also started to see the other riders around me as rabbits for me to chase.  In short, I was starting to get my stoke back.

The remainder of the summer of 2009 was spent riding with my girlfriend.  Soon after the Whistler experience I picked a bike up for her so she could come riding with me wherever we wanted to go and it was a lot of fun introducing her to riding mountain bikes.  I was having fun again, and more importantly I wanted to go riding, and rode out of love of the sport rather than guilt of not completing a training schedule.  We rode as much as possible in the summer and into the fall of 2009.  I felt refreshed and energized after each ride and I never wanted rides to end.

So what’s the point of this story?  Well, I suppose it’s that sometimes it takes a little time away to figure out what you are missing.  I got so caught up in the training and racing lifestyle that I forgot how to have fun on the bike.  Only by deliberately not racing did I find the joy of riding again.

Now it’s November.  We’re only six and a half weeks from Christmas and although we’ve been blessed with remarkably warm and dry weather in Edmonton, the snow will soon fly and we’ll be forced to take refuge indoors when the thermometers tell us to not venture outside.  I am a year removed from my decision to take a break from racing, and what a difference 365 days makes.

See you at the start line

The other day I was sitting in Toronto with a friend, talking with her about the next year and her plans for racing.  She had a very successful campaign in 2009, but it left her hungry for more success in 2010.  She got excited talking about training again and how much racing meant to her and said that all she wanted to do was get started so she’d be ready for the first race of the season.  My response?  “Me too.”  I’m back, and I can’t wait.

See you on the start line.