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Finding Your Big Rocks

Where Are Your Priorities?

Words by Cam McRae.
November 21st, 2013

The speaker places fist-sized stones into a one-gallon wide-mouth Mason until they reach the top, and then asks if the vessel is full. His audience nods in assent until he pulls out some pebbles. He lets them rattle down into the spaces between the stones until there’s no more room and he again asks his question; is the jar full? He repeats the process with sand and finally water and then asks his audience the point of his performance.

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Jerry Willows is still knocking off Big Rocks years after this photo was taken. Photo Cam McRae.

The idea isn’t that you can always stuff more into a given slice of time; it’s that the big mothers need to go in first – or they’ll get left sitting in the dirt.

So what are the big rocks? That of course is the most important part of the exercise. Without nailing down the things that have to be on your list it’s pretty tough to make time for them.

Often the big rocks aren’t the ones you picked for yourself. My list gets filled up by things like coaching soccer, helping with homework and of course the business of nsmb.com. Riding is a big rock for me but it doesn’t always make it into the jar – and when it doesn’t I start to become a bastard. On the rare occasions when we get a lot of the wrong kind of snow here on the North Shore – the wet, sticky variety that’s impossible to plow through on even the steepest lines – I get grumpy fast.

The first couple of days after a dump I let all the white stuff transport me back to the years when I rode my snowboard whenever I wanted. After that, since days when I can head to Whistler are as rare as a ladder bridge in Marin, I simply pine for dirt. When I am forced off my bike I realize how much better I feel when I hit the dirt regularly. I need it for my sanity.

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Stuart Kernaghan finding big rocks on the Sunshine Coast this fall. Photo Julie Kozier.

Quite a few of the really talented and enthusiastic riders I know take some time off the bike every year – often a month or more. It may be in the winter, out of necessity, but often it’s a conscious choice to park the two-wheelers and recharge. These riders likely get their fill during the season but since our work is busiest when the weather is best I never get sated with saddle time. For me the game is on during the off season.

Back in the day, before NSX 1 showed up on bike store shelves, Trevor Hansen and I had a weekly night ride. If you like you can call it a man date – but anyone who wanted to join was welcome. Every Thursday we’d ride one of the three North Shore Mountains with the help of halogen and NiCad. We’d firm it up on Wednesday, to sort out the when and where and who, but it was set in stone: Thursday was for night riding.

Back then we both lived in the big city and generally Trevor would roll by my place in his Hyundai Pony, with two-by-four bike racks, and we’d head for the Lions Gate. We usually ended the night at the Black Bear Pub or maybe with a few cold ones while sitting on the bumper.

Instead of dying a respectable death with at least a few beers raised in memory, the Thursday night ride just faded away. For years after that something got in the way of even the occasional wattage-assisted adventure. The Thursday ride resumed for a brief period but sadly hasn’t returned. It’s time to test some lights for an excuse to ride in the dark.  That’s a rock that needs to be put back in the jar.

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Leavenworth, Washington rocks may not fit in a jar. Len Hornidge rides off after leaving some rubber on The Cock Rock. Photo Cam McRae.

These days my rides are scattered. I have no guaranteed ride day. Having something to test and shoot helps but the best thing for me to do is to toss out a date and see who can make it. Four days out the schedule often looks pretty open but unless you set a time and have someone meeting you there, life can – and often will – scuttle your plans with pebbles and sand. The phone rings, fires ignite and soon you’re stepping into pyjamas wondering where the day went.

Friday used to be another ride date with my buddy James. It was often a combo of urban North Van trails, some mountain time and maybe a pub stop along the way.  There’s nothing like ending the week on the dirt to get warm for a Saturday pedal.

Setting a ride in stone also keeps you on target when the weather gets pissy. A vague plan gets washed away by a November rain but one in the books might just survive. Recalling the feeling of ending a wet ride is key for me. I never regret monsoon riding once it’s over, but those first few pedal strokes when it’s 4 degrees celsius and raining sideways always suck. Once the blood gets flowing the added challenge of the slick and the over-saturated greens in the forest make it all worthwhile. When you pick your trails with care, riding in the rain, or even the snow, can be almost as sweet as a dusty day in July.

This is something I know. I realize that without doing something to make rides happen they don’t. Lately I’ve had good weeks and bad weeks so it’s time for a call to arms. A little preparation – a few phone calls and texts and of course some scheduling – is going to get me on the dirt more.

There are those who’d say there’s something pathological about the need to ride – and they’re probably on to something. I’d wager though that most of the society-approved compulsions leave deeper scars on the psyche than a need to go and ride a bicycle on a mountain.

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What are your Big Rocks? Photo Morgan Taylor.

We all know former mountain bikers. Riders who were as keen as any of us who for some reason faded away. When I run into those people they say they miss riding and they are often stumped when you ask why they stopped. More than likely, as life got busier, they didn’t shift gears. In your twenties there’s always time for a ride. Even when you think you’re busy it doesn’t compare to the collision of busier work compounded by family responsibilities. That’s when the big rock shift needs to happen to keep you riding into your golden years.

So go ahead, put some rocks in the jar for this coming week and let us know how it goes.


A version of this story was originally published on NSMB in December 2005. As you can see, we’re still trying to get our Big Rocks into the jar first…

  • Trevor Hansen

    Dammit – why did I check the site before bed? Why was my name included to make the personal guilt of the weekly ride rockier? I remember when I rode snowboards with Brent Martin of Ryders (Bugaboos at the time). He talked of a set-in-stone Wednesday night ride. I had no idea what Shore riding was back then let alone doing it at night. But I liked how they were committed to making an unstructured sport structured so it would happen. What Cam left out was how we would put our little rocks to bed in their early years then meet for 8 or 9 pm guilt-free rides. It worked well for awhile then….what he said. When I played hockey and the schedule came out I made sure I was there, when my kid plays sports I am there…we riders need to just schedule it and then it is set in stone, big stones.
    Thursdays nights are back. Who’s in?

  • morgman

    I told Cam when we started re-working this piece that he was going to end up committing to the weekly night ride again, even if he left that part out. Good on ya for calling him out Trevor… I’m in!

  • GladePlayboy

    Once we had kids the rides became even more important to my health and sanity. The timing can sometimes be haywire but I gotta make it happen. Rain, snow, blazing sun it doesn’t matter. Short of the end of days the weekly ride(s) are ingrained into our family philosophy. My wife and kids would rather have a happy dad than a grumpy bear. As my son and daughter get a bit older they will begin joining me on some rides so that will make it even better.

  • kperras

    Thursday night rides are already a thing. End of the line cafe every thursday!

  • FlipFantasia

    great piece, Cam

  • pete

    Thursday nights actually work for me, too. I don’t know if we want to posse up with your ride, though, Ken – I heard about the carnage last night!

    As I was reading this, got a call from Cam and thought “what a coincidence, he’s calling to schedule a ride”. But no, it was a pocket dial. Ah well, will probably be sneaking off this afternoon to drop a big rock in the jar, the question is, will it be an Expresso-rock or something else?

  • boomforeal

    great piece cam, always enjoy your thoughtful writing

  • GladePlayboy

    And yes, I forgot to add that this was a great piece… very introspective for me.

  • Jerry-Rig

    As you get older life throws you curve balls but you can always find time to ride if you really want to. Just have to be creative some times. Good article Cam.

  • klankilla

    I was up on Fromme last night…..It was an amazing experience with the dry, frozen earth. The most traction I have ever seen!

  • Henry Chinaski

    That was a really cool read. I just had my first foray as a soccer coach with a really cool group of 4/5 year olds. My big rock approach has evolved into trying to maximize the amount of rocks I can put in the jar. Sometimes it’s not pretty when the 5-hour epic turns into a solo night ride on Fromme, where you can’t feel your fingers and can’t see through the mist 5 feet in front of you. But, all the less than ideal medium rocks that fit well in the jar, make the occasional well fitting big boy so sweet.

    I’m not going to be an exceptional rider, the most ambitious in my work, or the perfect husband/dad, but I’m hoping that the ideal balance will emerge. To be honest, I consider myself freakishly lucky to have access to the big rocks (literally and figuratively) and the health necessary to pursue them.

  • xcolin

    i think me and glade playboy have a 25% success rate for our sunday morning man date rides, but it’s great when it happens!

    good article, i can totally relate

  • clarklewis

    its hard to ride as much as you want when you become a parent, especially if your spouse rides too. less time for bike maintenance, the garage is a mess, tools are hard to find, the house is a mess, you don’t sleep as much as you should, you’re always a few minutes late for everything. it all melts away as soon as you start pedalling. can’t imagine letting life take over completely. fight for it!

  • Cheez1ts

    One of the reasons I love riding so much is because of the freedom it gives you. Making it structured seems like it would take part of that away. The whole reason I quit soccer and started spending all my leisure riding bikes is because I could ride whenever I wanted for however long I wanted. It never dragged my away from something I wanted to get done or ended when I was having the most fun. I may not make it out to the mountains much while I’m in school, but the same rules apply to my cross bike. I can ride at 4 am in the middle of an all-nighter when I’m afraid to sleep, but need the mental break. I guess that last statement just proves how different my life is from most of you guys though.

    • rasheed

      School and having children … both responsibilities, but completely different animals. Even with one kid, I could find time to ride at least once or twice a week. When second and third came along, finding time to ride became nearly impossible. I stopped riding for 2 or 3 years and only really got back to riding at the end of this past summer; something that would not have been possible without some rearranging of big rocks and a bit of structure and planning.

  • Poz

    Great read! I was struggling with a general pissyness earlier this year because of my lack of skiing and riding since my boy was born last year. I work away from home and feel guilty doing anything for myself when I’m home. My wonderful wife kicked me in the ass and told me I have to get out for a ride or take off for a day or two of skiing regularly for my own sanity. It’s made a huge difference! Though the regular longer overnight trips are on hold for a bit I’m going to make a point of at least one good trip in the bike season and one in the ski season. A couple more years and I’ll have my trip partner with me all the time!

  • rasheed

    Great article! Substitute riding for any other hobby/interest/passion, and this is something practically everyone can relate to.

  • satn

    Great read as usual Cam. Thx! Yes if I don’t ride, I’m a dink and my wife and kid will encourage me to get out. I’m very fortunate to have a family that can understand my big rocks. After reading this I’m going to bring back the scheduled ride!!

    “A goal not written is only a Dream”

    • satn

      And the lowest form of conversation is – “remember when…”
      …Tony Soprano