On the rare occasions that I remember my dreams, they’re of the prime of my life – late 20’s, riding bikes, meeting folks, and havin’ a good time – you know, precisely how I see myself in my mind’s eye, no matter what stage of life I’m in actually in. Lately though, things have started to change. Nestled comfortably into what many would call middle age, recent events have redirected me into a more visceral, reality-focused space. I’m not sure if it was losing my Dad to cancer a few months before COVID hit, or the countless other reminders that time marches on - no matter how hard you try to insulate yourself or deny the toll it takes.
Back in the day, whenever I encountered adversity, I could work it out on the mountain. There wasn’t a wrinkle thrown my way that couldn’t be smoothed out by suffering to the top of my favourite trails before picking my way back down the hardest possible way with my favourite dog. Invariably, by the end of every ride, all that remained were empty stomachs, exorcized demons, some dirty paws and, on a really good day, a couple of broken ribs.
There’s just something about basking in the rhythmic distraction of rolling singletrack or the blur of a descent that wipes away whatever’s weighing you down. But when it’s just you against gravity – that’s when everything bubbles to the top. Just you, the pedals and the effort it takes to get there. I used to think it was the suffering – but I’ve started to suspect there’s more to it.
I first noticed a shift after returning home for my first ride in over a decade up Port Coquitlam’s Burke Mountain – just 45 minutes east of Vancouver proper. I had to wait until COVID border restrictions finally lifted and I was able to cross over to visit my family for the first time since Dad’s celebration of life.
After re-connecting and continuing to grieve together, I managed to borrow an e-bike for a little escape – one I had mixed feeling about. Sure, the assist was a great way to assure I could ride all the trails I wanted, especially considering my waning fitness, but I secretly wondered whether the experience itself would be compromised – like, if a ride happens with an electric tailwind, is it still a ride?
I pedaled out that foggy, damp morning in hopes of visiting some old friends – the trails I used to ride every day after work, the ones that helped me power through whatever adversity I faced at the time. Trails like Bean, Nescafe, Upper and Lower Vic’s and Triple Crown kept me honest by reminding me that, without climbs in life, there can be no descents. According to my heart rate, it still qualified as a real climb in spite of the motor, because I didn’t pedal any softer or work any less, I just covered more ground.
What threw me for a loop while scaling the 2800 feet to the late-April snowline, was that instead of euphoria and nostalgia, I encountered ghosts and emotions around every turn, ones I thought I’d resolved long-ago. It started with the obvious – with how much the ride up Coast Meridian has changed since I left in 2004. Civilization used to peter out about a third of the way up, but with housing developments scarring right past the Gun Club road, it was shockingly clear how much time had elapsed since my last trip up. Equally evident was how my spiritual reverence for this sacred space was not shared by the Port Coquitlam City Planning committee. At no point did I note the irony in powering judgmentally past this supposed progress with the aid of a 900Wh electric assist.
Forging on, the alien feeling of suburban sprawl gradually gave way to the sights, sounds and sensations I was looking for. Transported by hard-wired familiarity and the subtle whir of an EP8 motor, I travelled back in time and swore that, if I looked down to my immediate right, I’d see Monty, my stalwart Australian Shepherd companion, at his designated post, nagging me to dig deeper.
And suddenly, it became too much. I had to stop. To step off the pedals and collapse in a heap on the top tube, tears adding to the stinging salinity of my sweat-soaked face, openly weeping in the middle of a climb I’d made dozens, if not hundreds of times before. A climb that had never failed to sharpen my focus, put my world into perspective, and lead me to some of the best rides and realizations of my life. This was, after all, my Dirt Church.
Monty had been stolen suddenly almost 14 years earlier by Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at the young age of 9 – and we were inseparable ‘til the very end. Until the day I lost him, he’d given me all the support and continuity I needed to be able to transition to a married life in the States. Very shortly after we lost him, our son was born.
I always knew I wasn’t over that dog, but couldn’t help but think, even for me, this upwelling was a little over the top. But then, within seconds, a wave crashed over me. The ghost nipping at my heels on that long ascent wasn’t just that of a single guy’s long-lost canine – it was the lament of almost 3 lost years to a life half-lived. Of merely filling in the gaps while wishing Covid away.
It was losing my Dad just weeks before lockdown, and not being able to grieve, nor cross the border to share the experience with Mum and my brother. It was losing the house we grew up in to the reality that, without Dad there, it was too much for Mum to handle.
It was the ghost of a time when the climb itself made life, and the challenges life presented, simpler.
It was the spectre of understanding that, no matter how hard the climb, the feelings aren’t going to magically resolve themselves and just disappear anymore.
It was the crushing realization that the climb is, in fact, life itself.
Turning pedals to counter the resistance of gravity is the only we can move forward. The only way we get past our obstacles and scale whatever blocking our path. It’s how we take our experiences, grief and trauma and allow them to shape who we become. That moment of clarity allowed me to prioritize, recognize the root of what was weighing me down, and navigate a trail to peace that could never be found on a map.
And it happened again last weekend on a climb up Sandy Ridge – a popular Portland-area riding spot 45 minutes southeast of my home. This time, it was a perfectly serene, almost scripted moment as the opening bars of Kris Bowers’ Drift provided the soundtrack to a stunning natural reveal around a sweeping left turn. I was crushed by an unexpected, crippling wave of grief rooted in the health struggles our son has been bravely dealing with for half of his young life. Struggles that came to a head last month in three excruciating weeks in the hospital
He’s healthier now than he’s been in years, so a week after he was released, I indulged in my first real ride since June. But I didn’t see the wave approaching until it was already crashing down on me. Suddenly, everything we pushed down to make it through the past 7 years blew to the surface and that’s when I had to deal with it – right there in the middle of a paved access road.
This time, the climb continued. The pedals kept turning and pushing me to the top because, well, they have to, don’t they? And there isn’t always a dog, a motor or the promise of a blurred descent to help you keep going.
Sometimes, it’s the climb itself that’s reason enough – and the opportunity to visit some old friends.
Richard Belson grew up riding in the wilds of suburban Montreal, and succumbed to the call of the west in 1999 to live, ride and write for the bike industry during the Golden Age of Freeride and the North Shore.
Since then he's been doing his best impression of an adult while hoarding vintage mountain bikes and riding a circuitous professional path leading right back to where he started, from a home office in Portland, OR.
If you are an nsmb.com OG you may recognize Richard's name. He was a valued contributor and bike tester in our early years. - Ed.