The Common Ground: A Method Through the Madness

Familiarity Breeds Contempt (and other lies we tell)


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I’ve always taken a certain comfort in the familiar, which explains why I have bicycles old enough to drive and my occasional hankering for the culinary centerpiece of my childhood known as Hamburger Helper Stroganoff.

The more chaos that’s schlepped my way, the more I grasp onto the familiar. With this year’s unique brand of bedlam, I’m gripping onto the familiar like I’m auditioning for a Shake Weight commercial. In one corner of the ring, we have a constant din of uncertainty. In the other, are days so indiscernible they make the writers of “Groundhog Day” seem downright prescient.

It’s the middle of winter here in the mountains. Days spent squeezing the last drop out of after-work rides and watching the sunset from a tailgate feel both too far behind me and too far ahead. Right about now, I’d give a set of purple-anodized bar ends to wake up on the outskirts of some town and watch my friends creep from their janky adventure vehicles on a morning quest for caffeine.

Sitting in the garage after the sun’s dipped behind the snow-dusted mountains is my winter ritual. Bundled in layers waiting for the fickle heater in the corner to do its thing before it trips the circuit again, my hands move with an apprehensive familiarity as I knock the dust off what I know and what I think I know.

Like clockwork, sometime between immediately and two beers in, my crappy laptop speakers eventually announce, “Hi, I’m Calvin from Park Tool”. Calvin and I became best friends over the past few years. We’ve spent more late nights and rainy days huddled in my garage together than I can count. The fact that he has no idea who I am hasn’t stopped him and a litany of other YouTube mechanics from helping me answer the age old question of, “What the fuck am I doing?”

The music vacillates between hardcore ’90s rap and tunes that feel right at home in a Whole Foods as I inspect the bikes, pretending like I have a plan.

The trials bike is the first to come out. The fact that it doesn’t have a seat, let alone a seatpost, makes me give up on the stand and plop it upside down on the ground like God intended. While I understand that working on an upside down bike is the mechanic’s equivalent of taking off your pants to pee, I lost both the willingness and time to feel shame long ago.

The worn-down knobs allude to bygone summers when I rode this bike to the exclusion of all others. But not this year. This year my seatless conduit-for-humility gathered dust, making the pressure in its tires notably low even for a trials bike. After dressing it up with new shoes and grips, suddenly it’s like I’ve taken the glasses off the dorky girl in every ’90s teen angst movie. I’d almost forgotten how much I adore this bike. The flutter of desire rumbles deep inside me, which may or may not be related to the plate of tater tots dipped in pepper-ketchup I called dinner earlier tonight, but I digress.

Photo: Dan Milner

When I take it out into the cold, dark air, every movement feels disconcertingly unfamiliar. The ankle I broke earlier this year emits whispers of discomfort and clangs of self-doubt. I wobble where I was once steady. Hesitation now sits in the place once home to slowly-nurtured confidence.

It’s a matter of time, I tell myself. It always is.

Bike after bike gets peeled off the wall. The XC whip I bought off a friend needs a new dropper post cable, and as I replace it I smile thinking about this bike’s last ride. Belly laughing in subfreezing weather on snow-packed trails with the same friend who sold me the bike isn’t a memory most people are lucky enough to have, but I do.

As I tune up the bike with the curly handlebar and skinny tires, I make a mental note to start embracing the cold-AF lunch ride that once used to be the highlight of these short winter days. The BMX bike gets more air and the old cruiser gets stared at while I partake in the yearly ritual of debating whether it’s finally time to sell it. “Not this year,” I tell myself. “I’ll think about it again next year.”

The kids’ bikes stay right where they are, flat tires and all, because learning to fix bikes is a family value.

Finally, my main steed comes down. The wrenching on this one is almost entirely unnecessary, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it anyway. Like all the other bikes, I detail the bejesus out of it as an excuse to run my fingers along every beautiful curve and memory-laden scratch.

Tonight when I lock up the garage and go to bed, my last glimpse is a line of pristinely clean bikes. With grease still etched in the lines of my hands, I fall into bed with all-too familiar plans to get one of those bikes good and filthy first thing in the morning.

Kristin Butcher’s The Common Ground column runs monthly on betamtb.com.

Featured Image: Kevin Lange