When I was 8, my dad brought home a Honda CRF50. I learned the basics of riding in a field in the woods. Since we rode only a few months each year, my progress was slow.
The following was published as a guest column in the Feb. 2015 dirt/competition and street editions of American Motorcyclist...
By Lauren Conte
When I was 8, my dad brought home a Honda CRF50. I learned the basics of riding in a field in the woods. Since we rode only a few months each year, my progress was slow. When I was 14, I switched to a Yamaha YZ125. Although light and quick, it was too tall for me. I often toppled over when I stopped, unable to properly touch the ground. That same summer, as I adjusted to the bike, I went on my first Six Days of Michigan ride.
The Six Days of Michigan is a six-day trail ride organized by the Cycle Conversation Club of Michigan. It has routes for trail bikes, dual-sport bikes, street bikes and kids. For the off-road sections, it relies on parts of Michigan’s expansive public trail system. The Six Days of Michigan has a reputation as one of the best-organized trail rides in the country. I was excited and a bit anxious to go on this ride.
We started our ride from a gravel lot. Seven kids and seven dads helped pull the bikes off long trailers as the two ride leaders read a map of our route. I watched the other young riders, all boys, laughing and wrestling with one another. I was starting to feel the need to prove myself.
Once everyone had their dirt bikes off the trailer and warmed up, the ride leader raised a hand and led off into the trail. Within a few minutes, I realized I was in for a rude awakening. The first hour I fell more times than I had in the months leading up to the ride. Not only was I physically hurting, but my pride was suffering. I hated how I slowed down my dad and the ride leader, and for a while I refused to let them help me pull my bike out of the mud. As I grew more and more upset with my own inability, I rode recklessly, and I began to fall more frequently.
When I caught up to the riders, they had been resting on the side of the trail for longer than I cared to know. While we rested, my dad and the boys’ dads gave me advice—how to shift my weight more effectively, and how to get over and around obstacles on the trail.
The short lesson restored my enthusiasm. I clambered back onto the YZ, hoping to stay on the bike for a distance greater than a few hundred yards. As we progressed through the trail, the terrain varied greatly. At times the ground oozed slippery mud, then changed to open stretches of sand dunes. Then, just as I grew comfortable, the trail wound its way back into the trees and up rocky inclines. The small field where I learned to ride could not have taught me how to ride so technically.
Just as I was ready to lie down on the side of the trail and admit defeat, the narrow trail opened up onto a gravel road. Before long, we joined the other riders. After lunch, the boys and their dads got back on the trail, but I was still exhausted. Sheepishly, I loaded up my bike onto the lunch truck’s trailer and fell asleep in the back.
The next few days of riding were much the same. I struggled all morning, then quit at midday. My dad did not pressure me to continue riding after lunch, but instead was patient and encouraging when I was overwhelmed and angry. The other senior riders offered me just as much reassurance and advice, and through their combined effort and my own determination, I improved.
Improvement was seen in small successes. Instead of struggling over rocks, I learned how to pick a line through them. I started shifting more aggressively, staying on the throttle. I overcame my fear of long stretches of sand, no longer paddling my feet to balance.
By the third day, I felt like I was giving up on myself by leaving in the afternoon, and I was determined to complete the full day’s ride. I still fell more times than anyone else, but this meant I also got back on the bike the most. I realized that I did not have to prove myself to the boys, their dads, or the ride leaders. They wanted me to have fun, not kill myself trying to keep up. Once I realized that I should have more fun, I did.
On the fourth day, I completed the full ride. I was still the slowest rider out on the trail, but I no longer felt defeated even before I put on my gear each morning.
By the end of the week, I pushed my bike up to the trailer with the rest of the boys, talking and laughing with them. They gave me stickers for my bike, and soon the too-tall YZ125 began to resemble their orange racing KTMs. When the boys started their bikes, I started mine alongside them, feeling relaxed. Even though I still tumbled off my bike often, I shook off the frustration. Each fall taught me a lesson, and soon the time between lessons grew.
At the end of my first Six Days of Michigan I left with plenty of bruises, and a smile on my face.
Lauren Conte is an AMA member from Clive, Iowa.