Flat pedals win medals is what I’m chanting in my head as I rocket down a dirt Forest Service road in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina. My tires are bucking far more than I’m comfortable with. My wrists are on fire from squeezing the brake levers. While I fight to stay in control, someone else comes whizzing by, nose first down the hill, and gives me a quick nod. They clearly know something that I don’t.
I wasn’t even sure what it meant to have flat pedals until a couple days earlier. While cruising calmly down an undulating country road (the word “bucolic” had been used to describe it so many times, it became a joke), another rider had asked me if I had ever ridden “clipless.”
What are you talking about? My pedals don’t have clips. I specifically wore my Five Ten approach shoes because I knew the brand made cycling shoes, thinking maybe I won’t look as out of place. It obviously didn’t work. So as I rolled into the campsite every night, screeching and skidding and panting, “flat pedals win medals” was a common welcome and gesture of encouragement.
I’m not a cyclist. Sure, I ride my bike a lot—even 40-plus-mile rides aren’t uncommon. But I’ve owned the same hardtail Diamondback since I was in middle school. I ride in gym shorts and a T-shirt, and my helmet cost $20 at Walmart. Not that any of that makes me not a cyclist, but I never really considered myself to be one. I just like to ride. I never really followed the sport, never learned the gear or the terminology, never rode with anyone I would consider a cyclist. I never immersed myself in riding like I did, say, backpacking.