One of the hardest things in sport is the moment you realize that your highest achievements are behind you. “Peaking,” they call it—that period when you were on top of your game and basked in the admiration of your peers and community. When you didn’t need much else in life as long as you had the endorphins firing in your brain, your body instinctually reacting to whatever demands you threw at it.
For elite athletes, competition on the world stage is the yardstick for performance. Your result is a function of how hard you trained, how far you pushed on race day, and how many risks you took to be the fastest (or the highest scoring). Add to that a sprinkle of how talented you are, how lucky you were and how good your equipment performed that day. Your rank in the world in your chosen sport represents how consistently you were able to win (or how close you came to winning) over the course of the season.
For the rest of us commoners, the yardstick is a bit different. Racing—even at the grassroots level—isn’t necessarily how we measure our season of sport. When I was skiing Whistler Blackcomb in my early and mid-20s, I’d measure the success of my season by how big I went: the size of cliffs I dropped (with mixed success), which slopes I (recklessly) straight-lined, and which terrain park features I was willing to hit. Now I measure my winter by how many days I manage to get up the hill and how many new zones, peaks or couloirs I get around to exploring in the backcountry.
I might still get a powder day or two when I’m feeling the mojo and decide to go a bit bigger than usual, but I’m pretty sure at this stage of my life, I’ve gone as big as I’ll ever go on skis. While it was hard to grapple with those first couple of years of regression, skiing powder simply never gets old. I’ve more or less made peace with peak skiing.
On the bike, I’ve steered clear of racing downhill and enduro. Mostly because: a) I don’t want to take risks that will get me injured, and; b) I don’t want to embarrass myself with laughable results.
I’m just not that fast. And I’m OK with that. As long as I don’t keep my faster friends waiting too long at the bottom of the trail, I’m having a good time. I’m never going to hit train gaps or blow up berms, but what I’ve always thought was my calling with biking was the steep and technical stuff. Trails like Upper Joy Ride, Captain Safety, Green Monster or even Gargamel. Some of the more obscure, unsanctioned trails scare the shit out of me so much I’m only willing to ride them once a year, if that.
Last summer I believe I found peak steepness on my bike. A trail in the Sea to Sky (which I won’t name for obvious reasons) was built so steep and had so much fall exposure that I had to reassess what I’m looking for out of my beloved sport of mountain biking. I enjoyed most of the trail. I attempted one of the steepest chutes in my life and, thankfully, I didn’t get hurt. I just had to lay the bike down in the loam of the exit corner and dust myself off. But about two-thirds of the way down that trail, simply staying on my bike became as much about stress management as the strength and endurance to stick to the line. I survived and I was glad I threw everything I had at that trail, but I honestly don’t believe I’ll go back. I want my rides to be fulfilling. Tipping over into an anxiety-inducing descent isn’t my jam. Not anymore, anyway.
The feeling that the hardest bike trail I’ll ever ride is likely now in my past doesn’t fill me with stoke. I’ve come to terms with my body not recovering from crashes like it used to. My risk-versus-reward equation has needed a rebalance. Coming back from my most recent injury, I realized I’d been overlooking the little things, like cleaning a technical climb, landing in the sweet spot of a Goldilocks-sized jump or drop or simply managing to get on my bike five or six times in a week. Every season doesn’t need to be a ramp-up to some climactic victory over a trail or a feature. Just ride. The rest will take care of itself.
Vince Shuley has probably peaked. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email email@example.com or Instagram @whis_vince.