When my friends and I go out and shuttle a local hill, I always opt to sit in the bed of the truck with the bikes. Why? Well, the wind blowing through my hair and the open freedom…who are we kidding, it’s so I can escape the smell of my friends. It’s an undeniable aspect of riding in the same gear every time you hit the trails – gloves, helmets, shoes, pads; they get funky. I’m ok with this, I just choose to escape it when I can is all! But, this has me thinking, what does this sport smell like? Motor sports have that tinge of exhaust, gas, oil, and grease; “traditional” sports smell like dirty feet; winter sports smell like hot wax and metal shavings; what is our signature scent?
Smell is the strongest sense tied to memory, so this is a fair question to ask, as we all can relate to the concept. The more interesting part of the question lies within each of our own life’s experiences with riding. I grew up in New England; we have wild seasons, lots of deciduous trees, and an endless array of smells permeating our consciousness from woodsmoke to sugar houses (where maple syrup is made). For me, I always come back to the smells of Fall when I think about riding – the crisp air, the wet foliage, and the light mud from the rain. These are distinct in my mind, and I think it’s because I’ve always hated the season, and these three aromas reminded me why: I (used to) have to go back to school, winter is coming, bike season is coming to a close; it made my gut hurt. Similarly, the smell of fresh cut grass, dusty air, and grungy riding gear reminds me of summer: race season, fresh racecourses, and being with my weekend family of miscreants. All of this is cataloged in my mind, so acutely, that if I walk by my riding gear here at home, I get a twinge of butterflies thinking about the last ride I went on, when I aired a gap way too far…constant reminders that make me smile.
If I had my druthers, there would a perfume for women that smells like a bike shop – the acrid smell of grease and Tri-flow, Simple Green, and that distinct box-of-new-bike-parts scent. This to me predates my sensory memory of “what riding smells like” because as a little kid, I would always hang around the bike shop and gawk at all the bikes I wanted to own and ride. The memories conjured up from this very long-ago time remind me of how far I’ve come. I can now adjust a derailleur, I take proper care of my bike, and I know more than most shop guys on the sales floor (humblebrag/part lie). These are all the intrinsic details that form up my foundation of love for my bike, the sport, and the enjoyment I still get from riding.
As I mentioned earlier though, this is my experience – others may share some of these smelly details, but we will all have grown up with a different smellscape. The riders from wetter climates like Washington and Vancouver will probably have more to say about the damp smells of a pine stand and cloud rain forests. Californians will have stories more related to heat and desert, perhaps the ocean too – this is the beauty of it all. Our sport has us fixated and intertwined with the elements, nature is ingrained in our psyches, and for me, being out there in the woods, flying through the trees, is such a primitive experience – something that speaks to the core of my being.
I have scars and lifelong afflictions that I have received from overstepping my natural state of being. Sometimes I’ll question my lifestyle choices, and consider if I could have spent my time more wisely. But then, something happens – I catch a wiff of wet leaves or grease, and I am thrown back in time to a place as a kid, and I am reminded: this was never a choice. This was a path I would have pursued through hell and high water – and I have. The scent of riding is forever etched into my soul. It will always remind me of the highs and lows, the smiles and the grimaces, the blood, sweat, and tears that I have given to this sport and all that it has given me in return.