The ladies arrive with bells on; a steady, excited jingling I hear well before I see the source. I can’t help but smile as a spotty face with a long tongue turns the corner followed closely by a sleek, silver bike carrying my favorite partner in crime. Two tires and four paws skid to a stop next to me. I scratch some floppy ears and kiss my riding buddy before hopping on the pedals and heading down the trail again, the sound of a dog bell and high engagement hubs in close pursuit. It’s date night for the Strom house and that means a quick rip on a local trail, some cold brews on a pickup truck tailgate and takeout on the way home–it’s my favorite night of the week.
Growing up, my dad always treated my mom like a queen, showering her with affection and making a point to show how much she meant to him every day. His example taught me how important it is to date my spouse, and to keep doing so long after we said “I Do.” For the first few years after our wedding, Kate and I dabbled in various hobbies and activities, looking for something we could do together but struggling to find one we both enjoyed. Eventually we rediscovered our love of spending time in nature and soon found that mountain biking unlocked a new way for us to find calm while spending quality time together. We learned to ride as a couple and got accustomed to each other’s flow, strengths and weaknesses. Riding turned from a curiosity to a hobby to a necessity and soon became an integral part of our relationship. It doesn’t matter whether we’re staying close to home or traveling across the country, we make a point to ride bikes together.
If you take nothing else from this, get a bell for your trail dog. Strap it to her collar and the days of dodging trees while looking behind you to make sure she didn’t find a more interesting trail partner to follow are over.
We adopted our spotty dog Stevie about a year and a half ago from a local animal shelter with the hope that she’d be able to spend time with us in the woods. Training a trail dog isn’t an overnight process and it took time, effort and teamwork to teach a puppy to stay close when there were so many wonderous smells and sights off trail. At the beginning, rides with Stevie were short with Kate and I constantly playing zone defense to keep her on trail and out of trouble, but she learned quickly and we discovered ways to set her up for success. Since then, afternoons spent chasing her through the brush and working to keep her out of filthy ponds have morphed into longer rides with a few breaks for her to grab a drink and sniff until her heart’s content. She still loves exploring and will occasionally bolt after a critter or splash around in a creek, but she is quick to lock on to the sound of a whizzing freehub and will drop into her spot between the two of us, tail and tongue wagging. After a year of regular practice, she recognizes the signs that we’re gearing up for a ride, and if we don’t take her along, will aggressively throw shade at us for days.
To the casual eye, date night rides don’t look like much. Kate and I share similar skill and fitness levels and can be competitive, but our rides together rarely turn into a sufferfest or a sprint. Mostly we set off at a party pace, laughing and chatting as we pedal along and occasionally hammering up a climb or ripping down a descent. It’s not uncommon for one of us to vent about our day while the other listens and tries to keep up with the angry cadence. We stop when one of us wants to stop and make sure no one gets dropped. Sometimes we session features or tinker with suspension. Other nights we soak in the serenity of the forest or take photos of Stevie near pretty trees and rocks for the ‘gram. But most of the time we simply pedal around, work up a good sweat and enjoy each other’s company. Fitness or skill progression isn’t the point, merely a happy benefit. Regardless of the pace, purpose or location, the ride inevitably ends with a couple of cold cans and front row tailgate seats to that night’s sunset.
Riding solo has its place and latching on to a group ride is always fun, but for my money there’s nothing better than a date night ride with Kate and Stevie. A more philosophically inclined writer could probably dredge up some allegory about mountain biking and relationships that involves overcoming obstacles, savoring surroundings and enjoying the moment, but that’s not for me. Date night rides are a chance for me to enjoy a few of my favorite things. I appreciate the fitness and mental health benefits of an after-work spin. I crave time in the trees. I love watching our excited puppy run down a trail. And you better believe I’m crazy about the way Kate looks in riding gear and braids. But the best part about date night rides is that they are a regular opportunity to spend quality time with my partner doing something we love and a chance to show her she’s important. It may not be for every couple, but mountain biking has become part of the bedrock for our relationship and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kate, I’ll see you at six. I’m thinking tacos…