Crushing Platte River, Then & Now
Words by Jes Slavin
“This was almost more fun when I had no idea what I was doing,” I thought as I climbed the steep ascent that Platte River State Park’s singletrack is known for. Platte River hosts a technical singletrack course that is thought to be some of the hardest mountain biking in the Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska area. With a steep ascent where you feel like you may never stop climbing, followed by some really punchy hills and sharp turns, it’s often heralded as a whole lot of fun for those with technical skills but not often seen as a place for beginners.
That's not to say that beginners can’t have a whole lot of fun at Platte as well, though. Two years prior I had taken Platte River on as my first ever singletrack experience. I laughed my way through the trail, even when I took a nasty fall on what I saw then as a “huge drop” that was really just a small log midway through a downhill section. It was scary, but in a way that really helped me push myself. I walked some of the technical bits but I took on some smaller drops with success. It was an amazing adventure. Even if I had been a tad underprepared, I still felt accomplished. I left with some solid bruises and even better stories. The whole ride home I told anyone who would listen how excited I was to get back there when I had more skills. It kick started my passion for technical racing as I found myself on the start line of challenging cyclocross races (on my hybrid, so still very underprepared) just a couple months later.
Yet, here I was, two years later, with those new skills I’d dreamed of and I wasn’t feeling any of that previous joy. I longed for the fun I had during my first time at Platte. As a beginner with no expectations there was no pressure to do anything right; I had no idea what I was doing anyways. The singletrack trail felt tight, like I may run into a tree at any moment, but the speed I gained on the downhills was exhilarating. Any small feat felt like a huge accomplishment - not getting stuck on that last root before the top or trying a section again, and succeeding, after getting too scared to run it all the way through the first time. It was an adventure filled with celebrations and those small victories you cherish when trying something new. Two years later, excited to crush the course with my new skills and clipless pedals, all I could see were all of the things I should’ve been doing better. Each climb that felt harder than I thought it should or extra tap of the brake on a section I knew didn’t need it, felt like failing.
Slowly, I realized that I was definitely riding much better than I had that first summer. Even with a slick coating of leaves on the trail I was maintaining better balance and I wasn’t riding my brakes down the hills. My turns were cleaner and I hadn’t gotten off of my bike to walk, not even once. That feeling of “holy crap, those trees are pretty damn close!” wasn’t there, I felt at ease in the narrowness of the singletrack. Once I was finally able to get outside of my head, out of all the things I felt like I should have been doing better, I started to find that joy. The punchy hills I had previously walked my bike up I rode with ease, pushing up and over the large roots that had been my nemesis that first summer. As I zoomed through a section of particularly punchy hills I let out a ripple of laughter, enjoying how fast I felt, cherishing my new, small accomplishments.
I initially thought my second adventure at Platte would be a redemption ride - I would ride that small log I had crashed on with ease and rip it up. I didn’t get the perfect totally-crushing-it ride I had imagined in my head, but my second go at Platte did show a deeper understanding of the technical skills I had faked during my first attempt. Both rides were fun and valuable to me as a cyclist. That first summer, when I had no idea what singletrack even was really, I learned how to find the joy in the really hard stuff that is sometimes easier to find when you don’t know how truly hard the thing you’re doing actually is.
I could have really learned something from my Past Self. If I had gone into my second attempt at Platte celebrating all my small victories from the beginning, I would have found my joy a whole lot sooner. Even as you gain skills, things are never going to go right. You can’t beat yourself up for not being as good as you think you should be. You just have to enjoy being just a bit better than you were before, knowing the things you know now that you didn’t know then and learn from the experience. I now have a list of skills to work on and I can’t wait for my third visit to Platte. Hopefully I can find the joy of the challenge a little sooner and laugh my way through the entire run just as I did that first ride.