Riding with Ali
The late autumn air is smokeless, clear and clean in anticipation of the woodfires that will soon herald the arrival of yet another winter. The waning sun leaks through the foliage, forming puddles of light on the path and illuminating the clutches of waxy red berries that grow alongside fallen trees. And then I hear the desperate chinking of spinning chain, I feel the acid leaching from every muscle fiber, and grit my teeth: the race is on. Twigs snap, leaves crackle, tire tracks rip the packed earth, and these once-quiet woods pulse with adrenaline. I lose the boundaries of my own self, and body, frame, wheel, and chain become welded together by the exhilarating terror of the world in motion.
The five bikers flash past me on the trail. Their gears buzz like a swarm of bees, and then go silent as they launch into the air above the jump. They land, they whizz off down the track and out of sight around the next turn. Then they’re gone.
It takes me a moment to realize that I’ve been holding my breath, and then I let out a sigh of relief. I had just watched my first pro downhill mountain bike race, and if I’d blinked, I might have missed it. I tried to replay that split-second again in my mind- the rider in front…she was wearing blue, right? It must have been Ali.
It was a Sunday afternoon in late October. I was three hours away from school, even farther from home, and quite out of my element. I’d never been to a mountain bike race before. I’d never even mountain biked myself. But I had someone to cheer for. My physical therapist- no, my Adventure writing subject- no, my friend, Alison Zimmer, is a professional mountain bike racer.
– – –
I first met Ali during the summer I spent in Middlebury working on the College’s Organic Farm. A perfect storm of bad genes, clumsiness, and a stubborn insistence to work despite injury left me with a laundry list of afflictions, including a sprained ankle, a stress fracture, and two dislocating knees.
On a sticky, hazy day in early July, I hobbled through the parking lot of Middlebury’s physical therapy clinic, crippled both by those aching joints and a month’s worth of self-pity. A petite, fit woman in a pea green tank top waved me in from the lobby. “Sounds like you’ve had a tough go of it these past few weeks, huh?” she said, “I’m Ali. Let’s head on back and see what we can do.”
After a half-hour long session in the training room, I lay defeated on the massage table, sweating uncomfortably against the green plastic cushioning. As Ali dug her thumbs into my quads (“I know this hurts, but it will feel better afterwards, I promise”), she asked enthusiastically about my job on the college farm. “it’s- OW- been great! This week – OW! Okay, yeah, that hurts.”
It was during those conversations, with a chorus of “OW”s and the faint smell of mentholated lotion in the background, that I learned about her dream home in Lincoln (garden, chickens, rabbits, mountain views, biking trails), her family (husband, nine year-old daughter), and her knowledge of medicinal herbs (winter tonics, salves, tinctures). We commiserated about garden pests (“Japanese beetles have been terrible this season, right?!”), bumper crops (“We can only eat so much zucchini bread!!”), and, on a harder day, about injury. She pulled her shirt collar off to the side, revealing a light pink scar from a recent shoulder surgery. “I know what it’s like to start back at square one.”
Our routine continued as July turned to August, the heat breaking and the rains finally becoming reacquainted with the dry, cracked soil. Twice a week in the late afternoons we’d talk gardening, summer festivals, and school as we squatted, lunged and tension-walked across the training room together. Ali always did my exercises with me. Toward the end of my half-hour appointments, the receptionist would lock her office, and then pop her head through the lobby doorway to wave goodbye, “Just remember to close up, Ali!”
It wasn’t until the end of August that we talked mountain biking. “Do you ride?” she asked, as I wobbled on a balance board.
“Yeah,” I said, “Nothing too intense, though. Just around Middlebury, on the roads. You?”
“I do. Pretty seriously, actually. Have you been watching the Olympics?”
I’d been watching the Primetime showdowns- the Fab Five US women’s gymnastics team and the drama between two gloating American swimmers. “I have! What about you?”
“I was actually up pretty early this morning to watch the biking…”
“Pretty early,” it turns out, was 5 AM. Ali explained that her friend and training partner, Lea Davison, was racing in the women’s cross-country mountain biking finals.
Hmm. Your average mountain biker does not train with Olympic athletes.
Then, “Where do you like to ride?” I asked.
“Snake Mountain’s great, so I ride that if I have time between appointments. And we’ve built a dirt jump track in our front yard, which is awesome.”
Wait, Climbing a mountain between PT appointments? And ripping up her lawn to build a jump track? The plot thickened.
With each question, the extent of Ali’s talent and the depth of her passion became clearer. She had recently been sponsored and had been featured in a prominent mountain biking magazine. She placed just seconds off the pro podium in her first downhill race, and hopes to one day become a World Cup rider. She runs a mentoring and mountain biking camp for young girls all over the country. She’s Google-able. And she bears no false humility about her accomplishments, either; “It turns out I’m a really good endurance racer,” she said. Her confidence and passion is refreshing in a culture that demands polite self-effacement.
The more I learned about Ali’s story, the more I wanted to know. How could someone so down-to-earth- someone so devoted to doing her job, to tending her garden, and to raising her daughter- pursue such a crazy pipedream? Or for someone with a spirit like hers, is this pipedream not so crazy after all?
– – –
In late September, I stopped into the College fitness room, where Ali works part-time. I hadn’t been back to physical therapy in a few weeks; mononucleosis, that dreaded rite of adolescent passage, had sapped me of energy and endowed me with a funny double chin from a pair of massive tonsils. In between naps, I was pursuing a few leads for the topic of a writing project for my Adventure Writing class, and Ali had come to mind as a potential subject. I wasn’t sure how she’d respond, though; would she be down to let an awkward college kid follow her around? Was I coming on too strong? Was I acting like some weird groupie? She was, after all, my thirty-something year-old physical therapist, not a friend my age. That afternoon, though, I worked up the courage to ask her something like, “Would you possibly be interested in letting me interview you for this project? It would just mean a few meetings- nothing too inconvenient, and we can work around your schedule, we can just grab coffee or something and I’ll pay obviously and I totally understand if you don’t…” My nervous ramblings were unnecessary. Her answer was an enthusiastic yes.
That evening, she sent me an email. “Great to see you today, thanks for swinging in,” she wrote, “Looks like I am going to have my hands full in the training room…busy busy busy!! Hope we can connect sometime next week.” She included instructions for brewing an immune-boosting winter tonic recipe, and ended with her signature line, “be well. –ali.”
– – –
Ali was so enthusiastic about my project that she was the one to contact me to arrange our first meeting. A few days after our discussion, I drove the winding dirt road up to her house. It was peak week for foliage, some were saying, and the land between Middlebury and Lincoln was painted with warm yellows and golds. The sun was strong and it was still warm enough to drive with the windows down.
I pulled into her long gravel driveway and passed a large garden plot, where plants once heavily laden with fruits and vegetables now rested after the summer harvest. Across the road, on my right, was a dirt bike track lined with sunflowers, the tops of the jumps covered with blue tarps since the previous day’s heavy rain. Then the house came into view, a modest two-story log cabin perched on the hill. The open porch along the front, Tibetan prayer flags strung between its beams, looked out upon a majestic view of Mount Abe. I parked alongside a collection of mountain bikes leaning against the garage and centered myself for a moment. Camera. Check. Video Camera. Check. I charged the batteries, right? Ok. Though Ali had been enthusiastic about the project, I was still nervous that things might be awkward, that my clumsy camera handling and audio recording would make our conversations stilted. Ali’s dogs greeted me at the car, and all nervousness vanished. There’s nothing like wagging tails and lolling tongues to break the ice. Ali followed them over and gave me a hug. “Good to see you! Did you find us all right?” We walked over to the porch, where she introduced me to her husband, Dan.
“Make yourself at home!” she said, “Feel free to take a look around. I’ll go suit up and then let’s do some riding.” I wandered around to the back of the house, past the bunny hutch and towards the treehouse, until she wheeled her bike over. Armed with a roll of duct tape, we fastened a GoPro video camera to her bike frame. “I’ll just take it for a spin and see what works,” she said, putting on her helmet. For the next hour or so, we traipsed around the property and I filmed her ride.
Afterwards, we relaxed on Ali’s porch. While I fiddled with the cameras, she disappeared inside and then emerged with a porcelain jar. Her nine-year-old daughter, Hannah, just back from a field trip on Lake Champlain, followed behind her. “Hannah, did you get a cookie this morning?” Ali asked, taking the lid off the cookie jar. “I call them my ‘no-recipe’ cookies,” she said, offering one to me. “They’re oatmeal and chocolate chip and whatever other treats I have in the house,” she said, “Plus a few fresh eggs from the chickens. They’re good for you, but yummy too. You don’t have to choose one or the other.” We sat and talked with Hannah about her field trip. “Hannah, did you see Champ today?” Ali asked, “What’s the coolest thing you learned?”
The late afternoon- the setting sun’s glow on the mountains, the garden in full bloom, the crisp blue sky, and the foliage- was Vermont postcard-worthy. Though not as ubiquitous as rolling hills and autumn leaves, mountain bike trails have also become a mainstay of the Vermont landscape over the past few decades.
Mountain biking began in Northern California in the 1970s when three avid road bikers, determined to conquer the steep, rocky slopes of Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais, souped up vintage bikes with wider tires and new brake systems. They called their durable bikes “klunkerz” and then “mountain bikes.” These first “fat tire” riders- Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, and Gary Fisher- later founded three of the most famous and profitable American mountain bike companies, and the sport began to spread. The 1980s saw the inception of the National Off-Roading Bicycle Association (NORBA), the first Mountain Bike festival, and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. In the 1990s, the first Mountain Biking World Cup Series was held, and mountain biking debuted as an Olympic Sport at the ’96 Atlanta Games. As mountain biking reached the national stage, the focus shifted from Marin County to the northeast, and Vermont became a destination for “fat tire” enthusiasts. Vermont now boasts over one thousand miles of singletrack biking trails, five times the length of the entire state. They are good trails, too; Bike Magazine named the Northeast Kingdom’s trail system the best in all of North America, and Vermont is now home to dozens of annual bike festivals. And Ali’s dream home is smack in the middle of the continent’s best mountain biking terrain.
“I love this place,” she said, as our conversation on the porch turned to Vermont. “We weren’t even looking for a house, but I heard there was some land for sale and we came up here on a whim. We didn’t even call. And when I stepped out of the car and I saw the view, I started beaming. It was October, and there was a little snow on top of Mount Abe…and I just knew that this was it.”
The small, cozy cabin reflects Ali’s desire to “live lightly on the Earth.” The family is self-sufficient as possible. In Iate summer, the kitchen is a flurry of canning and preserving their summer’s harvest. In the fall, Ali invites friends over to make salves with her medicinal herbs. In the winter, when snow piles up to the first floor windows, the Zimmers heat their home with a woodstove, using wood that they harvested themselves. The small town of Lincoln is just down the hill, but up here, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world exists. At night, the sky above the cabin is unpolluted by city glow. The whole world is quiet and dark, save for a few glimmering lights from cabins on the distant mountainside.
After hanging on the porch for a little while longer, I wished Ali good luck in her upcoming weekend race and headed home. The next morning, she sent me a text: Family misses me so I decided to stay home…family comes first. Going to ride snake mtn with dan @ 10:30.
– – –
The air had gotten colder and the trees had begun to shed their leaves by the next time I traveled up to Ali’s house. Over the past weeks, she had recorded hours of GoPro footage on her training rides. The videos were dizzying; I sat mesmerized at my computer as I watched her fly down the secret trails along Snake Mountain, her tires just feet from the cliff’s edge. I had enough footage for a feature-length film. Now I wanted to hear the backstory. We settled in to conversation over tea at the kitchen table, the late afternoon light fading in the background as we talked.
“I started biking right after college,” she began, “I rode horses when I was younger, and missed riding sports. I guess you could say I just switched steeds from a horse to a mountain bike.” It became clear, though, that biking has not just been a hobby. “I met my husband mountain biking, actually” she said. “It was a misty, foggy day and the conditions were pretty challenging…I happened to pass a group of guys coming up the trail, and the last guy in the pack…I remember his eyes catching mine, and I thought, ‘he might turn around!’” He didn’t, but he did find out where Ali worked, and came in a few days later and asked her to go on a ride with him. “So I did, and…and the rest is history,” Ali recalled, smiling. Soon afterward, their daughter Hannah was born, and Ali and Dan became partners in parenting and in riding. They rode as much as new parents could find time for, and, a few years later, Ali entered her first amateur race. She won by thirty seconds.
Given her impressive times in smaller, local races, Ali petitioned USA Cycling to let her race Category One, a race category for “exceptional” expert amateur riders. They granted her request, and in April 2012, she entered her first Cat One race at the Sea Otter Classic, in Monterey, California. Sea Otter is the biggest mountain bike festival in the world; every year, over 50,000 spectators line the course for three days of bike events. Ali not only beat all the other women in her age bracket, but also had the best women’s time overall. “I was given a Pro card after that one race,” she said, “No one had ever heard of that happening before.” Since that race last fall, Ali has raced in six events at the Pro level. She has secured a spot on the podium in every one.
But biking has not been without its challenges. Injuries from bad crashes- including dislocated shoulders and a double-arm fracture- have been frustrating, not to mention expensive. Luckily, race winnings have covered riding expenses, including Ali’s surgery deductible. “The biggest challenge, though, is, wondering if I’m I detracting from my responsibilities as a mother…” she paused, “…and am I missing time with my daughter that I’ll never get back?” Few of Ali’s racing buddies are moms. “It’s hard. It’s hard to coordinate,” she continued, “They don’t know what that’s like. We need women- and more moms- out there.”
The competitive mountain biking scene has always been dominated by men, but women have been riding alongside them ever since the sport began. One of the most influential female riders in mountain bike history is Jacquie Phelan, who has been called “the godmother of women’s mountain biking.” Jacquie was born where mountain biking was born, in Marin County, California. Her family left bike paradise for the flat plains of Kansas, where she first learned to ride a bike. “Let me learn this,” she bargained with God, “and I’ll never ask for anything again.” “It turns out,” she says, “I lied to God.” Home life and constant moving were difficult. “I ran away a lot just to get out of the house,” she recalls in a piece she wrote for her blog. “I prayed for admittance to a college as far from Los Angeles as possible. I got my wish, and attended Middlebury, a college that usually knows better than to accept my ilk. Now I owe God two favors.”
After finishing her four years at Middlebury “an OK scholar” and having “swam naked as much as possible,” Jacquie moved back to her birthplace. There, on the same trails where mountain biking first began, she began to ride in earnest. And she never stopped. Through the 80’s and 90’s, Jacquie was a mainstay on the race podium. Women’s races did not exist, so she raced- and won- against male riders instead. She was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 1988, heralded as “an indelible character in fat tire history.” Character is an apt description- Jacquie was known not only for her riding, but also for her flair and moments of self-proclaimed “feminine insouciance,” like when she finished a 1984 national race topless. “I was tired of being mistaken for a boy,” she explained.
Jacquie’s story drew me in. It so perfectly bridged the gap between history and my story, between her 1980s riding adventure in Marin County and my present-day writing adventure in Middlebury. And Jacquie embodies the confident, competitive spirit that it takes to break into a male-dominated sport- a spirit that Ali has, too. I rememebered an email that Ali had sent to me about the reasons she chose biking, “…it was and is a male dominated sport, and developing skills to go bigger and faster than the boys was just too tantalizing to pass up. Biking demands mental prowess (aka “balls”) aside from pure strength, vision and coordination. To be a petite female leading guys down a gnarly Downhill trail is super empowering…more women have to try it.” Even decades after Jacquie Phelan paved the way for women to race, the female mountain biking community is still small. At the kitchen table, our conversation “At a lot of races, there are three or more heats for guys, and only one for women. A smaller field of competitors means I’ve got more of a chance to really make it, but I still wish that mountain biking could become a thing for women. It’s still very much a male-dominated culture,” she said.
We’d been talking together for over an hour, and Ali was going to be late for Open House at Hannah’s school. “Enough talking!” she said, “If you really want to get a feel for biking, you ‘ve got to come see a race.”
– – –
I took her up on the offer. In late October, A few friends and I made the three-hour drive from Middlebury to Highland Mountain Bike Park. In Northfield, New Hampshire. Northfield, a sleepy town of motels, auto body shops, and old factories, was once home to a ski resort. The ski mountain closed and sat abandoned for years, overrun by high grass and stray cats (actually) until a former mountain biker bought it. Now this unassuming town is home to Highland Mountain Bike Park, New England’s only bike-specific mountain with a chairlift.
We pulled into a gravel lot full of trucks and trailers. Bikes were everywhere- mounted on roof racks, being assembled on truck beds, and being wheeled towards the lodge. The weather was sunny and unseasonably warm, but an inch of rain overnight had left the ground slick and muddy. We followed the flow of foot traffic towards the past sponsorship tables and the results booth and to the base of the mountain, where a line for the chairlift had formed. It looked like any winter day on the slopes, except that those waiting in line were carrying bikes, not skis, and the mountainside was snowless.
On the previous day, Ali had competed in an “enduro” race, a mixed terrain competition that combines timed downhills with grueling uphill climbs. Riders don’t get to change bikes in between stages, either; the bike they lug up a mountain is the same one they fly down on. Enduro racing has been popular in Europe for some time, but it premiered in North America just last year- at Highlands, in fact. It’s the kind of race that Ali excels at, and also the kind of race that she loves best. “It’s definitely a physical challenge, but it’s also a mental and emotional challenge. It takes a lot of mental strength to power through the uphill,” she’d said to me. She placed second in that Pro Enduro race, and after less than a day to recuperate and a less than comfortable night’s sleep car-camping in the parking lot, she she was ready to hit the trail again. Her next race, “Battle of Hellion,” was a “gnarly” downhill race from the top of the mountain down to the bottom. No staggered starts- just one heat of five women all hurtling down the narrow trail at the same time.
We found Ali and Dan by the lodge, and said a quick hello before Ali headed off to prepare for the start. The rest of us began our hike across the muddy lift area, criss-crossed with tire tracks, and up along the spectator’s trail. The way was steep and rocky; it took us over half an hour to get just partway up the same trail that it would take Ali just over three minutes to descend.
We found a good vantage point near a series of small jumps and waited there. I held the video camera ready, my hands shaking. The woods were quiet with anticipation. Then, a clanking of a cowbell in the distance marked the start of the race. A mere minute later, the five riders came into view, right on each others’ heels in a tight formation. Ali, in electric blue, flashed by us first. She was in the lead.
“A lot can happen in three minutes,” Ali had told me earlier, so I knew nothing was guaranteed. We slipped and slid back down the mountain, eager to hear how the race had finished. We found Ali catching her breath at the bottom- she’d taken second place out of the gate, then moved into first after the lead rider slipped off the trail over a jump. Ali held onto first place and finished ahead of the pack by four seconds.
– – –
So I’d been to Highlands. I’d seen Ali race, and I had a five-second video clip from the side of the trail to prove it. I’d expected Highlands to be the grand finale of my adventure project, the action-packed climax, the nail-biting photo finish and the triumphant podium celebration. It was a triumphant podium celebration, for sure- in addition to a cash prize, Ali was given a giant metal shield and a playful shower of potato chips by her friend in second-place. But I left Highlands with a sense that there was a different story to tell, a story more compelling than “talented biker wins another race.” So I kept searching for the narrative thread, and Ali spent more time together. We grabbed coffee on campus. I interviewed her in her family’s treehouse. I screened her the rough cut of my adventure film. And slowly, I began to see that, in Ali’s life, biking is not the story; rather, it’s the storyteller.
Biking is the common thread that unites the passions and the people and the places that Ali loves. Biking is relationships- it’s Dan, “Dan is…my coach, my best friend, my everything.” It’s Hannah, who rides now too, through the Little Bellas, a biking and mentoring program for girls that Ali facilitates. “I’m so grateful to have a daughter who has a touch of adventure.” It’s her desire to connect body with Earth, “When I’m on my bike, and my body is moving in all of these cool ways, I’m connected to nature, to the ground, the rocks…everything.” And it’s dreams for the future. “I’d love to get sponsored and travel abroad. I could see parts of this beautiful planet that I would never get to see otherwise.”
“It’s always bittersweet,” Ali said, after the season ended, “I miss racing, but I’m exhausted. I’m excited to get some rest and spend some more time at home.” “Rest” for someone like Ali is relative, of course. In the weeks ahead, she’ll be busy working three jobs, sending out resumes to potential sponsors, and rehabbing after surgery to repair the arm that healed poorly after last year’s crash. But perspective is one of Ali’s greatest gifts. “Racing is a way to keep doing what I love, and what my family loves,” she said, “I hope that life will be as kind to me as it has been. I couldn’t ask for much more.”