There is nothing quite like a brand-spanking-new bicycle. The smoothness of operation, the silkiness, the silence. The perfection.

A recent Thursday morning, dishes washed, beds made, trash brought out, morning chores complete, a couple hours presented themselves. With a perfect blue sky shining and full of promise, autumn colors in full explosion and the world drunk on yellow, a snap decision was made. There on the front deck rested the new bike, virgin, never ridden beyond the test ride, a gift from a loved one.

On with bike shorts, shirts, gloves and helmet, fill a water bottle, grab a piece of fruit, whistle in the happy dog, her tail, her whole body wagging at the prospect of a jaunt through the woods. All this was done quickly and efficiently, with purpose, not allowing second thoughts to creep in. Out the door was the new bike, called a Spark, eager, ready to go, and I reached for … the old bike.

The Hi-Ball is a twenty-niner hardtail, faithful companion and champion for a decade, bought from the rental fleet of a bike joint on Main Street. Rental bikes are usually a good deal: They haven’t usually been truly hammered and are generally well maintained, at the fraction of the cost of a new one. This one is maybe a little bit of a tank, and has started to break down, but is rock-steady on a downhill, and has toured all over the San Juans.   

I jumped on and, as usual, the pedals just started turning of their own accord.

Up the road, the dirt smooth and grippy from the melted snow of a recent storm, the track led up into an aspen grove, across a couple small streams bright orange with mine run-off, acres of geraniums and osha on the forest floor matted and laid down for the winter. The headwalls are familiar, downshifting automatic, catching your breath on the flats, saving the granny gear for Cardiac Hill, the main event before reaching treeline.

A friend — a fit woman who hasn’t been on her bike a lot this season, busy as she was loping in the rain through the high basins — described her mental checklist while on a stiff climb on her bike: “Burning lungs? Check. Eyes popping out? Check. Bulging veins on the side of forehead and neck? Check. Heart attack imminent? Check. Head about to blow like a tomato? Check. Situation normal. Proceed.”

Cardiac this year, unlike many, is actually forgiving, or at least as forgiving as it gets, a smooth line through the rocks providing safe passage, should one care to ignore the aforementioned checklist, and the whiny old man with the tattered hat and corncob pipe in the rocking chair in the cobwebbed recesses of the brain, bitching about his creaky joints.

The pass above, it must be said, has in recent years been a little hectic with Jeep traffic, drivers wide-eyed with panic, sleepy-lidded with nonchalance and everything in between, most of the wives — why is it always the guys who get to drive? — looking nervous. On weekends it is an outright NASCAR proposition, traffic hurling itself down the hill, a climb on a bike not unlike going the wrong way at Talledega.

I’d brought the Hi-Ball into the shop to have the brakes stiffened up and was informed by the mechanic upon pickup that it was “dangerous.” Bearings played out, drive train and front shock shot, cables kaput, tires worn-out, a complete rebuild is called for and I couldn’t agree more. Still, it possessed the two things that I look for in a bike: tires that hold air and two wheels that go ‘round and ‘round.

He forgot to mention that shifting gears requires a ferocious thumb-wrestle, a girding of the loins. Mustering the courage, I shifted to a harder gear and bailed off onto a favored single-track, using cold ears as a rationalization to not continue the climb up the pass, the air a bit frosty. The path dipsy-doodles through the aspens, a velvet conveyer belt of fun, contouring around the head of the valley, delivering one to a beaver pond dead-still, and then around the flank of a massif into a side canyon.

It is National Park-level scenery, but better, for its solitude, a cliff-lined cirque with deep-green spruce stands flowing off large mountains whose flanks full of early-season snow reflect the late-morning sun, northern facets lilac, eastern faces pink to sparkling white, peaks above imposing, superb, diffuse. In the shadows the trail is snow-encrusted — no tracks — and tires crunch; one more good storm and it might be all she wrote for the year.  

I often wish that friends from elsewhere would come ride these trails, which are world-class, five-star brilliant, just to share the sheer joy. When they come, I will ride the Spark. It has automatic this and automatic that, all of which I’m sure I will love. It may even have a vibrating seat warmer, and beer pouring out of the ends of the handlebars.

Today, though, it’s just the Hi-Ball, the pooch and me, and no-o-o-obody, and an ethereal valley, and an hour more of riding before a bunch of stuff needs attending. I suppose I could have spent this time contributing to the GNP or being “responsible,” but at some point there is a responsibility to the spirit, to do humanity a favor and recharge the attitude.

And I’m glad the old bike was taken along for a farewell pedal; it’s sort of like finishing the already-open half-gallon of milk in the fridge before opening the new one. Even with a new bike in the wings, I’ll go through with the Hi-Ball rebuild; she deserves it.

Sean can be reached at: