Wombats Take Flight

By Stephen Krcmar, Globe Correspondent, 8/28/2003, Boston Globe Calendar Section

Pedaling up to the east entrance of Callahan State Park, a short ride from the Framingham commuter rail station, I can see dark clouds threatening rain. Bluejays are chatting, woodpeckers pecking, and a rooster is crowing, but it seems as if the sky on this summer morning will open up at any moment.

At the south side of the parking lot, two women clad in spandex emerge from a green Honda CR-V. They put on Neoprene, shin guards, and bug spray. One grabs a step stool to haul down the bikes from the roof rack. These women look like serious riders.

A few more cars pull into the lot. Most are members of the Women's Mountain Bike & Tea Society, or Wombats, a group little-known in cycling circles. They're rolling proof that there's more to mountain biking than adrenaline-crazed teenage boys.

The Wombats host an annual kickoff party, beginners' clinics, full-moon pajama rides, the occasional Sunday ride, and weekly Saturday rides around Boston from May through mid-November. You don't need to be a member to participate, but there is one caveat.

"We offer a noncompetitive, women's-only ride," says Harley Erickson, the president of the Southeast Massachusetts Wombats chapter and a certified mountain bike instructor. (She's making a one-time exception for me.) After years of unofficial male-only rides, it was my turn to be the odd man out.

At 10 a.m. facing heavy humidity, six riders take to the trails. Erickson talks about how little training she has gotten in this year. Most in the group have the same complaint. Just like riding with men, I'm thinking, who downplay expectations and as soon as they start are pedaling like pros.

Someone asks for bug spray, and Dorraine Werner volunteers hers, adding, "I hope it works; it's last year's model." Last year's model! It's a gearhead joke -- last year's product is inferior by virtue of its antiquity. Coming from her, it makes sense: She has the nicest bike in the group, a Santa Cruz Juliana, which has a frame with a shorter top-tube that was designed for women, who generally have shorter torsos than men.

On the other end of the gear spectrum, Christine Carlsen rides an old Bridgestone, which doesn't have a suspension system. Instead of the Lycra jerseys all the others are wearing, she wears a cotton T-shirt that reads, "Stop global warming, get there by bike." This is her first Wombats ride. She's new to trail riding and hopes to keep up.

Every ride has a "sweeper," the caboose of the group who makes sure no one gets left behind. Werner's friend Nancy Smith volunteers for the job.

After passing the bug spray around, Werner shows off a black-and-blue mark on her leg. "Check it out, I fell in the parking lot at Target yesterday, trying to get out of my clipless pedals," she says. Clipless pedals secure the cyclist's feet to the pedals by engaging with cleats on the bottom of the shoes.

Not to be outdone, Erickson points to a slight bruise across her nose. She fractured it the day before at work at Harvard's Peabody Museum.

Bruises, bike-geek jokes: it seems like any other ride.

We duck into the woods as the rain begins to fall; things get muddy. Some of us take a spill. Others learn more about clipless pedals. We're told that weekend mountain bike festivals are good places for single women to meet men.

As we ride up and down hills, Carlsen doesn't slow us down a bit. A great example of why cycling is "about the pilot and not the plane," she stays near the front of the pack for most the ride, especially when the trail points upward.

The Wombats stop at just about every fork to check in with each other. All those stops make the ride fun and manageable. The only drawback of pausing to regroup is our involuntary contribution to the mosquito lunch fund.

At the 2 1/2-hour mark, Erickson asks who wants to continue. Carlsen waffles for a moment, then decides to stick it out because the additional spur will only be a few more minutes. Moments later, her front tire hits a wet root and slides out, and a look of fear spreads across her face as she heads toward the ground, about to complete her first fall in the woods. She gets up slowly, dusts herself off, and gets back on. A few minutes later we're done, and Carlsen's first three-hour trail ride is over. "It was fabulous," she says with a big smile.

It's a contagious grin. Unlike me, she can ride with the Wombats whenever she wants.

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