Trail angels are to the hiking world what nurses are to the world off the pavement. Kind-hearted, generous and selfless, these angels help amateurs and experienced hikers alike make it through some of the toughest times on the trail. Giving out such hot commodities as water jugs, clean socks and nonperishable snacks, trail angels get true joy out of helping others make it.
I recently had an inspiring encounter of my own on the Fed Marquis Pinellas Trail. After a handful of triathlons, I am finally at the point where I feel somewhat comfortable on my road bike (read: I don’t have a total meltdown every time I cross the street anymore). I have pushed outside of my comfort zone to log more miles on my tires and I finally enjoy going for two or three hours-long bike rides just for fun.
Today is one of those days when I go for a bike ride just because it feels good. I pump up my tires and slather on SPF 50, packing an extra water bottle and energy gel packet along with my ID and a few bucks just in case my ride goes longer than planned.
I hit the road and feel incredible as soon as I start. I ride past murals and schools and railroad tracks, grateful for the perfect weather and smooth Pinellas Trail surface. Everything goes so well I decide to pause for a snack in order to maintain my stamina and keep my ride going. The Pinellas Trail is perfect today and I don’t want to turn around yet.
So I don’t. I keep going further until I reach what will total 30 miles round-trip. I made the rookie mistake of not wearing biking shorts, so I know my ass is done for unless I turn around now. I can already feel the beginnings of chafe and dread the initial sting of the shower when I get home.
I turn my bike around and cruise over the small trail bridge, deeply inhaling the salty air as I cross over water on both sides.
I am less than 10 miles from home when I hear it: Air. This isn’t because I’m riding fast; it’s a sound I am all-too-familiar with by now. I look down and recognize it in an instant. I’ve got a flat tire.
I curse myself, the road, my bike. I should have known better than to expect to cruise through an entire 30-mile bike ride without any mishaps. A constant issue since I bought my bike two years ago, I have replaced the back tire, the back wheel, adjusted the brakes and more. Still, I get a flat nearly every time I ride. Today is one of those days.
You’d think by now I’d be able to fix it in my sleep. Not the case. I pull off to the side of the trail and flip my bike over as I begin the process of changing my flat.
I am several minutes in when I begin to feel defeated. I know I am forgetting some important steps; I just can’t think of what.
By this point, several other riders have passed me without a second glance. In a way I am grateful to be spared the humiliation, but a bigger part of me grows anxious. It’s still daylight and the Pinellas Trail feels safe enough. Still, though, I hate to be caught with my guard down like this. The minutes drag on and I grow more stressed.
Finally, someone calls out to me from the trail. “You OK?”
I hesitate. Inhale. Collect myself. “Yeah…I’m OK. I’m having issues with my flat but I’m looking it up.” I hold up my phone to try and seem convincing.
The cyclist rides on and I curse myself for being too embarrassed to ask for help. After a moment I look up to see him pulling back around towards me. My hero.
“You sure you’re OK?”
I confess to this man (a very experienced rider, judging by his physique, attire and gear) that no, I am not at all sure I’m OK. He unclips his bike shoes and saunters over to inspect my tire. He takes over and much to my relief, he doesn’t act condescending or make me feel stupid.
The rule of the road, he says, is that you always help out a fellow rider.
“I’ve had people help me out before, and I expect you’d do the same if you saw someone stuck.”
Gotta pay it forward.
I am moved by his display of humanity. I cannot thank this guy enough, though I try to. I tell him he’s got good karma coming his way; he smiles back at me and finishes pumping up my spare tube. Another rider stops and offers to help, further convincing me of the kindness of athletes on the road.
I wish there is more I could do for this person, for the generosity and patience he shows me. Several other riders passed before this man came along; he is the one who actually took the time to stop and help out a fellow rider.
I vow to never pass someone on the side of the trail without asking if they’re alright, even if they appear to be fine. After all, we’re all in this together.
So thank you, to trail angels everywhere: You make more of an impact than you can possibly realize.
And hey — maybe one day I’ll earn my wings too.