"How old are you?"
The question came from a super fit, silver-haired XC rider on a Giant Anthem who had stealthily pulled up behind me on one of the harder climbs on my home trails in the hope that I could lend him some local knowledge of the area. We had stopped to size up some wooden features that were recently added to a popular downhill.
"Sixty," I said without looking up. My mind was in a different place. I was pushing back up the trail, preparing to make a serious run at the ramp aboard an unfamiliar, 120-millimeter-travel test bike.
"I thought people were supposed to get smarter with age," XC Guy said.
"I am," I laughed. "Now, I take a look at features before I give them a go."
Like most first-time jumps, the anticipation was far more dramatic than the short flight to safety. When I slid to a stop, I was pleasantly surprised to catch Mister XC sending the ladders as well. He had good style - an unexpected performance from a spandex-clad no-body-fat 29er pilot riding skinny, semi-slick tires. We exchanged names and it turns out that John's son, J.D. Swanguen, is a local DH hero. Apples never fall far from the tree, it seems.
Turning at the bottom of the trail for the return trip to the ridge, it became clear that John and I were in different leagues as climbers. Both of us were riding big-wheel bikes with one-by drivetrains. Mine was a SRAM XX1 with a 30-tooth chainring and a big, 42-tooth cog out back. John's was all Shimano, with a taller-geared, 36-tooth sprocket driving an 11 by 36 cassette. He bid farewell and by the time I reached the half-way mark of the 900-foot ascent, John was dissappearing over the summit. Note to self: "Add intervals and hill repeats to early season training."
Like John, I was also on an exploratory mission. Recent storms had softened the dirt, and diggers had been working furiously to carve lines and mold features before the red mixture of decomposed granite and clay dried and began to crumble with each blow of the mattock. The plan was to meet Greg, a respected builder and gravity rider, and put first tracks on two new additions to the trail network. Greg, who had joined up with John and I while we were sessioning the new ladder jumps, rides a six-inch-travel Pivot Firebird and climbs at a much more leisurely pace, which turned out to be a much needed leg saver as the ride progressed.
| Only a dozen pedal strokes were needed to realize that this team was carving its way across the landscape with a great deal more enthusiasm than planning.|
Both trails were connectors that climbed opposite sides of the same canyon to intersect a fire road at the top. We rode the line that Greg had been working on first - a flowy climb, comfortably wide, punctated with rock features and slightly bermed corners that, though unfinished, promised to be a ripping descent as well. When Greg's trail ended, we explored the flagged route ahead until dense brush blocked our path and then hiked across the canyon to sample the second line.
Only a dozen pedal strokes were needed to realize that this team was carving its way across the landscape with a great deal more enthusiasm than planning. Narrow and off-camber, the trail dodged left and right around and over boulders until the canyon walls closed in, leaving the builders with no option except to climb out. And climb they did, with a series of vicious leg-burning switchbacks, some so narrow that my front tire was skipping off the trunks and stems of trailside bushes to round them. Gasping for air, I topped the ridge, not sure if I should celebrate that I cleaned almost all of the climb, or diss' on the builders for the hack job they did on the switchbacks. We will never know - my thoughts were cut short by a familiar voice.
"Where are you guys riding from here?" John the XC guy appeared out of nowhere, looking fresh as ever, but a bit lost. It seems that he had done a little bushwhacking in a failed attempt to find an alternate route off the mountain.
"Down," I said, pointing to the no-flow trail. "This should be an interesting
With gravity doing most of the hard work, the trail's tight turns and unpredictable grade reversals seemed more like challenges than chores. There was nothing super technical, but you needed your A-game to stay on point. The level of concentration was palpable. Few words were exchanged as the three of us made our way down. I made my share of mistakes, but I also pulled off some hero moves. I was feeling the love. The dirt was good, my tires were hooking up, the bike was working for me, and somewhere in my head, Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing "Texas Flood." It was a good time on the bike.
The descent was an altogether different experience than I had predicted. I waved my friends off and pedaled towards my car with Stevie Ray's blues riffs still stuck in my head and I was reminded once again why I love this sport. Like music, Mountain biking can never be mastered, so no matter what your style, or how well (or poorly)
you perform, at some level you will always be part of the show. Perhaps more important, is that by nature, both are transformative experiences. A musician becomes part human and part instrument. A rider is part human and part machine - it can't work any other way and the synergy created by that bond can be immensly empowering. No man can run as fast, nor jump as high. I feel like a completely different animal when I am on my bike - it certainly doesn't feel like sixty.