Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Going Downhill Fast

Surprisingly, snow goes a long way to make ski slopes less gut-wrenchingly terrifying.

It obscures the jagged boulders and gnarled roots, fills the eroded gullies and gopher holes, and wraps a deep, soft blanket over the multitude of hard things with sharp pointy edges. That’s small comfort on a warm September day when you’re poised at the top of a fifteen-hundred foot descent, one finger on the brake lever of your bicycle to hold you in the starting gate. Sure, snow would be nice—but you’re not using the ski slope anyway. You’re following a downhill bicycle course carved with reckless abandon through the woods next to the slope, a path strewn with artfully crafted obstacles.

Whose woods these are, I think I know—and he must be one sick, sadistic son-of-a-bitch. They dump all the debris from smoothing the slopes here, just off the ski trails. Boulders, fallen trees, mounds of dirt and gravel, brush piles, even broken-down equipment. It all takes refuge here, barely out of sight and for sure out of mind. The ten-foot wide path for the mountain bike racers is marked through the woods with thousands of yards of yellow ‘caution’ tape festooned from sapling to sapling—an ironic touch if there ever was one.

You think ‘path through the woods,’ and it calls to mind a pleasant hiking trail, sun dappled and punctuated by bluebirds like a Disney cartoon. But this isn’t remotely like a hiking trail, or even like bushwhacking through trackless forest—it’s worse than that. It’s the opposite of a hiking trail, where somebody worked hard to clear your way.

Here, the path is deliberately made difficult by the addition of log obstacles, ramps and boardwalks to nowhere, and countless other fiendish devices. Only the lowest two-hundred yards of the course leaves the woods for the open slope—then it becomes a serpentine gully carved into raw earth with steeply banked sides and berms—a hellish dirt road lifted straight from a pinball machine.

The course is ‘technical,’ meaning being competent isn’t enough—you must bring a fully loaded bag of tricks, including the abilities to levitate, fly, and to go two directions simultaneously. A high threshold of pain helps, as does a certain lack of common sense. Many of the self-preservation instincts and behaviors most of us take for granted are notably absent from the competitors—at least the successful ones.

This is Phil’s first race; he has never competed in downhill before, nor for that matter has he attempted it; urban BMX—under cover of darkness—has been his thing. At eighteen, he must be the youngest rider here; we are both nervous. Well before dawn, we loaded his bike, tools, gear, and supplies in the van and began the four-hour drive up I-95, stumbling bleary-eyed from coffee stop to coffee stop. We arrived just in time for him to register and make the mandatory rider’s meeting. Then he gets just two practice runs down the course before the real event—the Novice competition.

The few spectators at the event are treated to countless trappings of spectacle. Fluttering pennants, banners and streamers manically vie for attention beneath the bright blue sky of the finish line. Harsh, distorted music pours unrecognizably from hidden PA speakers. Two ambulances park at the base of the slope, lights flashing for no apparent reason; their crisply uniformed attendants study a word puzzle book from some grocery checkout line with identically furrowed brows. The competitors walk about with helmets tucked under their arms, clad from neck to toe in bright plastic body armor like psychedelic knights, leading their elegant, if filthy, bicycles to the staging area with one careless hand on the saddle.

A ‘trials’ rider—a court jester of sorts, in his own peculiar motley—performs bicycle stunts for an audience of two, leaping his bicycle from a dead stop to the top of a picnic table in two sweet moves, then onto a boulder the height of a man’s head. With nowhere to go from there, he falters for a moment, then lurches to the ground with a jarring thud; his audience titters, turns and walks away.

Rider’s meeting over, the competitors burst out of the faux-Alpine lodge into the warm fall morning. There is much macho swagger as riders boast and strut across the gravel to their respective SUVs for their final preparations. Then there is a murmur of interest as Phil rides across the lot; heads turn to follow him. Riders point, tap each other on the shoulder, stop what they are doing. They are noticing Phil’s bike. Phil has suddenly earned a mantle of awestruck, bemused respect from the experienced riders—for sheer ballsiness, if not for common sense.

Alone among the riders, Phil will make his run—his novice downhill run—on a hardtail.

Most downhillers compete on bikes having little in common with ordinary bikes but the number of wheels. Exotic frame designs, space-age composites, sophisticated forks and rear suspensions with complex linkages and high-tech shock absorbers, hydraulic disk brakes—they are more like motorcycles with human engines. Single components can run into the thousands of dollars; lots of bikes here are worth more than the cars that carried them in.

Yet my son (fools rush in where angels fear to tread) will make his run on a bike with a solid frame—a hardtail, as they say. No shock absorber on the rear; just a few inches of travel on a hydraulic fork in front. This makes Phil the shock absorber for every drop, jump, bump, root, rock and stump—all taken up by his arms, legs and back, hopefully leaving something in reserve to pedal, steer and brake, and watch the course ahead. Where other, more sophisticated bikes will smooth the treacherous route for their riders by being supple and compliant, the hardtail will fight him every foot of the way, recoiling and bucking in response to each new event, and it’s not clear who will win.

Riders catch the chairlift to the starting gate on top of the mountain. In full battle regalia, holding their bicycle cross-armed across their chest, they step onto the chairlift platform. With each snatch of a rider by the chair, it hesitates, sways, then yanks the rider and steed ponderously free from the earth, bobbing and swaying as if to spit them back out to the ground again. The chairlift settles down to a modest, nauseating oscillation, as the rider disappears upwards into the distance, another tiny colored bead on a long elastic necklace.

I offer words of encouragement as Phil lines up for the slow lift ride to the mountaintop, then walk towards the course to catch the show. Spectators have already camped out in the prime viewing spots, and it’s understandable why. The crowd favorite overlooks a crater-like pit, thirty feet across and ten deep. The course comes along the side of the pit, then veers onto a wooden ramp leading to thin air; the course picks up again on the opposite side of the pit, heading the opposite direction.

Rider after rider makes their practice run at the pit. Some negotiate the pit with great finesse, blasting off the ramp, slinging around the circumference and shooting out the other side like a marble from a mixing bowl. Others—less skillful or confident—balk at the end of the ramp then drop like Wile E. Coyote into the mud below. Shaken, cursing and raging, they scramble out of the muddy pit with their bikes. I watch a dozen riders try this with varying degrees of success, and wonder—with some concern—how Phil will manage.

Continuing up the mountain, I hear the next rider long before I see him. He crashes through the woods, pushing a non-stop wave of expletives before him as though warding evil spirits from his path. But the evil spirits have had their fill of this particular rider; he launches spectacularly over a fallen log, only to plant his front wheel against a boulder on landing. He briefly adopts a shocked ‘Superman’ pose as he flies through the air, then sprawls belly-first into the rocky forest floor; his bike pirouettes in the air slow-mo and crashes down square on his back. This does not comfort me in any way.

Suddenly it’s Phil’s turn. Before I even find a good viewing spot he streaks past me in a blur, bobbing and weaving through the woods like a prizefighter. I scramble to follow, but the last I see of him is his perfect launch off the ramp into the pit—and then him shooting out the other side like a marble from a mixing bowl.

By the time I get down to the finish line, Phil is propped up on his elbows in the grass, surrounded by a flock of admirers—mostly little kids. He and his bike are mud spattered but his grin tells me all I need to know. Both he and the bike survived intact, and on each run he shaved thirty seconds off his previous time. We hang around waiting for the final results to be posted.

Though he did not place, his times are quite respectable for an experienced downhiller on a fully suspended bike—for a novice on a hardtail, they are astonishing.

I help gather up the sweat-soaked armor he has flung off, and watch as he slowly, painfully hobbles towards the van. As we wind our way down the twisty two-lane road back to the highway, I ask him his impressions of the race. There is a long silence before I realize he is asleep, and will stay that way for the drive home.

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