Thursday, September 27, 2012

Riding Braille

Greg aka: Caution riding into the darkness

It's that time of year. Gone are the long summer nights when the sun hangs in the sky forever. Now it runs to the horizon like its late for dinner and darkness drops like a thick blanket in an instant. One minute it's light and the next it's black.

I love this time of year though, my favorite season actually. The smells, the colors, the chill in the air and it is the run-up to the Holidays. Also, someone managed to throw my birthday in there as well. 

Our weekly rides at Paradise Valley run from 6 to 8 usually. Wednesday night, however, night fell hard at 7:30. Even so, it was dark in the woods long before that. In the deep thick of Two Trees Trail or the black hollows of Llyod's Trail the way is not always clear even when the sun is at high noon. But at dusk, trees seem closer, the roots swallowed up in the dark shadows, bumps and dips appear flat and all around the dark blanket of night closes in. 

It can be a bit creepy, dead leaves, quietly dark woods and then suddenly the deep, sharp hoot of an owl sends goosebumps across the skin and that pretty much seals the feeling. The temperature and the sun drop and so does the riding speed. Trails that normally record quick riding times turn into leg dragging zombies when night falls. 

I often take for granted, the ability to clearly see the way ahead, the ground beneath, and more importantly the stumbling obstacles in my path. But a funny thing happens when the sight line disappears and I'm left with nothing but my memory of the trail and the feel of the bike as it responds to the conveyor belt of bumps and bobbles, twists and turns, and the ups and downs. My mind relaxes. 

As I've mentioned before, Paradise Valley is awesome technical riding. Riding there is an exercise in rapid, consecutive, and  complicated problem solving: what gear, what line, what effort, what apex, what's next? Quickly, bam-bam-bam and sometimes crash! But when all of the equation's variables are obscured by the black magic marker of night the problem becomes unsolvable. 

And so we plow through it, the dark unknown, doing the best we can with what we have. Smiling the whole way.     

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Broken But Not Shattered

Trail jump on Lloyd's Detour guarded by a hungry squirrel 

Last summer I broke my arm. Mountain biking, of course. It was embarrassingly unspectacular, the crash that nearly snapped that little knob of bone that pokes up at the elbow-end of my left arm. My doctor said "You have a radial head fracture", as she shook her head. She was not happy with me. I had waited two weeks after the not-so-epic incident to go see her. But this entry isn't really about that crash, or the break, or the recovery. 

I rode differently after that. I tried not to but I couldn't help it. I had wrecked before and hurt myself but I healed and kept riding. This was different. I really broke myself. Not just my arm but my confidence. It made me realize that I was not invincible. I bought a crap load of protective gear after that. New helmet, chest and shoulder protector, elbow pads, shin guards, knee pads, elbow pads and a back pack with spine pad and I even seriously considered wearing a mouth guard. 

I rode like I was afraid to fall off my bike. Which I did anyway, frequently. Each time I did I tried to resist the fall, like I was trying to hold the entire world back with my arms. Vainly attempting to keep it safely away from my core. Complete bullshit. I crumbled every time under the weight of my body and the force of my own forward momentum. I finally learned how to crash well. Rolling out of a fall instead of resisting the inevitable. 

My confidence went up, a little. I realized that falling from my bike wasn't going to kill me, in most cases. Hurt? Yes but death, not likely. 

I really enjoy technical riding: tight turns, close trees, complicated roots, rapid gear changes. These types of trails always have man-made obstacles as well. They go hand-in-hand. Split-wood bridges, downed tree curbs, ramps, and fallen-tree-rails are all common trail tricks. I've always avoided these and even more so after the break. Because crashing and falling on these types of trails is common. So I've, done only the ones that were unavoidable and skirted around the rest. 

On Saturday, I decided to try the only trail at Paradise that I had not ridden, Llyod's Detour. Last year, a trusted riding buddy told me it was unrideable and so I just ignored it. But yesterday I thought, what the hell and tried it anyway. He was right. It's a very short trail, about half a mile and it is packed full of super technical stuff, natural and man-made. In truth, my first time through I was off my bike more than I was on it. 

I didn't care! I fell in love. It is so technically challenging that I would bet that there isn't a rider out there that can make it the entire Detour without touching foot to ground at least 4 or 5 times. 

I went back again today. I rode nothing else but the Detour. Forward and backward. Six or seven times. I forced myself to do the obstacles. If I fell off (which I did often), I stopped, turned around and tried it again. Over and over until I could do it without a mistake and then I rode to the next one. I was determined to ride that bastard without a mistake. That didn't happen today. 

There is always tomorrow and I am feeling less broken with each ride. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Red Right Hand

From Left: Ken, Dad, Kyle, Kirt, Keith

I look down at my right hand, palm facing up. It's covered, uneven and blotchy, and dripping. Drop by slow-motion drop, on my pants, my shoes, the floor. Its red and its everywhere. My fingers are so coated that my index and middle fingers stick together easily. I test the tackiness by moving the two fingers out and in, out and in, like I'm cutting thin air with my crimson soaked fingers. I can feel it drying on my skin, making it tight. I'm entranced by the glossy sheen. 

I've mentioned that dad and I had an arrangement. The sort of thing that just kind of happens. No one set out to make a pact. Naturally, I guess, is how I always thought of it. Although, I knew him, I know me. I know that he yearned for moments to teach, to impart his vast knowledge, experience and passion. To watch over someone as they pushed through a problem under their own power, it brought him the kind of joy that turns the monotony of day-to-day living into something cool. 

He never had to wait long with me. Just around the next corner was another stupid mistake, and a wonderful opportunity for him to teach me something. He was not the sort of man that stood on a soap box with a bull horn to declare his mastery of a thing. Quiet, reserved and patient, to a fault perhaps. Frustrated and perplexed, I would stare at him, my brows pinned together like two rams with their horns locked. Every one of my questions to him was answered with a question. 

Argh! Just tell me the answer! 

He would have none of that. Mostly because I was bad at asking the right question. One of his greatest skills, I think, was his uncanny ability to ask the right question at the right time. I'm too impatient for that nonsense. No matter. Not to him. To him the lesson isn't really the one I think it should be. The problem, the one in hand, is rarely the real problem. Not the one that needs fixing, a remedy, or a sternly taught instruction to prevent it from happening again. 

No. Not this problem: red hand, red pants, red shirt, red shoes, and red floor. The resolution to this sticky situation will not prevent its reoccurrence. He quietly looks at me, waiting. I must mentally back track. Balancing along the train rail, following the hard line in my brain that leads me back to where the train left the station, the moment I made the wrong choice. AH HA! I got it!

He sees it in my face and the confidence streams through my 7 year old body. I smile up at him. He smiles back at me and asks, "What is your question?"

I hold out for his inspection, my red right hand and ask him the right question, "How do I hold the can of spray paint so it paints my bike and NOT my hand?" "Ah" he says patiently "excellent question, let me show you how to do that AFTER I show you how to get that paint off your hands".

And so It went. Year after year, I learned how to ask the right question. Sometimes I even got it right on the first try. 

The picture above includes a bike that was obviously painted by one of the boys (most likely Ken) under dad's watchful eye. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Tiger

Mac & Lee at the summit of NW Timber Trail (elevation 1550)

New hand-built trail from East Tiger Summit (elevation 3005)

The Tiger (My rewrite, with apologies to William Blake)

Tiger, tiger, broke my butt
Riding trails where trees were cut,
Nature carved by human hand
Rode all day why can't I stand?

In what distant deep brain of man
Conceived this gnarly trail plan?
On what planet did he dream?
This hell-of-a downhill scream?

And what the hell did he think
The trees flash by in a blink?
And my heart sped up the beat,
Roots, rocks blurred beneath my feet?

What more roots? And what more rocks?
Will I heal from all these shocks?
What the crazy? What Kung Fu?
Strikes hard my every sinew?

When the ascent threw down spears,
I watered the hill with tears,
Did Tiger smile at me?
Nearly conquered it could see?

Tiger, tiger, broke my butt
Riding trails where trees were cut,
Nature carved by human hand
Rode all day why can't I stand?

Interested in reading the original poem: The Tiger by William Blake

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Fairy Dust and Angry Gnomes

Normally our 'Saint Saturday' ride is casual, laid-back, and care free. It has been noted that I have yet to crash, hit a tree, or fall off my bike while riding Saint Edward Park. Due mostly to our attitude going in to this ride, Caution (Greg) and I do this relaxed ride every Saturday morning, early to avoid the throngs. After we crank off 7 or so easy miles we pack up gear and head to Caffe Ladro for coffee, sugar, and idle chit-chat. No sweat. 

Our ride this morning was the usual affair with two notable exceptions: a blizzard of fairy dust and angry trail gnomes (see pictured above). 

Easy first. This time of year, in the Northwest, brings with it little rain, much like the rest of the country. Our foliage, used to a constant spritz of fine mist year-round, dries up rapidly under the harsh NW sun and scorching 85 degree heat. Thankfully these torturous conditions typically last only 10 days, often times strangling out 14 straight days. The horror!

As a result, ground-cover turns brown or reverts into its original essence: dust. For mountain bikers this means that trails, once compacted with damp soil, are now covered in a thick layer of fairy dust, with hard pack underneath. Tricky surface this. Riding style for this condition is similar to riding over wet and slippery surface-mud. Tricky because the surface is not slippery to walk on, unlike walking on mud but it is 'slippery' to ride on. Not slippery like mud but it has a loose, top surface that feels slippery, giving way easily under hard-climbing tire rotation or quick high-G turns. I will be glad when some rain returns and the trails regain some of their stickiness.

Now for the angry. With one notable exception, Duthie Mountain Bike Park, most of the worthwhile trail systems in this area are multi-use. This means that on any given day we are likely to run into horses, bikers, hikers, dogs, squirrels and of course the dreaded Angry Trail Gnome. Our trails and parks are all clearly marked "multi-use" and I don't often run into problems with other trail users. Most are courteous and considerate. The written hierarchy of users (meaning, who is required to yield to who on a narrow trail) is: horseback riders at the top, followed by hikers, then hikers with dogs, squirrels, and then mountain bikers bringing up the rear. 

This is an odd ranking because, up here at least, mountain bikers are the primary group that maintains the trail systems. In fact many of these trails would not exist without the efforts of mountain bikers. No matter. We all work to get along and share the commons. Well, not the Angry Trail Gnomes. 

ATG are easy to spot. They are usually trail runners (unfortunately every user group has there own version of ATG), always alone and they always wear ear buds (no doubt blaring Barry Manilow), this is so they can't actually hear anyone coming up on them (or the birds, or the wind through the trees). This always results in them being shocked and surprised when they come upon us on the trail. 

Trail etiquette dictates that mtn bikers yield to hikers but these ATGs always yield due too the sudden surprise that they are not alone in the woods. They leap into the bush, aghast. Often standing knee deep in ferns on the side of the trail, waiting for the group to pass, scowling and snarling at us like a dog growls at a bump in the dead of night. Oft times muttering contemptive words under their breath. We are all smiles and apologies and well-wishing, of course. 

No matter to them, the Angry Trail Gnomes, they can't help themselves.