For as long as I’ve been on this planet, and it’s probably a hellava lot longer than most would guess, I’ve believed watching someone’s head as they nod off can be the funniest thing in the world. Real life bobbleheads.
So I chuckle under my breath as my head snaps up after my chin nearly taps my chest while I lounge in my camping chair, wondering if any fellow campers wandering past got their early evening laughs at my expense.
It appears impossible for me to remember how a real mountain bike ride will kick my butt. I spend about 90 percent of my time on gravel, which is really baby mountain biking. Logging roads have realistic grades that logging trucks can handle. Mountain bike trails? Not so much.
In between being awakened by head snaps and snore-snorts, a long lost memory of my first mountain bike rides bubbled to the surface. Must be the campfire that has my storytelling juices flowing.
Either that or the ghosts of Halloweens past conjuring up some of my scariest bike memories.
I was totally into road riding as mountain biking emerged onto the scene. It kinda caught my attention, but knowing it would be years before I could stash away enough cash to get a mountain bike, I kept my distance.
However, writing a weekly cycling column for The Orange County Register, well, I had to get the scoop. When I decided to taste that off-road perspective, I dove in head first.
The first off-road ride of my life came outside Laguna Beach, California at Crystal Cove State Park. My tour guide? A local trail organizer by the name of Margaret Day. For two hours I chased her up and down the rocky paths on a $1,500 mountain bike she let me borrow back when that was the price tag on a super-super-high end bike.
The demands on my body, coming in great spurts, punished me. I hung on for dear life, knowing my handling skills tend to match a third-grader not versed in the ways of BMX. In the end she told me I did fine — for a rookie. Yeah, right.
For two hours I begged for mercy, digging into every ounce of muscle my 150-miles-a-week road training had forged. She flew over hills like a gazelle. I clunked around like a Mack Truck.
“Oh, did I mention I was national champion a few years ago?” Day said, rather nonchalantly.
“Ah, no,” I said, choking on my Gatorade. “I think I would have remembered that.”
Expedition No. 2 proved even more epic. Day set me up with some guy who tinkered with mountain bike frames. He arrived at the trail in a broken down van, an old VW like-I-care-if-my-rent-check-bounced van. He brought along a $2,000 bike for me to ride. Margaret vouched for my skill level, most likely telling him I probably would never go fast enough to crash his sweet prototype bike.
We enjoyed a great ride. The guy unleashed a volcano of information on bike equipment. Wish I could remember five percent of what he said. I do remember the name: Richard Cunningham.
Of course, all that did was pump up my ego, and the next thing you know I’m taking my baptismal dive into the true mosh pit of the sport at Snow Summit atop Big Bear, heading there to cover a NORBA event. The day before the Pros would humble the mountainous course, I took a test spin. They made me sign something that said I was a mountain bike expert before giving me a basic rental bike. I figured Day and Cunningham knew what they were talking about when they said I could handle my own.
I signed and left on mountain bike ride No. 3.
A three hour tour … a three-hour tour …
Get serious, I thought. It’s a 12-mile loop. How hard can it be? After an hour of eating dust as every Dick and Jane on the mountain ripped past me, I neared the summit. Bonks generally occur around the six-hour mark on the road. Somehow this bonk felt right on schedule.
My mind racing with the intensity of a serial killer, the thin air filtering out rationality, I hit the emotional and physical peak of the adventure about the same time. With Tomac wannabes catching air, screaming and disappearing down the steep incline tumbling down the mountain before me, I wanted to cry like a baby. I yearned for a helicopter to come and pluck me from the mountain top then set me gently down at the bottom.
Instead, I saw the essence of mountain biking through blurry eyes. I felt it through exhausted arms shaking uncontrollably. Then I hit the moment of truth, a 100-yard gravel and rock death slide on a, well, it must have been a 98 percent grade.
My desire to survive eclipsed my urge to look cool. I closed my eyes. I locked my brakes.
I started fast. My speed increased with each passing second. A little voice inside my head screamed with veins popping out of its neck. “WE’RE BITING THE BIG ONE!” The last fraction of rationality remaining in my head weighed my options with the voice. 1) The bike takes us down; or 2) We take the bike down.
Since the voice had no physical interest at stake, it voted for No. 2. Since it was a rental bike, I agreed, and threw the bike out from beneath me. I crouched down and surfed the gravel for nearly 30 feet before coming to a stop. Still too steep to stand. I crawled on all fours to the bike searching the sky for my helicopter in shining armor, but it never came.
I inched my way down the mountain. I hid the bike in the rack. I got back my deposit. I went back to my room and collapsed.
I woke to the dawn of a new day, one where the tires were fatter, the air was thinner and I was hooked.
Time to ride.