TSL (Trail as a Second Language)

“Hard right!” I yell over my shoulder, as I saw back onto the line, releasing the brakes. “Rideable! Left hand exit!” This is the language of the lead rider on the trail, or at least this is how Koop and I do it. It’s an argot we’ve developed over time, verbal shorthand to improve the odds of success for the rider behind.

Twelve or thirteen years ago (I’m bad at time) we moved into a small house, in a new neighborhood, on the top of a steep hill. Koop and his wife Seville had bought the house next door just a couple years earlier. If I’m honest, my first impression was, “Christ! These two are younger and better looking than us. I already hate them.”

But then what happened is that we became the best of friends.

I’ve run, hiked, played pickup soccer, skied, and ridden all manner of bikes with Koop. On the road, he’s much stronger, and I mostly sit on his wheel. I’m not sure how many miles we’ve covered that way together. On the trail, we trade off leads, and as I said, over time, we’ve developed this way of riding together.

I might yell, “Mud!” which means he’ll need to find the least damaging route through a soft corner. I might say, “Power!” which means whatever he’s doing at the moment needs to be followed closely by power to the pedals, because one of New England’s many punchy climbs is on the docket. “Stick left,” he might say, having failed at the line to the right.

In brief conference when we both stop at a trail crossing or other natural resting spot, we’ll swap positions and whoever is leading might say, “Dialing it back here,” or “Going for it.” We apprise each other of fatigue levels and manage the load. There is no one I move so efficiently on the trail with.

I wonder if this sort of communication could and/or should be taught. If you take a rock-climbing course, they teach you the language of belaying, the simple cues for taking or giving slack, the names of the various holds, and yelling “ROCK!” when anything is falling toward climber or belayer.

Working a technical trail is lot like climbing a vertical route. There are obstacles, techniques, safety issues. The trails Koop and I like to ride are littered with boulders, some rideable, some not. We began developing our language as a way to communicate whether a given hunk of rock had a graceful exit, or no exit it all. And once we begun doing this, mainly to keep each other from crashing, it evolved into flying Beta, on-the-go instruction for how to address various situations.

If I fail on a line, I still take great satisfaction if Koop makes it based on a barked description of the entrance and exit. I often don’t even feel the need to go back and clean the line myself. And when he returns that favor, I say “Thank you very much,” and I take the lead, and the conversation continues.

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  1. trabri says

    I like when there is a melding of the trail minds! The dynamic that works best with my trail riding buddy is to put him on the front. Even if I’m leading from behind, shouting, “hard right, bear left…” we flow like water. With me on the front I crash, he crashes or we both crash.

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