This morning Iíll stand at the top of a hill that is too steep to safely walk down. Itís OK though; Iíll have my bike. Itís downhill mountain bike race practice at the Southridge Races in Fontana, CA, and Iíve got a ticket to ride.
I pack my gear the night before so that Iíll be ready in the morning. Iíve got my full-face helmet, gloves, shoes, riding shorts, riding pants, long-sleeved riding jersey, rain jacket, hoodie sweatshirt, snacks, lots of water and Gatorade, and a complete change of clothing just in case I fall in the creek. Mother would be proud.
For the past week Iíve been emailing a girl (Colleen) who races downhill in the expert category. When I emailed her about the private clinics she conducts in the summer, she invited me to the downhill race practice at Southridge to see how I like it, offered to find me protective gear since I donít have any, and told me sheíll meet me there to show me around. Colleen has just volunteered to be my mentor for the day. I canít believe my good fortune in finding her, and Iím struck by her eagerness to help and make me feel welcomed. I shouldnít be though; this is how the mountain biking community is. I look forward to meeting her and the other girls who will be at the practice.
The terrain... looks like something out of a Roadrunner-Coyote cartoon on a 25% grade.
Itís a cool sunny Saturday morning in the hills east of LA. Colleen introduces me to the others as I stand at the back of Carolynís car pulling on the clothing and gear that has been rounded up for me. Iíve got Carolynís knee and shin guards, Nancyís body armor, goggles, and long-sleeved jersey. If Iíd needed it, they probably couldíve come up with the helmet and bike as well.
As it is, Iíll be on my little GT i-drive, a simple dual-suspension bike that suits my needs on single-track, but is certainly not a downhill gravity machine. Most of the bikes on the course today will weigh almost twice as much as mine, have greater suspension, and disc brakes. Downhill bikes are designed to grab onto the terrain, go over obstacles smoothly, brake quickly and easily, and carry you down the hill with grace. All you need is balance, skill, and the nerve to hang on. In comparison, my light weight bike will want to bounce down the hill, jump any obstacles, and brake only when I apply the white-knuckle grip. Iíll have to rely on that balance, skill, and nerve Ė none of which have I developed at this point.
Colleen and I load our bikes onto the truck that will be hauling them along with 24 others up to the top of the hill. The guy loading the truck takes my bike from me as I hoist it up to him and he nearly stumbles back. Expecting another 45-pound bike, my little 24-pounder takes him by surprise. ďNow this is what you all need to have Ė a bike just like this!Ē he jokes to the crowd waiting to load their bikes.
At the top of the hill Colleen rests her bike on the ground and asks if Iíd like to walk the course. I smile, remembering my first encounter with a race course on a hill in the Catskills. When I rode mountain cross for the first time, my coach/friend/mentor Chad had me walk the course, advising me that it is always a good idea to walk the course, any course, before riding it for the first time. I turn to Colleen and eagerly tell her yes, set my bike down and join her.
The terrain is mostly rocks and boulders, fine, hard-packed, light-brown dirt, and an occasional bit of scrubby green vegetation with some kind of barb on it. None of it looks comfortable or cushy in case of a fall. Actually, it looks like something out of a Roadrunner-Coyote cartoon on a 25% grade. Colleen points out a large pile of rocks next to the course and mentions that I should keep in mind that although itís too cold for them right now, rattlesnakes will often lie among such rocks. Rattlesnakes. Iíll remember that.
Iím nervous. Iím not afraid of falling, or even of getting hurt. Iím nervous about not knowing where the edge of my ability lies, and not knowing how far I can push my limits without going over that edge.
Just as Chad did on the mountain cross course last fall, Colleen takes me through the different sections of this downhill course, pointing out the fastest line to take, the safest line to take, places where I should brake early and spots where I shouldnít brake at all. I try desperately to remember it all, or at least try to get the essence of what sheís saying, if not the specifics: choose where you want to go as early as possible and focus on that line Ė do not focus on where you do not want to go. If you focus on that large obstacle in your path, youíre sure to run into it. A metaphor for life, really.
As we pick our way through the rocks and weeds she points to a turn I would call a switchback and asks if Iím familiar with off-camber turns. Iím too embarrassed to tell her I donít know what that term means, although Iíve heard it before, but I think I can make the turn so I tell her yes. We continue, and come to a sharp turn around a boulder opening onto a rock bed that pours down the hill and fades into a dirt trail. From there the trail plunges down the hill fast and open allowing you to pick up speed for the climb to the other side of the saddle. She talks me through the turn and the rock bed, telling me itís not as bad as it looks. ďJust stay relaxed and point the wheel where you want to go,Ē she tells me, ďthe bike will take care of the rest.Ē We stop here. Satisfied with what weíve seen, we head back to the top of the hill where our bikes are.
Iím nervous. Iím not afraid of falling, or even of getting hurt. Iím nervous about not knowing where the edge of my ability lies, and not knowing how far I can push my limits without going over that edge. At this point, I still donít know what the bike can do. Will it really carry me down this hill? In theory, if I stay balanced and can keep my weight back far enough, I can go down almost anything. But what about those rocks in the path? I take a deep breath. The only way to know is to do it.
Colleen goes ahead of me. I am so focused on just keeping balanced that I forget most everything she has told me. I revert to instinct and what little training I have had, and manage to get through the first half of the course just fine. Iím shaking like I do after Iíve had a triple-espresso latte, but the overall rush from downhill is much better.
Iím eager to do the second half of the course, and Iím just confident enough now to be stupid and simply jump in and do it, relying on Colleen in front of me to give me speed and direction indicators, but she again sets her bike down and asks if Iím ready to walk the second half of the course. She is taking a great deal of time with meótime she could be riding. This must be very important, I think. Indeed, this is a lesson I must learn the first time, because not learning it could be disastrous. Always walk an unfamiliar course. Even if you have so little time that you might not get to ride it before the race. Always walk the course.
We make our way down the hill, climbing up and over boulders in places. From the top of the second hill the rocky path spills down in twists and turns, then opens up to a rock-strewn dirt path that seems to shoot straight down about 25 feet, coming to a sharp left turn just in front of a rock the size of an arm chair. From there the path plunges again before making a sharp right and snaking down to the bottom. I look at this and shiver. Colleen assesses the situation for me, telling me the worst case probable (not possible, I note) is that I come in too fast and canít make the turn in time, in which case I lay the bike over in front of the rock. She says nothing about going sailing over the edge and bouncing down the hill. I want to watch a few people go through this section first, so we hang out for a few minutes while riders make their way towards us.
Iím shaking like I do after Iíve had a triple-espresso latte, but the overall rush from downhill is much better.
Of course, they make it look easy. I take a deep breath and say Iím ready. Colleen assures me for the fifth time this morning that Iíll be fine. I take another deep breath. I thank Colleen again for taking so much time with me. She has made this whole day possible.
We head down the hill on our bikes. Without incident. I am amazed at the performance of my little bike and how well it carries me through all those rocks and steep sections. If it were a pony Iíd give him extra carrots and a sugar cube tonight and spend an hour brushing his coat and telling how proud I am of him. As it is, Iíll clean and lube the chain.
Colleen is waiting for me at the bottom. ďSo, what do you think?Ē she asks me. ďThat was great!Ē I tell her. ďLetís do it again!Ē
We ride to the staging area where everyone is lined up waiting for the truck to take them back up the hill. Colleen accompanies me on one more run down the hill, then sends me off on my own. Iíll end up doing 5 runs on my GT. On the 3rd and 4th run I crash several times when I try to increase my speed, tumbling over the bike and having to hike back up the trail to get it. I pick myself up, throw my bike over my shoulder and hike back up to the sections I crash in so as to re-do them. My 5th run is smooth and Iím really pleased.
Back at the staging area I find Colleen and Carolyn. Carolyn is done for the day, but Colleen will make one more run. I ask Carolyn if I can take her bike to try it out. She doesnít mind at all, so I quickly run to my truck to change my shoes. Iíve been riding in my clips and Carolynís bike has flat pedals. I re-join Colleen in the line of riders and pick up Carolynís downhill bike. Itís an Intense Uzzi DH with disc brakes. Rob (Colleenís husband and teammate) reminds me to be light on the brakes, that the disc brakes will be much more responsive than Iím used to. Oh. Good point. Anything else I need to remember?
Much like an airplane that wants to stay aloft, these downhill machines do these things because thatís what they are designed to do. Itís a beautiful thing.
Colleen, Rob and I arrive atop the hill and unload our bikes from the truck. From here we have to climb another 75 yards on a dirt path to get to the beginning of the course. I pedaled a good deal of it earlier on my GT, cruising past those poor saps pushing their mammoth downhill bikes up the hill. Now Iíve got Carolynís bike and the weight difference between my little GT and this downhill monster is evident the minute I try to pedal. I get off and push like everyone else.
This is the run down the hill that I will enjoy the most. This bike, with a longer wheel base, almost twice the suspension and weight, carries me down this hill so easily that I hardly have to work to stay on the trail. (My GT, by comparison, wants to fly off the trail and meet me at the bottom.) All I have to do is point this bike in the right direction and it will do the rest. While I have watched downhill races and seen the things people can do on bikes, I was still somewhat unconvinced that a bike really wants to travel over complex terrain so smoothly. But much like an airplane that wants to stay aloft, these downhill machines do these things because thatís what they are designed to do. Itís a beautiful thing.
I take the course at a moderate speed, moving smoothly over rocks that would have given me trouble on my own bike. I rumble lightly through the rock bed, cruise down the hill, and reach the other side of the saddle with little trouble. Over the top of the second peak and around the boulder, down again, hitting the switchbacks, I crisscross my way towards the bottom of the hill. I feel like a Formula I racer, even though I know I look like a Driverís Ed student trying to make it out of first gear and stalling the car that shakes and sputters.
I reach the bottom and head towards the staging area. No one can see the smile spread across my face because of the full-face helmet, or the excitement in my eyes because of the goggles. Amidst the rush of adrenaline and waves of satisfaction washing over me, I sigh to myself and wonder how Iím going to break it to my husband that I want to get another bikeÖ
Amidst the rush of adrenaline and waves of satisfaction washing over me, I sigh to myself and wonder how Iím going to break it to my husband that I want to get another bikeÖ
I ride over to her car and give up Carolynís bike, telling her itís time she upgraded and got a new one so she can sell me hers. She says that as soon as she can convince Colleen to upgrade and sell hers, the effect will trickle down and I can buy her bike.
The day winds down as the sun sinks lower on the horizon. We exchange information about the next bike race when weíll meet again, discuss the new components on one of the bikes, and talk about the course and the areas we all finally managed to conquer after several hours of practice. Finally itís time to load up and head home.
As I travel down the 15 Freeway towards San Diego, I think about the question I will inevitably be asked: ďWhy would you want to ride a bicycle down a mountain?Ē Hmmm. I suppose part of the attraction is the challenge, part of it is the satisfaction that comes from pushing your own limits, but mostly, like your favorite roller-coaster, itís just so fun.
For more information about the Southridge Races: www.southridgeusa.com
For more information about Mountain Bike Clinics for Women: www.medusabikeclinics.com
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