Monday, September 24, 2007

Fyr in the Forest

Don't forget that 'Zilla posted over the weekend - go here or just scroll down past my ramblings to check him out.

When I was 9 years old, my Dad, brother and I were at a friend of my Dad's house, out in the country. Jerry, my Dad's friend, lived on a few acres near the golf course, and he prepared his ATV for my brother and I to take turns riding while he and Dad relaxed on the porch over beers. My experience to this point in life with riding an ATV was absolutely none. So it was all new and exciting and slightly dangerous and exhilarating. We rode, of course, without helmets or gear or anything like that - just two kids in shorts and t-shirts who got stuck going with Dad to visit some dude, only to be rewarded with riding around on an ATV. How supremely cool.

During one of my brother's rides, he took off down a gravel road that splintered left into a short loop. If you took the loop clockwise, you rode with a steep gulley on your left, separated from the road by a barbed-wire fence and dropping pretty abruptly into a significant, steep hillside covered in wild, thick brush and thorny brambles. If you rode the loop counter-clockwise, then you'd approach this prairie-cliff head-on as you wound your way around the loop and back to the gravel road to return to home. On this particular ride, my brother had taken the counter-clockwise route, and returned out of breath. "Oh my God dude that is so scary do not do it."
"Really?" I asked, intrigued. "Why?"
He reached his other leg over the seat to dismount. "Because that cliff is right in front of you and you're driving right into it before you turn. It's really scary don't do it."
I don't think I said anything, just got on the ATV with, of course, every intention of demonstrating what a fantastic wuss my brother was and how brilliant I was, now a wise and experienced rider with 30, maybe 40 minutes of hard earned mileage behind me. Danger, after all, is my middle name.

So I careened down the gravel road, wind in my hair, skinny, all-knees-and-elbows frame bouncing atop the giant machine. I approached the loop, took an abrupt left, my knobby tires biting dirt and spraying it away (how cool!). Immediately I leaned right into the loop, then left as it curved, and was suddenly staring down, I realized with some immediacy, a hillside that was much steeper than it had looked, a curving road that was much sharper than I thought it might be, and a barbed-wire fence approaching much faster than it should have been.

You've known all along how this would go: I ripped through the barbed-wire fence, its jagged edges piercing into me then digging as I pulled the rusty wires taught against their old fence-posts, then dragging the wires with me as they finally broke free. The machine dove almost straight down, throwing me head first in front of it, and I landed in some kind of awkward roll onto all kinds of prickly nature. I somersaulted over and over down the angry hillside while the machine toppled behind me end over end, each as stupidly helpless as the other. I remember, when I came to some version of a stop on my back, looking up and a beat later seeing the hulking ATV flying over top of me, somehow not crushing me, moving with frightening velocity through the air and tumbling further down the hillside before finally coming to a clattering stop somehow rightside up. I was stunned, staring up at blue sky through a bed of thorns, and for a moment I think I just lay there, wide eyed and terrified, before finally bursting into a high drama explosion of cries and hiccups and yelps as Holy Shit I Just Totally Wiped Out Did You Guys See That Dad Dad Dad!!!!!! I screamed the gibberish of a hurt and frightened 9-year old.

I remember the 3 of them barrelling down the hilliside after me, and feeling relief that they saw me wreck, that I wouldn't be left here all alone to die of my wounds or be eaten by wolves or whatever horrifying fate might await the Victim of a Huge Accident such as me. "Dad ow it hurts geez Dad seriously it hurts I'm not kidding seriously Dad", feeling like I had to prove to him in case the visual aid of my demonstration wasn't enough that really, something scary just happened. And he arrived first and picked me up quickly and suddenly and without regard for my weight, the way Dads do, and carried me to safety. Probably the dramatic cliff (still quite steep in my present mind's eye) was a more gradual slope than a sheer drop off, probably I'd rolled a few times and not several hundred, probably the ATV was not due to explode any second like any wrecked vehicle does on The Dukes of Hazzard after such an impressive plunder. Dad had me back on the road and on my feet in no time, looking into my face with real concern but knowing if I was this noise-some and animated that probably I was going to live. I did not, in my 9-year-old mind, however, exaggerate the very real fence I busted through, the very violent fall I'd experienced, or the very sharp bed of thorny brush I'd just rolled around in. I was a bloody, punctured mess. But while that hurt - and it hurt for awhile - when I think back on the whole experience, it's the fear that sticks with me. Just the fear of helplessly falling, of not knowing what I was falling into, of losing control of the whole experience like I did.

It is not unlike a major descent on the bike.

And that irony is not lost on me.

My brother did, and does to this day, remind me what a moron I was.

It was not the first or last time I'd subjected myself to more than I was sufficiently capable of. Which is all of it prelude to: Hey. This is how I roll.


So last week I googled "mountain biking Wisconsin" looking for somewhere, anywhere, to take my bike. I don't know anything about mountain biking except it looks like fun. But I wouldn't know a good trail from a crap trail. I know that I wasn't looking for a pleasantly paved day-ride kind of thing, and I wasn't looking for old rail beds, which are now frequently used for moutain bike trails - those are all relaxing Sunday afternoon joyrides and I was looking for a Mountain Dew commercial. Finally I found what appeared to be something promising at Kettle Moraine State Forest, only about 45 minutes East of me. So Friday night I got all my gear organized, overpacked every "just in case" thing I could think of into a small backpack to keep with me on the bike, then googled whatever basics I could on mountain biking, including appropriate air pressures, general strategies, avoiding catastrophe, whatever. When Saturday morning came I loaded up my mountain bike Fyr and left the house about 7:30, arriving at the park and getting ready to get on Fyr by 8:30.

I discovered that it is, in fact, a moutain biking park. I believe you hike on the trail, too, if you go the opposite way, but it's generally dedicated for biking. Which I thought was pretty cool. As I was getting my gear and bike ready to go, I was surrounded by other bikers dotting the parking lot, all in various stages of preparedness. There was a shelter a little ways off the parking lot, sponsored-in-part by Trek, and I thought that was a good sign. A good sign for what, I still didn't know. Ironically, later than same day I read a snippet in my National Geographic Adventure magazine about Kettle Moraine, and how it's "the best mountain biking in the midwest." Sweet!

The park has several trails of varying distances and degrees of difficulty, the most difficult of which - meant for "experienced" or "advanced" riders - was the blue trail. Number of times I've actually ridden my mountain bike on anything remotely rugged: zero. Can you guess which trail I chose? Of course I did. Which I remind you is not out of any kind of, y'know, arrogance or something, because I don't have that well a sense of myself and as often as not the whole thing backfires and I have to go back to baby steps anyway. I just like to define my boundaries from the outside in: Where is more difficult than I can handle? Let's work our way back from there. ie: let's poke a sleeping lion to see how pissed off he really gets, rather than quietly approach him to see if he gets pissed off at all. Much more efficient.

So I head out on the blue trail, morning air cool but comfortable, the sun shining hard and bright.

And it was awesome.

Seriously, I had no idea what to expect. I assumed it would be fun, and I assumed it would be difficult. I had no idea how much of each the day had in store. The trail is single-track, which (I know now) means what it suggests - meant for a single bike at a time. It's rich with tight turns, steep inclines, and rocky descents. The trail is mosty dirt, sometimes a kind of sand, and very often totally strewn with rocks; some jagged and angular, many others round and worn. It traverses deep and old forest, and roots criss-cross the trail frequently. The terrain is difficult and interesting and really, really cool.

I had meant to shoot some video...but forgot to swap in a larger memory card into my camera. I meant to shoot lots of pictures...but none of these translate. I can only take so many "see the trail disappearing into the forest" before you get it...but pictures can't really justify this adventure. In fact, it's not something you really picture at all, mountain biking, so much as experience. As it turned out, I had hardly any opportunity to take a picture anyway, much less look around for fun places to shoot them. I know I was surrounded by forest, I could smell the pine and once in awhile glimpse how high and huge some of these trees are, but generally my attention was on the immediate 3 feet in front of me, navigating through rocky terrain or avoiding some calamity or another. I did take this shot which is particuarly amusing for me because I'm looking ahead at a sharp left turn that had just suddenly appeared, covered in jagged rocks and bumpy roots for which I'll really, really need this photo-shooting hand in about two more seconds...

It had rained hard the night before, and while the trail was so well protected that it was mostly dry, there were a few muddy puddles here and there. At first I approached these with the conditioned mind of a road cyclist - "Avoid the water whenever possible." Then I rode through a puddle or two and, I'm ashamed to say, had this reaction: "Ew! Dammit, mud everwhere!" Like some prissy pretty fancyboy. In my defense, it still comes from being a road cyclist. Finally, though, as I approached a particularly long and deep mudbath, I said aloud, "You're on a mountain bike you idiot. Get dirty." And once I liberated myself from any kind of concern, the real fun began.

The Blue loop is about 7.5 miles long, and on my first lap I really was clueless. For awhile I was just so exhilarated to be out there, to be having so much fun, that I wasn't really thinking strategically about how to ride, or what to do. Countless times I barely unclipped in time to catch myself before some kind of crash or fall, if not into the ground than into an approaching tree. A few times I was glad my pedals are reversible - with clips on one side and platforms on the other - so that I could quickly ride with my feet alongside, like ski poles. The descents were always a ton of fun, as I'd try and define the sharp edge between exhilaration and fear.

I wound up my first lap and headed to my car to shed some of the long sleeves and replenish some Gatorade, and as I rode out, all muddy and dirty, I noticed the other riders just arriving, and felt like a cool kid. "Yup, tough trails out there today," I'd say to the guy parked next to me as I lifted my tail-gate, like I had any clue what a tough trail was. "Little bit of mud, huh?" Another would say and I'd tilt my head a bit, confused, then replay casually, "Oh this?" acknowledging my chocolatey legs like this ain't nothin! "Oh yeah, guess there's a puddle or two out there!" What a tool.

I headed out for my second lap, this time feeling like some kind of old pro. The trail was busier now, and once or twice a rider would have to quickly deflect to the right to let me pass, or I'd do the same for the guys behind me. I worried that maybe it would get packed now as mid-morning approached, but I stayed generally alone all day. Those that I did meet were all seemingly nice people - I don't have any idea what the mountain bike culture is like, but I didn't experience anything unkind.

There's a note somewhere on the park's literature that the blue "difficult" or "advanced" trail is meant relative to the other trails in the park not to mountain bike trails in general. Which is probaby true - I found this trail just challenging enough. Difficult, at times more difficult than I could manage, but never undoable. I imagine mountain biking - out west somewhere I suppose, is a whole other animal.

I felt myself taking the second loop for granted - flying through stretches that last time I picked through carefully. I felt this getting out of hand and again had to remind myself I was not on a road bike, where the object is to get there as fast as you can. The whole point I was out there was to just enjoy it, so as I was convincing myself to slow down and enjoy it I twisted around a particularly gnarly (and gnarly is a great word for mountain-biking) turn, covered in roots and rocks, and totally lost control of my bike. I didn't fall, but did end up somehow with my left foot still clipped in, dragging the bike behind me as I violently hopped on my right leg down the trail, trying not to fall on my head. Somewhere in that process I slammed the edge of my left hand against something, and it's still hurting two days later. After that I relaxed again, slowed down, and just enjoyed the new experience.

A few things I learned:

• Mountain biking is deceptively difficult. That mountain biking might be difficult might seem obvious, but if you watch it on TV or in magazines or something, it doesn't really look difficult. I don't mean the crazy tricks and jumping, just riding on a trail. When I was done with my day, about 15 miles in 2.5 hours, I felt totally wiped out. I was mentally fatigued like I am after a 4 or 5 hour road ride. My legs were totally thrashed and they felt thick and alien the next day. But also, my arms were tired, my core was tired. Everything is always working to control the bike. It's a hell of a workout.

• I saw several instances where I was able to apply a direct relationship between mountain biking and improving on the road bike. Besides the obvious fitness advantages, you learn a lot about balance, and boundaries, and limits. It's great for mental toughness because you cannot relax, for even a second. For 2.5 hours I was intently focused, the one time I rode into a kind of meadow and stopped to look around and daydream a second I nearly crashed into an unexpected rock jutting out of the ground. You can also learn some bike handling skills that I think can be applied generally.

• While you do go more slowly to pick your way through the terrain, you're always exerting force on the pedals. Going uphill can be really treacherous as your tires grasp for purchase on anything, and you have to precariously balance and still move ahead. In fact, on both laps this particularly difficult climb kicked my ass and I was relegated to walking my bike up - not because I was physically unable to pedal up the incline or anything, but as a matter of inertia; once I was stopped the hill was too steep and rugged for me to get going again.

• To that point, tires really matter. I think mine aren't knobby enough or something, because a few times I was applying more torque to my rear wheel than it could grip on the road, and it'd skid over the steep hillside instead of grab it and I'd be left screwed.

• One reason that Camelbacks are so popular on mountain bikes is because you really have very few opportunities to take one hand off your bike in order to drink. Another is that my Gatorade bottles were covered in mud, and I'd have to stop in order to wipe them off and get a drink.

This picture doesn't really do the mud was really pretty thick and pretty everywhere.

So it was an incredible blast, and I had so much fun I can't wait to go out and do it again. When I was all done and taking off my shoes at my car, getting ready to go hose down my bike and myself (there's even a hose at Kettle Moraine specifically for washing down bikes - that's pretty cool) - this guy, also ending his day, said to me, "Well, I can definitely tell I haven't been on a mountain bike in two years." "Yeah?" I asked, "Why's that?" "Ugh," he replied as he placed his bike on the mount attached to his SUV. "Hitting every rock and root out there. It was ridiculous."

You're not supposed to hit the rocks and roots? Cuz...uh...I was aiming for them.

Live and learn, I guess.


And On Sunday...

I rocked inline skates for the first time ever. Holy CRAP is that hard! Who knew!?!? More to come on the sordid tales of me on roller skates...


Team Brazo said...

Very, very cool -- I'm there. Just need to purchase the rest of Team BRAZO's bikes. That sounds so fun - I've been looking forward to this ever since signing up for IronMan last year. Awesome!!

SandyDave said...

Great post about the mountain biking. I am a long-time mountain biker and recent convert to road triathlon. As much as I love to ride my tri bike (I have the same Specialized blue Transition), I still prefer my mountain bike. You should definitely keep at it, the more you do it the better you'll get and the more fun it will be. You'll also have to do an Xterra Triathlon sometime. I did the Xterra Mountain Championships in Ogden, UT in 2006 and it was a blast.

xt4 said...

Hey sandydave - yes, XTerra is absolutely on my radar for next season sometime. Good luck with triathlon!!!

Michael Anderson said...

Sounds exhilarating! Fun to see you set Fyr to the hills.

JekuL said...

I pulled out my mountain bike for the first time this weekend too. What a pleasant change from dodging cars on the road. I'm hoping to get good enough to try an Xterra this summer...if I can find one in the upper midwest, know of any yet? I've also found it much harder to clip into mtb pedals than road...what style do you have?

xt4 said...

I know there was an XTerra race this year in Muskegon, Michigan - about 5 hours from Madison. That's about as close as I think there was in '07, but I don't know if it repeats on '08 or what.

RunBubbaRun said...

Yeah buddy, that place is pretty tough to go around. Actually ran around those same trails..

Now you got me inpsired to get my specialized mountain bike ready to rock and roll as well..

Xterra for '08!!! yeahh..