Monday, March 18, 2013

The Amazing Newbie Rodeo Rides the GasGas

 In the forest there is a field, and in the field, there is parked a Honda Element. In it, there is dirt biking gear and a half-empty 12-pack of Long Trail, and perched on and around it are my best friends, Samantha, Collin, and Deb, and myself. Cold beers in hand, we are waiting. It is early evening, late June, with golden summer light slanting through the maple leaves and the long grass. 
 Our ears prick up as the high-pitched buzz of a two-stroke cuts through the woods to the north of us. Greg, my boyfriend, and a GasGas 200 enter the clearing in a crescendo of throttle and a wheelie.
Sam squints at me over her aviators and beer.
“Anna, your boyfriend is a showboat.”
His dark red curls haven't been suppressed at all by the helmet he's just removed, and he looks pretty good in a moto jersey and jeans.
I shrug. “Yes, well...”
Leaving the GasGas on its kickstand, Greg walks toward us, helmet outstretched like a peace offering.
“Alright, it's warmed up. Who's going first?”
The four of us civilians look at eachother.
“I'm out,” says Sam.
I look at Deb, who looks dubious. I look at Collin, who looks eager, but nonetheless waves a hand towards the bike as if he's holding a door for me: ladies first.
“Right,” I say.
I'm nervous. Later Sam and I will sip Switchback pints in McGillicuddy's and discuss this nervousness: “You really think Greg won't respect you if you don't learn to dirtbike?” she'll ask. “Yes—I mean, no,” I'll say. “I mean, since we have nothing in common, and frankly, given the income disparity, here... I mean, I need all the respect I can get, right?” “I certainly won't respect you if you PWN yourself and die over some ginger,” she'll say. “I won't PWN myself and die,” I'll say, unconvincingly.
I try not to think about PWNing myself and dying as I drop my jeans, put on knee guards, yank the jeans up, put on elbow guards, chest protector, Greg's boots—
“You should wear a long-sleeved shirt,” Greg calls from the midst of a conversation with Collin.
I stretch my UVM Rowing shirt over the gear, and buckle on one of the many helmets in the back of the Element.
“Ready,” I say.
I feel undignified, and suspect that I look like the Elephant Man disguised as a Power Ranger. Collin bursts out laughing when he sees me.
“The shirt could have gone on first...” suggests Greg.
“Too bad,” I say.
Greg leads me to the bike, and I awkwardly swing a leg over—my sweaty jeans, stretched over kneepads and stuffed into Greg's too-large, outrageously heavy moto boots, don't allow for much range of motion, and the GasGas is far too tall for me. I can't get a toe to the ground once I'm on, so Greg holds the handlebars steady as he lists the controls.
They're familiar enough, as I have my motorcycle license—but not that familiar, as the motorcycle I got the license for hasn't turned over since my grandfather died 15 years ago. Sam, Collin and I had to load it into the back of Collin's '97 Subaru Legacy to get it from my uncle's garage in New Hampshire to my mom's basement in Vermont. It fit, yes—it's a little antique two-stroke, a '72 Yamaha DS7, and none of the myriad things I've learned from taking it apart are helping me as I pull in the clutch of the GasGas and flail ineptly at the kick start lever.
“These boots weigh a thousand pounds,” I complain.
“Better than breaking your ankle,” says Greg. “Never ride without boots and a helmet.” Then, after consideration: “And gloves. And knee pads. And a jersey.”
On the fifth kick, the GasGas screams to the top of its rev range.
“Easy,” says Greg. “The throttle's really sensitive...” It idles down. “Start letting out the clutch, just until it starts to engage... Now give it a little gas...” He runs along beside me as the machine jerks forward. “Make a big circle around the field—eyes up! Don't watch the car or you'll hit it. Watch where you want to go.”

I make counterclockwise circles, to weak applause from my friends. Greg runs back to the Element, opens a beer, waves me on.
The throttle is a terror and the suspension is amazing. It's like riding the hideous offspring of an unbroken thoroughbred, a mountain bike, and a sofa. I also can't figure out how to make it turn.
“Eyes UP!” Greg calls again. “And sit forward! Further—like, balls on the gas cap! You want to have some weight on the front wheel, so it'll bite when you turn.”
The bike feels top-heavy and uncooperative going anywhere but straight—but then it's magic. I crack the throttle and yell with delight as the rear wheel spins in the slick grass, finds traction, and launches me across the field back toward the Element.
“Try standing up!” Greg calls. “Now point your elbows up, like this! Chin over the handlebars... Now make a figure eight and go the other way!”
I make it through half of the eight, but on the second corner, I give it too much throttle and fall over.
I pick up the machine, which feels much heavier than it looks, make a few more loops, have a couple more falls, then hand it over to Collin so I can catch my breath. For a bike without pedals, it provides a hell of a workout.
Collin is wearing a brown, button-down sheriff shirt that he found in a thrift store, and with the gear on, sitting on the GasGas, he looks like a 21st century Road Warrior. I rejoin Sam and Deb in the grass by the Element, open a beer and lean back on a hubcap to watch.

“How was it?” Deb asks.
“Well, the gear is epic,” I report. “Falling doesn't feel like anything.”
Collin's lesson seems to be going much more smoothly than mine. He's standing on the footpegs, elbows up, not frying the clutch to keep from launching into the treetops like I was, but actually applying controlled amounts of throttle... Greg trots after him, gesturing; Collin nods, makes changes.
“Has he ridden motorcycles before?” I ask Sam.
“No, Collin's just... like that with machinery.”
After ten minutes of very tidy circles and figure eights, Collin stops the bike in front of us.
“Sam?” he says, voice muffled by the helmet.
“Not my thing,” she says.
Deb gets up.
“Why not?” she sighs.
Gear is exchanged, then Deb starts the bike with the first kick.
“Oh yeah!” she yells over the revs, grinning.
After Greg's introduction, the bike glides forward. Deb sits up with her back as straight as a board, elbows tucked in to her sides—of course. She's used to riding horses.
“Get those elbows up! Higher!” says Greg.
“Ugh,” says Deb. “Like this...?”
“More! Like—like a cartoon! Yes! Perfect!”
Deb's circles get faster and faster—she's really taking to it—
“Whoa—” we all begin, and she tips over.
“Are you okay?” Sam and I call.
Deb jumps to her feet and hauls the bike up after her. She gets back on, completes her figure eight, does a few more laps of the field in the other direction, and returns to the Element, victorious.

“Alright, Anna,” says Greg, “do you want to try the single track?”
I really don't. I can barely keep the bike within the confines of a half-acre field devoid of obstacles, let alone keep it within the confines of a zigzagging, hilly trail as wide as the handlebars with rocks and trees on either side. Visions of compound fractures dance in my head.
“Sure,” I say. “What's the worst that could happen?”
I crash before I even get to the trail, then two more times before I get to the first hill.
“Here, just let me kick start it for you—” Greg says.
“I've got it,” I snap.
I don't. The boots get heavier with each kick. When I finally get a spark, I roll the bike down the steep incline with the clutch in and the brake on. But this part is just like mountain biking—I stand up with my butt over the rear fender and let it have more speed.
“Good!” I hear Greg say, running along behind me.
The trail flattens out, then hooks sharply to the right, up the other side of the little valley—
“Gas!” yells Greg. “More gas!”
Too late. It stalls halfway up and I tip over.
Greg lifts the bike before I can even lift myself up, offers me a hand, and says,
“Let me ride it back to the Element. You need more field time.”
“Fine,” I say through my teeth, ignoring the hand.
Greg zips off effortlessly and I stomp after him, dripping sweat and feeling murderous. I vow revenge on the GasGas, and on Greg's size-1000 plutonium-reinforced boots, and my jeans, which were apparently manufactured by a straightjacket company...
Another beer puts me in a better mood, as does Collin's refusal to try the single track next. That would have made things really embarrassing. We drive back to the barn where the trailer is parked, load up the bike, drop my friends off downtown, then Greg and I take the GasGas back to his parents' house a few exits up the interstate.
“Maybe next weekend you can ride it in the field here,” he says as he unhooks the tie-downs. “I mean, if you want to. You certainly don't have to if it doesn't interest you.”
Like shit I don't have to, I think, giving the bike the hairy eyeball as it disappears into the garage.
“I'd love to,” I call.
On the ride back to town, I lean out the open window as the sun sets and imagine myself taming the bike, miraculously, just like in all those dumb chapter books when the orphan tames the wild stallion and wins the Kentucky Derby.
When next weekend comes, I tame the bike and get my promised revenge by sending it backflipping into a tree—unfortunately, I neglect to let go of it first. Woman and machine somersault out of the foliage, bounce to a stop in the field, and I army-crawl over to kill the engine before the full-body ache of high-speed impact has a chance to set in. I'm lying on the ground writhing and hissing when Greg catches up to me.
“You went lumberjacking,” he observes. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I wheeze, and attempt to sit up. It doesn't go well—I seem to have become a giant bruise.
“Are we done for the day?” Greg asks.
I grunt.
He picks up the bike for me as I complete the arduous task of standing.
“Oh, shit—you broke my radiator... Yep, we're done for the day.”
“Sorry,” I say, viciously. “I'll buy you a new one.”
Greg pushes the GasGas back to the garage, and I hobble after, swearing inwardly. This, I think to myself, is the dumbest hobby mankind has invented, short of stamp collecting, cooking meth, and baseball. Nonetheless, as soon as that radiator's fixed, I'm gonna show that miserable bike who's boss.

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