Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Single Orange Motorbike Seeks Ambulatory Tree for S&M Thrills

It was all going so well. Finally, I’d repaired the horrible mess I’d made of my linkage bearings, I had a brand new chain and sprockets, I’d done a victory lap around the driveway--all I needed to do to get my old Kawi race-ready was to replace that palpably fraying clutch cable. Never having done this before, I wasn’t sure where to begin. I couldn’t get enough play in it to detach it from the handlebar side, so I poked around at the end that connected to the clutch itself--no play there, either. The cable was held to a hook-shaped part of the engine case by a nut on either side of same, all caked in dirt and a little bit rusty. If I could get it out of there, I’d have all the slack I needed. I grabbed my 10mm spanner, hooked it on the nut nearest the case, and--


That was the case, I observe in horror, not the nut. The clutch cable is now dangling forlornly with a little, critical, aluminum hook stuck on the middle of it, and pulling the lever just makes it flail around a bit and exert no pull whatsoever on--well, whatever it’s supposed to pull on.

I sit back on my heels on the floor of Greg’s parents’ garage and do my best to neither set the bike on fire nor weep. I haven’t ridden the thing since Greg shattered his kneecap via the KTM and an uncooperative tree three weeks ago--all I want to do is get out in the woods on something motorized and pretend life is back to normal for an hour. Close but no cigar, I think, banging my head on my knees.

I hear the door to the house creak open, followed by the hesitant clunking of someone descending wooden stairs on crutches. Fabulous, I think. Now for some helpful, well-meaning salt on the wounds...

Sure enough, Greg informs me that I did not need to loosen those nuts at all, but that the cable would just slide out through them if I freed it from the clutch side and pulled it toward the handlebars. I can’t see how God himself could have freed the cable from either side without loosening the damn nuts first, but Greg’s tone of confidence suggests that he is one up on God in this instance, as in many, so I just keep my mouth shut. Then he says something I don’t expect:

“I’ll go online tonight and order new plastic for the KTM.” (The front fender and left radiator shroud had shattered simultaneously with his kneecap, but into considerably fewer pieces.) “You can put them on next weekend and ride it around the field.”

I turn and squint at the 250 XC apprehensively--it is lurking like a wounded tiger in the far corner of the garage. If Greg managed to whiskey-throttle it into a beech tree at bone-shattering velocities, heaven knew what I might do with it. I’d ridden it before, but that was on snow, where overenthusiastic throttle application did little besides dig you a hole. Nonetheless, I thought, you must do one thing every day that scares you--I’d been scared on Greg’s behalf rather more than that lately, so it was about time I got to be scared for me.

The next Sunday, freakishly clean plastic goes on the bike, followed shortly by me in freakishly clean gear. I kick the start lever and it revs to the stratosphere, filling the garage with blue smoke--but I don’t have the throttle cracked at all. I hit the kill switch, Greg and I inspect, coughing--and discover that the throttle cable is caught on the steering damper, stuck wide open. This, I think, unhooking it, is not very promising. Some experimental cranks of the handlebars show no signs of it re-sticking, so I waddle it in neutral a respectful distance from the garage and kick it again.

It purrs. Too delighted to remember to let it warm up, I make a beeline for the field.

It is late afternoon, calm winds, golden sun--the sort of weather more suitable for taking artful photographs of cows and silos than for frolicing dementedly through field and forest on something with a better power-to-weight ratio than a Ferrari Enzo. Nonetheless, dementedly frolicing is suiting me just fine, and all that power...really doesn’t suck. As I grow more familiar with how the bike handles, my laps around the field get faster and faster--the thing catches air for no reason and sets you back on the ground like it’s tucking you into bed. I go for a rear brake slide at one end of the field--the trials tire makes a slip-n-slide out of the long grass, but when I sit on the gas cap and think about going left, the bike cuts the funny business and goes left. In the 50-yard “woods section” of the field, I stand up and let the surreally perfect suspension soak up the uneven terrain, passing over the angled rut that almost ended my dirtbiking career in its second day like it wasn’t even there--so I repeat, faster, taking to the skies off the crest of the little hill as I re-enter the field.

After 15 minutes of this I am overwhelmed from sheer awe--suspension! hydraulic clutch! Rekluse! steering damper! rear brake! modern ergonomics!--and also in need of some water, as it is damned hot out. The last few rides I’d taken on the KDX, I ended with some wheelie attempts, never terribly successful--so before I head in, I get to a level part of the field, compress the forks with a cautious dip of my knees, and on the rebound, give a 1/16th turn of throttle--

It’s the fucking circus. I am a trials world master. At the end of the field, I come out of shock and put the front wheel down. As I turn back toward the house, my heart is racing and I feel guilty and confused and excited and apprehensive--yes, it’s love. Greg asks me how it went and I offer a reserved “AMAZING.” I park the bike back in its corner, thinking, “I had so much fun tonight. Maybe we could do this again sometime...”

Sometime comes the next week, when Greg and I brave a thunderstorm and drive the KTM to Bruce’s track. When the rain clears, Bruce leads me into the woods, where my old deal-breakers--the rocky hill, the rooty hill, the nasty vertical entry and exit from the muddy and rocky stream--disappear as if by magic beneath the wheels of the Austrian bike. After a couple laps of the track, Bruce takes me on a mini-Turkey Run on the logging roads and I experience top-end power for the first time on anything, ever. We head back so that Greg and I can get some dinner in the oven--Greg and I owe Bruce like a thousand dinners, for the record--but then, as we sip our beers on the porch, the sun comes out and Greg catches me staring wistfully in the direction of the woods.

“Get out there,” he says. He doesn’t need to tell me twice. I put on my soaked gear, and, as I’m wheeling the bike away from the trailer, I catch the look on Greg’s face and feel a pang of remorse. It really isn’t fair--him stuck on dry land with an agonizingly painful injury for another two months, and me off gallivanting with his bike...

This lingers in my mind as I face the rocky hill again, and this time it throws me. Still, on the second attempt, even with no momentum, the trials tire oozes right up. Halfway around the track, I see a strange light in the trees--something is coming toward me on the logging road. I slam on my brakes and spoil an almost-salvageable side slide by falling over on my own as I get off the bike. The strange lights are coming from a side-by-side--Bruce is driving and Greg is cheering, beer in hand. My next two laps are rock-solid--Greg and Bruce keep appearing at intervals on the logging road, and despite the return of the rain, the onset of dusk, and the deepening of the mud, the bike keeps climbing up and dancing through obstacles that foiled me every time in dry daylight on the KDX.

The magic is still working when I roll out to the Berlin track later in the week. That 180-degree off-camber turn that I used to crash on every lap? No longer an issue: not a wobble, not a slide, not a momentary sensation of imbalance. It’s weird. Greg times my laps from the car and starts to worry about me if I’m 10 seconds late. There are only two things left to do: take this thing to a Montshire Club ride, then race it.

Thursday night arrives, dreary but rideable. I ditch work early to tackle the Herculean task of loading the bike onto the rusted-out three-rail trailer by myself (in my defense, the bike is tall and I am not), then drive south to Roxbury. The trail of the week is a short, tight, twisting, two-mile woods loop, heavily populated at the moment by people who are a hell of a lot faster than me. Still, I’m a hell of a lot faster than me on this bike, so I buzz up the first hill feeling confident--overconfident, in fact. A quarter of the way through the first lap, I get cross-rutted in the mud, hit the gas to stay vertical, come into the next corner going much too fast--then the trail goes downhill without me. This trajectory, I calculate, will land me in that fir tree in approximately 1/10 of a second. NOT MY HEAD, I think--and hit the tree shoulder on, like in a football tackle. It doesn’t budge.  

On the ground, I use that initial period of wheezing to flail around like a beached octopus and make sure everything I want to move still moves. All systems are go, which, I conclude regretfully, means that I now have to stand up, walk all the way over there, bend over, pick up that bike, and drag it back up to the trail. I do so, feeling about 90 years old. I ride off sitting on the rear fender, as far away as possible from any trees that might suddenly jump out in front me. This has a disastrous effect on the grip of my front wheel in the mud, particularly as I am no longer moving fast enough in the dry spots to clear out my tires. After four laps of further crashing, I admit defeat and go back to the car.

The first person I recognize as I ride out of the woods is Dylan MacRitchie, one of the rising stars in the regional championship. Leaning against the back of someone’s truck, he squints from me to the KTM and back, as if he’s thinking, “Something’s wrong with this picture...”

“How’s his knee?” he asks as soon as I park the bike and take off my helmet (the former task takes about five minutes: apparently the Rekluse lets the bike roll down hills when it’s in gear). Dylan’s dad, Coop, helped me load up the bikes after Greg crashed, so Dylan probably heard all about it.

“Getting better,” I say. “He’s, what, two, three weeks out of surgery now, so he can put weight on it as long as he has his brace on, and he can get around pretty quick with his crutches. He’s actually supposed to show up here...” I glance around the steeply sloping field that’s serving as a parking lot, but there’s no sign of Greg or the automatic transmission Impreza he’s been borrowing from his mom.

“He’s still in a brace?” says Dylan. “A buddy of mine bent his leg around sideways and shattered his femur the weekend before, and he just got his cast off. He’s back on a mountain bike now.”

“Damn,” I say, “that’s impressive! No mountain bike for Greg until August, so the doctor says.”

At this point, the man himself pulls up in the blue Impreza. We hang around and chat until the bugs get bad and Greg’s knee starts hurting, then he leaves and I start to load up the bike. As I maneuver it towards the trailer, about five people gather around to lift the rail for me and generally keep the bike from falling on my head after I run it up. When the bike is stabilized, the woman who helped me with my tie-downs asks me what my skill level is.

“Lousy!” I say. “I first got on a bike probably a year ago this week.”

“Great!” she says. “We need more novice riders. Hopefully I’ll see you next Thursday--and watch out for shuffling elm in the meantime. The woods are full of it.”

“Shuffling elm...?” I ask, thinking back to high school biology and coming up empty.
She grins, and suddenly I get it and burst out laughing.

“Sage advice,” I say. “See you next week!”