Monday, July 14, 2014

Revenge of the GravityBike!!!

This summer, since my boyfriend Greg is at least mostly recovered from the knee injury he sustained last May, we’ve been on the mountain bikes a lot. I grew up bicycling and have a temporary and unfair advantage in leg strength, so weekday-afternoon mountain biking has been a nice ego boost for me after Greg kicks my ass on the dirt bike every weekend. Pedaling up the enormous hills behind our apartment and back down again over slow, gnarly single track, I keep a comfortable lead on him, though as his leg gets stronger, he’s been gaining on me. He also noticeably decreases my lead on steep descents, where the bike behaves most like a motorbike—so it was with a sense of resignation that I finally brought him downhill mountain biking with me at Mount Snow Ski Resort in southern Vermont.

Last summer, the editor of Trail Rider Magazine probably thought it would be funny to invite me along on a “downhill hare scramble” here with a bunch of professional and near-professional dirt bikers. I spent most of that day in terrified solitude, rattling down the slopes many minutes behind my comrades. Among the faster individuals, the level of competition (and resultant level of chaos) was such that the guys in the bike rental shop remembered our group when I returned a year later. When I told them my main ride was a dirt bike, they asked if I knew that group of riders and if I could get them to come back, because they were entertaining to watch. I said Yes, I knew them, and I’d see what I could do.

Mt Snow, 2013. Much to my regret, I forgot to bring a chest protector this time. Photo credit: Kevin Novello

Dressed conspicuously in head-to-toe moto gear and skate shoes, Greg and I rode the ski lift with our rented full-suspension machines to the top of the mountain. I start off in the lead, but within three runs, it’s clear that I’m getting in Greg’s way. Following behind him, I see that he pulls away from me in the corners, be they bermed or flat, and is much more comfortable on the frequent small jumps that punctuate our chosen trail. Rarely having had the chance to get air on a bicycle, I find the sensation foreign and frightening. It’s hard to grip the skinny frame with your knees, so how are you supposed to keep your feet on the pedals? How does one control whether the machine falls nose up or nose down, if not by dabbing the rear brake or cracking the throttle? The boyfriend, now a smudge of dust several switchbacks away, has either found the answers or never needed to ask the questions.

During one of the increasingly rare runs when he lets me start ahead of him, Greg gets a front row seat to my first major crash: I decide that my habitual nose-down landing positions are caused by insufficient takeoff speed, so I scope out a safe-looking transfer jump at the entry to an uphill hairpin and hit it as fast as I can. The apex of the turn rapidly passes under my bike and I turn my handlebars downhill in an attempt to stay on the trail. Too much, too late: when the front tire hits the ground (first, again), the rest of the bike keeps going straight and catapults me over the bars. I drag my bike off the trail as soon as I slide to a stop, then sit moping in the tall grass like Eeyore as I wait for respiratory function to return. While I’m wheezing, two guys on expensive non-rented bikes fly past without even a glance in my direction. Are bike people jerks, I wonder, or are moto people just the salt of the earth? Greg, having allowed the bike pros to pass him, pulls up beside me a few seconds later. I let him go ahead, then carry on at one fifth of my former speed. Everything is going to be sore tomorrow.

On the chair lift, I examine the photographic imprint of my crash landing site on my stomach and consider that my strategy for the day needs revising. I’ll stop worrying about keeping up with Greg and start trying to loosen up, have fun, and find some flow. Greg, meanwhile, is psyching himself up to try some of the mountain’s wooden “features”—essentially horizontal ramps to nowhere that let you catch significant air before landing on a downhill portion of the trail. On the upper part of the track, I focus on looking through each corner as I would on a dirt bike, rather than target-fixating on the rocks at the apex. I find that the trail flows better when I bunny-hop off some of its rocky outcroppings, and I slowly get a sense for how the bike behaves in the air. On the approach to a big tabletop, I give the pedals a stomp to compress the suspension like I would on a dirt bike, rather than trying to preload the fork with my arms as I’d been doing until that point. The bike pops off the lip of the jump and I land it nose up: one mystery solved! 

When I reunite with Greg at the line for the chairlift, I find that he has been victorious over the wooden ramps, and I see this firsthand when I follow him on the next run. With the added acceleration from flying frictionlessly through the air, he is now even faster than me than before. This is getting embarrassing. I begin pedaling like heck on the straightaways, and thus going bigger on the tabletops without really noticing it. Greg says that on each of our last couple runs, I got 10 seconds closer to keeping up with him—which probably put me back at the same pace I was going before I went bodysurfing off the transfer jump. Hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Shamelessly changing out of our sweat-soaked gear in the parking lot, we decide to come back for a full day of riding before the end of the summer. With its full suspension, gravitational propulsion and twitchy handling, the downhill mountain bike is an excellent training tool for dirt biking. It enforces good body position in the turns and in the air, provides a surprisingly brutal workout, and, of course, allows you to make stupid mistakes without the added risk of a 220-pound motorcycle landing on your head. Maybe the next time we venture up the slopes, I’ll hit those ramps to nowhere too.