Monday, August 4, 2014

Friday Night Antigravity

I don’t want to seem like a Negative Nancy, here, so please consider the following statement a testament, instead, to my unflinching realism and journalistic integrity: when you’re a newb, you don’t get many moments of unfettered joy and freedom on a dirt bike. That’s not to say riding while incompetent isn’t fun, because it is: however, it is also frequently slow, difficult, frightening, and painful. The upside of this is that, as your riding starts to improve and the level of bullshit you put yourself through begins to decrease, you surprise yourself with some transcendent experiences whose memories will comfort you in the nursing home (if you live that long).

Take the local club ride last Friday, for example. The July sun is already slanting golden over the mountaintops when Greg and I pull up to the track, a 5-mile beauty that climbs up and down the hillsides and valleys of a small Vermont farm. Seizing the remains of the day, we hit the trails at top speed, flying along narrow traverses across impossibly steep slopes, racing up power cuts and rear-brake sliding down twisting, tree-studded descents. After three laps, we come back to the truck for some water and find that our friends Nick and Sheryl have just arrived. Nick is a pro and takes off at warp speed while Greg, Sheryl and I head out together. I start behind Greg and ahead of Sheryl, betting that on this non-technical, frequently vertical track the raw power of my 250 two-stroke can keep pace with her 150 and far superior riding ability. She slips past me while I attempt one of the hero sections and disappears for good, the occasional distant ring-a-ding of the small bore scolding me for my overconfidence.

Nonetheless, I keep up the pursuit, testing my nerves in the tight, tree-lined sections and pinning it up the fast ascents. One hillclimb deep in the woods is heralded by a road sign nailed to one of the trees: “SPEED LIMIT 40 MPH.” I take this as a challenge. Another streaks skywards while traversing a steep, grassy slope: an accidental wheelie nearly sends me off the trail and down the bank. Keep your weight farther forward next time, I tell myself, wheelspin be damned. The ascent ends in a cambered turn, almost a wall ride, and dives back into the woods. They are airy and open, like a cathedral whose pillars are beeches and maples and whose leafy stained-glass ceiling streams with afternoon light. Too busy admiring the view, I tap a tree with a bark buster, panic and grab the front brake: the ground comes closer, pauses, then gets further away. It might have been a sweet stoppie if I hadn’t, at that point, panicked further and tried to jump off the bike.

I pass by the field where the car is parked and head out for a final lap, doing my best to stay on the pegs on the hillclimbs, lean it over in the corners, and jump some of the whoops. The last objective nearly yanks my arms out of their sockets on one attempt and bounces my sternum off my handlebars on the next. I’m gonna need some professional help with that one. However, the rest of the lap is smooth as silk, a blur of scenery, sunset and adrenaline. At one point, I pull over because the bike is behaving strangely: do I have a flat tire? No, I’m just going faster than usual, sliding the rear end around, blowing through the suspension travel and getting some harshness at the bottom of the stroke. Back on the bike, racing the fading light back to the car.

Have you ever had a dream where you could fly? If the layman doesn’t realize one thing about motorsports, I muse, clinging onto my machine for dear life as it accelerates like a space shuttle toward the setting sun, it’s that piloting a dirt bike is as close as you can get to having one of those flying dreams while awake. Total freedom, complete control, a temporary escape from gravity and all the boring realities that come with it.