When I transferred into the QA shop in 1989 I got my first glimpse at mountain bikes or rather into mountain biking. I had seen them around of course, but being an inveterate road biker I never understood the appeal of riding bicycles on trails and dirt roads.
My boss, Chief Master Sergeant Lutes, was a "boy into his toys,” things like cameras, crossbows, and mountain bikes. Whenever anything struck his fancy, he REALLY got into it. For instance, one camera wasn’t enough for him. He had untold numbers of them and that included even more lenses. He never went anywhere without at least one camera and two lenses. His trademark was his camera vest. With his penchant for weightlifting he looked like an outsized National Geographic photo guy.
A single hobby was not enough for Gerald Lutes, or even two for that matter. In his typical fanatical style, he soon became every bit as passionate about his mountain bikes as for his cameras. Before long, he had a collection of bikes too, and on weekends would take them all over Northern Arkansas to ride the trails. Naturally, he combined his two passions so that along with his skintight biking shorts he also wore a camera vest bulging with camera stuff.
At first, I just listened to his “ravings” feigning interest. After a while though, he dragged me into it; not into the camera stuff mind you, but inevitably, thanks to his constant badgering, I too became a mountain bike enthusiast. It didn't happen overnight though.
Less than a year after joining the ranks of the group's QA inspectors, I ended up doing 7 months in Southwest Asia, doing my part as a military cog in the war machines of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When I returned, things had changed drastically in the quality world. One of the pleasant changes for me was the onset of a much less intense environment. This gave those of us in the QA shop more casual time. I loved it and adjusted to it easily. (Yes, I AM being facetious. "Adjusted" is an understatement!)
One day the chief brought in a couple of his mountain bikes and during a break he demonstrated how he could easily peddle into and out of the alarmingly steep six-foot deep concrete drainage channels out behind our building. He bade me to hop on a bike and try it out. At first I felt foolish when I pushed the gear shift levers forward into “granny gear,” the lowest of the mountain bike gears, because I was peddling like crazy and yet the bike was barely moving.
I changed my mind about it being ridiculous though, when I steered the bike down into the smooth-sided channel and was easily able to peddle right back up the other side of the steeply angled ditch. That was the moment I became hooked and the beginning of my two-year love affair with the sport.
Before long, I figured it was time to splurge on a mountain bike of my own. So, I went to a bike shop, and wouldn't you know, I bought the WRONG dang bike. I should have brought someone along who knew something about them, but I didn't. I ended up purchasing a "hybrid," which has the half-assed characteristics of both mountain bikes and street bikes.
The problem is that my hybrid wasn't so great on off-road trails OR on pavement, but to its credit it WAS able to handle both, just not very well. For one thing it was too heavy, I suppose because I didn't splurge enough--the super lightweight bikes are made of expensive alloys and I just opted not to do it. The other problems were not so obvious, but would soon make themselves known, and painfully so.
The lesson, or one of them, I was to soon learn is: If you want something or someone to do something "special" then go for the "specialist;" but, as the saying goes, "Live and learn;" and Oh boy, did I ever learn!
The very next weekend after my acquisition I went riding on the base perimeter trail with another sergeant from my shop, Rich Fucci, a fellow avionics inspector. He had an honest-to-God mountain bike, or at least more so than my half-assed hybrid. On the rough dirt roads and single-track trails he easily out rode me on it. Trailing him, I felt hugely unskilled and decidedly unhappy.
I didn't get it. I knew I was strong and in better aerobic shape. I could out-run Rich in a foot-race, and on a road surface I had more endurance than he did peddling a street bike; but riding over rocks and rills on these big-tired heavy-duty mountain bikes I was sadly unable to keep up, and that was maddeningly frustrating for a competitive madman like me.
My aggravation soon took a turn for the worse when my foray into the world of mountain biking almost ended just as it was starting. A narrow stream passed through the southeast corner of the base and a 60-foot section of the dirt road fell steeply down to it. Rich stood on his pedals and glided down the dusty rough track, easily avoiding all of the extra-nasty sharp rocks and precarious ruts.
I paused at the top of the daunting drop-off to watch his downhill technique. He made it look relatively effortless and he said as much from where he waited far below, looking up at me by the edge of the creek. After his words of encouragement, I began my descent and hoped for the best.
Ten feet after letting go the brakes I was in bad trouble. I was hopelessly out of control and crashing seemed certain, especially as my speed increased shockingly. Near the bottom was a patch where the rocks became more plentiful and larger. They went from occasional potato-sized stones near the top to stacks of ham-sized small boulders near the bottom.
Too late, I desperately pulled both brakes, but doing so put me into a position over my handlebars that made me feel even more unstable. Changing direction to avoid the worst of the rocks and ruts seemed impossible—I felt I had no control over the steering—the bike and the hill were now in charge.
I held on for dear life knowing that I was way over my head and waited for the inevitable with great foreboding. In a matter of seconds, it happened; it might have been a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, but regardless, I crashed, and it was every bit as bad as I had envisioned.
It might be clichéd to say so, but as the crash unfolded, time slowed to a crawl, and right when I would have preferred that it speed up so that it would all be over with! One of life’s little ironies the way that works.
Clattering in a vibrating rush down the deeply-rutted rocky trail, I managed to make it to within 20 yards of the creek bed when my bike, operating under the anthropomorphic principle of “a mind of its own,” spitefully jammed its front wheel between two large rocks, causing it to abruptly stop. Physics doing what it does, my back wheel was compelled to continue its onward travel, resulting in it flipping up and over its partner to the front.
Just in case you forgot, I still had a roll in this mini-drama, and taking my cue from gravity and momentum, my body, unmindful of any input from my well-intentioned yet paralyzed brain, tumbled over the handlebars in an awkward midair forward roll. If only I were a cat I would have sensed my position in the air and twisted my body to lessen the painful effects of my hard "single point" landing. Alas, what actually happened is that I thudded into and skidded across the rock-strewn ground like a sack of Idaho potatoes--the extra big ones. I heard my body slam into the rocky ground more than felt it.
As the impact dust settled and as both “up” and “down” resumed their normal aspects, the two of us, my bicycle and me, lay stricken on our sides. We made the expected aftermath sounds, with me gasping and groaning while my bike's rear wheel ticked slowly around to a stop.
Rich dropped his bike to the ground and scrambled up to me to find out how bad the damage was. He called out concernedly: “PJ, are you all right? Man, that was ugly!”
I couldn’t answer immediately, my breath was knocked out, not to mention that pain was then flooding into those areas of my body where it had just been cruelly traumatized by its punishing reception with rock and earth. There had been little pain during impact, only a slamming sensation; but as awareness came round so did nerve endings.
My right hand was the worst; two fingers oozed blood; they felt broken or badly sprained, as did my right wrist. The rest of my body was just bruised and bloody, nothing serious. The real damage was to my ego and confidence. At that moment mountain biking didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. Between groaning breaths I told Rich exactly that.
Ignoring my remarks, he righted my bike and looked it over declaring, “Your bike looks okay. These things are tough, you know? As long as you didn’t break any bones you should be able to keep riding it.”
With sarcasm stemming from pain and humiliation I answered, “Oh yeah? Ya think?”
He paused, “You know, I believe I know your problem. I didn’t want to say anything before, but now, after what I just saw…”
“Really, what?” I bid him to continue, hoping he had “the answer.”
“You’re out of balance, especially going downhill. The seat is too far forward and too high, plus, your handlebars are not high enough. Once you get all that fixed you’ll feel a lot better trying to ride down these steep trails.”
He was right. After I determined that nothing was broken (too badly) we continued to ride the perimeter trail. At the next downhill track he asked me to ride his bike so I could see what he was talking about.
What a difference! With my body weight lower and further over the back tire, along with the higher handlebars, I felt in total control. I was actually able to steer rather than just being along for the ride.
That week I made a trip to the bike shop and bought everything needed to modify my crappy hybrid into a semblance of a real off-roader, although it was always going to be too heavy. There was nothing to do about its weight except to get a new bike, but after putting over $400 into my “piece of crap” I decided to go with it for a while.
Soon, thanks to Rich Fucci's advice, I became pretty good at that mountain biking stuff. After all, you can hold a "natural" athlete back for only so long before inherent ability comes to the fore. Yeah, right! The real truth is that it just goes to show:
“Sometimes it's not the man, it’s the machine!”
(Next post, if interested, will be on how my mountain biking “hobby” became a near obsession).