When a cold drizzle taps against my windowpane, when my knees are stiff and my muscles ache and the mudroom is spattered with clumps of greasy clay. I figure it must be mountain-bike weather. Time to lock the door and take the phone off the hook and pray to God that Malcolm doesn't find me.
I have a mountain bike. I had the mumps once, too. I got over the mumps and. in a few years, I'll probably get over my experience on a mountain bike. I might actually ride one again, if three grown men and a boy happen to catch me and hog-tie me to the seat.
Once upon a time I enjoyed riding my mountain bike, enjoyed crunching along on the back roads and rutted paths of rural Vermont. The bike was a birthday present from my wife, and it conjured up recollections of my first bicycle, which also had fat tires and straight handlebars. Those memories vanished, however, once old pal Malc invited me to ride one morning with him and a couple of friends.
Malc is a real Vermonter. He's no yuppie transplant like most mountain bikers. He tells lousy jokes, can't pitch shoes and is the worst golfer in the free world. (He plays in a sheep meadow and looks as though he's killing snakes.) But he can ride a mountain bike till the cows come home. "Meet us tomorrow morning at seven." he said. "Rain or shine."
I had just finished covering, of all things, the Tour de France for this magazine and was in miserable shape. "Malc." I told him. "for the last four weeks the most exercise I've had is pulling an escargot from its shell."
"No problem." he said. "We'll take it easy on you."
A misty drizzle was falling the next morning. I put on my biking shorts, a T-shirt, tennis shoes and a baseball cap. and I threw my poncho in the backseat of the car. Imagine my surprise when I drove over to Malc's and found that his two mountain biking friends, whom I shall call Zeppo and Moon, were dressed for a hockey game. They were wearing helmets, padded gloves, elbow pads and shin guards.
Zeppo smiled at me as if I were standing before him stark naked. "How far you want to go? Short loop or long?"
"Whatever," Malc said.
"Whatever," I added, like an ass.
"O.K.," said Zeppo.
Vermonters, I already knew, were not long on chitchat. Moon and Zeppo took off across Malc's sheep pasture. Malc was right behind them. I was last. In about 30 seconds we were riding through a blackberry patch.
I hunt through a lot of blackberry bushes in the fall. I wear reinforced trousers, a long-sleeved chamois shirt, a hunting vest and heavy boots when I do so, and still I return home torn to tatters. Hurtling pell-mell into a blackberry patch on a mountain bike in a T-shirt and shorts is a different experience entirely. You can actually hear your skin tearing—rrripp...rrripp—above the whir of the spokes. "Hey. Malc.... Hey, Malc! ...Aiiejeeminy owwwwww.... What in the heck!" I'm fairly sure I did not actually say "What in the heck."
"Should have worn something on those legs," Zeppo said when he finally stopped and got a look at me.
"Whatever." I said, panting. I probably hadn't lost more than a pint of blood, and I had more pressing concerns, like, how do I get away from these guys without losing face? They blithely tossed their bikes over a barbed-wire fence and jumped over it themselves. We were not on a road or a path of any sort. We were in the midst of a field of nettles.
"Ouch. Man. what is this stuff?" I said, scratching my bleeding legs.
Malc, too, was wearing shorts, but Vermonters are impervious to discomfort. "Let's get out of here." he said with a laugh.
Zeppo and Moon zoomed away. Malc explained that they were training for a big race, a sort of cross-country expedition on mountain bikes. Zeppo and Moon looked like those motocross demons you see on television, skidding around corners, flying through the air at the tops of rises and pedaling full speed through the dips. They jumped fallen logs without slowing, forded creeks and crashed through groves of young alders. They were out of sight in a jiffy, with Malc hot on their trail. I followed their tire marks as best I could. I was having a problem with one of my gears—the lowest one, the one you need for hills. It would skip a link every third turn. Pedal, pedal, thunk! Pedal, pedal, thunk! I was also having trouble jumping those logs. I would stand on the pedals, throw my weight back and pull up on the handlebars. The front tire would rise, oh, four inches, just about to the middle of the log. Crunkk! Impaled on the bar. I would teeter painfully before falling. After a few moments of therapeutic cursing. I would disentangle myself, lift the bike over the log and proceed.
The creeks were a problem, too. Fat, studded tires do not grip on slimy, moss-covered stones. So I waded a lot. When I did make it across on my trusty mountain bike, I would invariably encounter a bank on the far side that looked like a sliding chute for otters. I would make it halfway up, far enough to peek over the edge, and then I would hear the awful sound of my front tire being sucked in by the wet clay as I gracefully slid backward into the stream.
I had not seen the others for a long time. I thought perhaps I had lost them, but—worse luck—Malc was waiting for me in a clearing. "I'm having some problems with a gear." I said.
"Zeppo can fix it," said Malc.
Zeppo and Moon were waiting a little way ahead. They seemed to be a bit fresher than I was. And a bit more relaxed. For instance, they were smoking one of those funny cigarettes. "No thanks," I said. "I'm way ahead of you. I'm already hallucinating."
Zeppo put some oil on my chain and tried to loosen the stiff link, while Moon pointed to the steep hill two bogs away. "We call that monster Alien." he said. I nodded, but not appreciatively enough.
"Want to know why?" asked Moon.
"It eats your guts."
"Eats 'em," Zeppo said, laughing.
"Eats 'em right up," added Moon.
I was beginning to wonder why these guys wore helmets. There was obviously nothing to protect. "Let me at the Alien." I said.
Zeppo and Moon thought that was pretty damn funny, and we took off howling, everyone's mood much improved. My chain began slipping again partway through the first bog. When I got off to push. I sank in up to my knees. "Malcolm, don't you know any roads around here?" I said.
"Talk to those guys," he replied, laughing as a stream of muddy water rooster-tailed up his chest.
Once I had plodded through the second bog. I hopped back aboard my bike, pleased that my shredded legs had not attracted leeches. Even with a running start. I had made it only about 40 yards up Mount Alien when a brushfire started in my calf muscles. Before I knew it, the fire was raging through my thighs. I got off and pushed. Malc made it halfway to the top, Zeppo, three quarters of the way. Moon got to within 10 feet of the summit before giving up.
"Sixty times, I've probably tried it." Moon said. "Only rode all the way to the top once."
"Can't do it when it's wet," Zeppo added.
"I almost did." said Moon.
"You guys go ahead." I said. "I'll follow at my own pace."
"Hell, all downhill from here." Zeppo said.
"Sure. Hard part's behind us."
Well, yes and no. The rest of the trip was mostly downhill, all right, but what no one ever tells you about mountain biking is that the downhill part is just as hard as the uphill part. Only more dangerous. "That's pretty steep." I said, peering down the back side of the Alien.
"Here we go!" said Moon.
"Here we go!" said Zeppo.
Down they flew, fending off rocks with their feet, bouncing over gullies and outcroppings. They were out of sight in about two seconds, but Malc and I could hear them yahooing like banshees. Malc sensed that I was near some sort of limit. "Just take it slow," he told me.
"Whatever." I said. Pointing my bike downhill, I eased forward, clamping down on both brakes as hard as I could. As hard as I could. "Malc, I can't stop," I said. The tires weren't turning, but the bike still slipped downhill on the wet grass. Big boulders were all around.
"Use your feet!" he said.
I stretched them out, but they dangled uselessly several inches off the ground. The bike bounced over several stones, rattling my molars, until I lurched to a stop after hitting a small boulder. My handlebars were getting up close and personal with my spleen. "Lower your seat when you go downhill." Malc said, adjusting its height as I lay on the grass and grunted.
He took off while I was still catching my breath. So precarious was the pitch of the slope that even Malc took a header. He hopped back up laughing, of course. Having walked my bike up that accursed hill. I now walked it down. My legs were like noodles. My muscles twitched painfully while sweat gushed from my scalp into my eyes. Through the glaze of salt I could see that I had reached a hillside of trees and that three bodies, sitting astride their bikes, were waiting for me at the bottom.
My pride started to swell. I could not walk my bike the entire way home. I would show the bastards. Standing on the pedals. I reassumed my seat and eased up on the brakes. I picked up speed and plummeted down a slope I would not have attempted on horseback. Dodging between two trees. I misjudged a turn by an inch or so and hit a 100-year-old maple with the handlebars. It spun the front tire sideways and tossed me to the ground.
"Take it slow," Malc yelled.
"Do it, do it, do it!" shouted Zeppo.
"Wild man!" Moon screamed.
I pointed the bike downhill again and eased up on the brakes. Snaking through a grove of pines, I progressed at a more reasonable pace. It wasn't fun, but it was mountain biking. I was in control. I was free to go any route I chose, unfettered by traffic or pedestrians. This is what brings them back, I was thinking, just before I struck a fallen tree.
The front tire hit the log, pitching the entire bike upward until it was vertical, catapulting me over the handlebars and onto my back. "Wild man!" screamed Moon.
"Do it, do it, do it!" shouted Zeppo.
O.K., I thought. So I wouldn't show them I didn't have to die out here, did I? I picked up the bike and walked, it the rest of the way down the hill.
"Watch out for the electric fence." Moon said.
I saw it and nodded. It was a three-feet-high single strand off to the side of them, out of my path. "You know, I haven't fallen off a bicycle in 20 years, and I've fallen off 94 times today." I said, between pants.
"Watch out for the electric fence." Zeppo said.
"I see the damn thing." I told him. Pride goeth before an electrocution. I had indeed seen the single-strand fence but failed to notice that it turned a corner. Zzzappp!
"Ahhhhhhh!" I jumped, a painful tingle throughout my body. Zzzappp!
"Ahhhhgoddd!" I jumped again, befuddled and hurt. Zzzappp!
It took my breath away. My god, I was having a heart attack. Why were they laughing? Zzzappp! "Ahhhhggggg!" I cried out despite myself. Dying at 34 was funny? Zzzappp! I suddenly realized that the frame of my bike was resting against the electric fence, transmitting each pulse of current through my hands, over each inch of my wet skin, into my enlarged pores, through my engorged capillaries, veins and ventricles until it shot out my eyeballs. I could not have been a better conductor had I been wearing graphite underwear. I tried to open my hands, failed and had a terrible moment to anticipate the next shock through the handlebars—"Aiiieeeee!"—before, with an anguished cry, I leapt backward and fell on my rump.
Zeppo and Moon convulsed with laughter. Their heads were shaking inside their helmets like a couple of maracas. "I want to go home," I said to Malc, clutching my chest. It was one of the few times in my life I have fiat-out quit. "Just tell me how to get home."
You live and learn. You almost die, and you learn, too. I had survived, and that's about the nicest thing I can say about mountain biking. It doesn't always kill you. Those of you who mountain bike on a regular basis—especially those of you who wear helmets—already know that. Are you listening, Zeppo and Moon? Anybody home?
This story isn't really for them, anyway. This story is for all you fortunate people who have never been on a mountain bike. Take my advice and keep it that way. And the next time some devotee of off-trail biking corners you at a cocktail party and describes the freedom of cycling through forests, of coasting silently down hillsides, away from exhaust fumes and noise, respectfully suggest to that starry-eyed pedaler that he take a hike.