One hot and sunny afternoon in late May, 2008, Ranger Bob took a workout ride on the Over Mountain Victory Trail. It lies between the south side of Kerr Scott Lake and the north side of NC 268, to the west of Wilkesboro, NC. The trail was built and is maintained by the Brushy Mountain Cycling Club on land owned by the US Corps of Engineers. The trail is a wonderful creation of cycling dynamics. The guys who built it really knew their stuff. It is a mountain bike single track, with loads of sharp curves, short but steep up and down hills and narrow passes between trees, rocks and ravines. The trail surface is occasional smooth dirt interspersed with near constant rocks, roots, washboards and little ski ramp type jumps. Bicyclists from all over western NC and other states come here to enjoy the trail.
Last winter, most of my trips here were punctuated with sections of mud, standing water and heavy clay quagmires. After one particularly bad freeze / thaw cycle, the muddy clay was so adhesive, dense and viscous that it stuck to my wheels, festooned with sticks and leaves. It looked like the charlatans, the Duke and the King, in Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, being tarred and feathered and run out of a southern Mississippi town on a rail. Eventually, the muck so completely encased my bike frame that the wheels would not turn. The trail was so slick in several places that my wheels lost all traction and I went sailing down hills, like a car on black ice. After about 4 miles, I decided I had enjoyed all I could stand.
My only option for getting back to the parking lot was to hike out of the woods, carrying my bike to Skyline Marina Road. From there the best choice was to get back on my bike and coast down the road from the lake to NC 268. When the bike got going fast enough, the wheels threw off such a fountain of mud that I could not see in front of me. I came within a couple feet of crashing into the metal pipe gate blocking the road before I jammed on my brakes.
Today in May, the trail was completely lacking, for the first time that I can recall, in any standing water or mud. To quote the Dodo from Alice in Wonderland, it was as dry as a bone. That dryness made the trail grippy to the tires. There were none of the slippery curves and steeps where I previously had to use swooping, sliding, snow skiing and ocean surfing moves to keep my balance. But the trail was also bumpier. The roots and rocks seemed to be more exposed than I remembered, and the dirt humps sharper.
Several times, while coasting on long down hill sections, I had to stand up on the pedals to absorb the bumps with my legs - instead of my butt - to keep from being vibrated off the bike and thrown off the trail. Since I could not put much weight on my hands (to keep my fingers free to work the brake levers) I had to invent a new athletic posture [to me, anyway…]. When riding a galloping horse, you have to keep most of your weight off the saddle, on your fee in the stirrups, with a light hand on the reins, and press your knees inward to hold your balance on the horse’s shoulders. Similarly, here I had to stand on the pedals and press my knees inward to cling to the bike seat. It looked like I was holding back my bladder and hurrying somewhere to go pee.
Since I was not following my typical schedule to cram in this ride after work, right before dark, I had the luxury of biking the whole route, out and back. It goes about 7 miles one way, from the Ranger Station at the dam, crossing the Skyline Marina road and Berry Mountain Park road, to the Bandit’s Roost campground. For only my second (or maybe third?) time, I went the full distance, both ways, for a total of about 14 miles. That distance does not sound like much for an open road biker, who may go 40 miles in a few hours. But this kind of tough hilly single track makes for a great workout. 14 miles is plenty for one run. For future reference, it took about 2 ½ hours.
Even though I was not in a hurry, and made a conscious effort to enjoy the ride, I averaged my highest speed to date. Most times, each trip is a little faster than the last one. The great news is that, despite this trip’s above-average distance and speed, I finished the trail feeling tired, but not exhausted. I was still somewhat fresher and perkier than after some shorter trips.
Since it was spring time, I got to enjoy the sights and smells of flowering trees and shrubs, like mountain laurel. I saw or heard a lot of birds, including some woodpeckers. Most rare in broad daylight, a raccoon ambled near me beside the trail. I shied away from him out of concern that he may be rabid. Unfortunately, also thanks to spring, I shared the company of biting black flies and mosquitoes.
As we all know, when we play with fire, we eventually get burned. After so many thousands of tight biking moves on this trail over the last year – dodging tree trunks whizzing past an inch from my handle bars, jumping drop offs, getting airborne from out-of-control bounces, sliding around curves – I finally had a good wreck. And the situation leading up to the wreck was so benign, it really pissed me off. I had gone down and back up a long drop and rise. At the end of the rise was a sharp, banked, uphill curve to the right. I entered the curve seemingly under control.
For some unknown reason, I slowly, inexorably, started to lose my balance to the left (the uphill, outside of the curve). It reminded me of a dream, when you are in some kind of nonsense situation where nothing works, and you seem to be pushing against some kind of heavy burden, like running through waist deep water. I kept pedaling harder to get some speed, and try to keep control of my steering. But I just could not get back enough balance to turn right. Nor did I have enough power in my legs to keep going left and pedal up the steep, outside bank of the curve.
In slow motion, I keeled over to right (the inside of the curve) and backwards over my back tire. I was falling downhill in two directions at the same time! I tried to extend my right foot to catch myself, but – too late - it was stuck in the pedal cage. When my back (without a shirt on…) hit the dirt, it was about 5 feet below the level of my front tire. After a good, hard “whump,” I continued to slide down the hill and scrape off more skin. Within a few minutes, I was under way again… a little wiser and a lot madder.
Back home I found a huge, bright purple bruise on my right hip – the same place I got a nearly identical bruise after taking a hard fall on ice last winter at Snowshoe ski slope, when I was trying to show off in front of Cassie Stone and Martha Rizoti. Darn it, I was just about done getting over the last of the soreness in that hip…
Over the next couple of months, I had occasions to take many more trips on the OVT. Some of those experiences yielded these adventures.
Long, gradual uphill pulls are do-able but wearing. A lot of the long up hills feature somewhere in the middle a short, even steeper uphill. When you are already pushing as hard as possible, it feels almost impossible to climb the extra little bump. They really sap your energy and seem to suck the life out of you. By mid-
August 2008 I got to a new plateau of power. I found it possible to climb the steepest bumps without any extra effort, like a motor boat on a lake riding over a wave.
The physical power to climb hills faster seems to grow commensurately with the mental knowledge to take the downhills faster. They are different sets of skills, but hard work either way. Maybe it is kind of analogous to life in general: with power comes the duty to handle it responsibly.
When under physical or mental duress, it seems to help to talk out loud. In books and movies, when some old, grizzled, loner, hermit-type character is first introduced, like a Rocky Mountain beaver trapper from the 1820’s [think of Will Geer’s character in Jeremiah Johnson], or an Escalante desert gold prospector from the 1870’s, they are often talking or singing loudly to themselves, to their mule, or to the outdoors in general. It is as if they have to make a lot of noise to keep themselves company, or to prevent their going crazy. Analogously, I have found that when I am pushed to my limit by some tough activity, it helps to make noise. When I am serving and volleying in tennis, late in the third set, and the score is close to tied, and I am tired, if I grunt loudly during each stroke, it seems to keep me focused and I play better. I recently learned the same thing while mountain biking. Due to the intense focus and strong effort needed to go hard and fast, my conscious mind keeps up a constant running dialogue with myself about what I am seeing, feeling and doing. It seems that I relax a little bit and perform better if I do this dialogue out loud to myself. I may say “Whoa! What a sharp turn!” Or, “Where did that root come from?” Or, “Whee! I am flying!” The effort of talking seems to release some of the pressure and make the trip more enjoyable.
One thing I have learned about mountain biking is that the bumps come at you hard and fast – from rocks, roots, stumps and wash boarded dirt. If you find yourself anticipating the bumps, working with them, having fun, then you are riding correctly. But, if you find yourself being pushed around unexpectedly, not anticipating or reacting well - if you feel like the trail is bullying you - then you better slow down in a hurry! Otherwise, you are about to get bounced off the trail and into a tree or down a ravine. The skills to handle a rough trail fast are more than physical and mental – it is almost emotional. You have to enjoy it in order to get into the flow. If you fear it, then you have lost the fight and you will get tossed out of the ring. Come to think of it, this principal applies to just about every endeavor in life – snow skiing, backpacking, canoeing, court room work, office work, marriage – it all requires some level of enjoyment, or you will get burned out and lose the fight.
In mid-August I had another funny fall. Going into a tight, uphill, left curve, I started to keel over to the inside. I was almost fully in control…but not quite. As I slowly, inexorably fell off the trail, I passed a sapling. I casually reached out, grabbed it with my left hand, dropped the bike, and swung around the tree like a fireman on a pole. The tree bent nearly double with my weight and – still slowly- deposited me, back on my feet, on the trail! Even though nobody was watching, I said out loud, as if covering up for some imbecilic move, “I meant to do that!”
Sometimes, when I am on the trail late in the evening, it is about too dark to see and I have a long way to go, it is easy to get spooked. I have to make an effort not to get in a hurry and avoid mistakes. I have found one way to maintain my serenity is to imagine that I am a farm boy, about 100 years ago, maybe around 1910, riding a horse, passing through the same hills and hollows. I am crossing the same creeks and going through the same woods. I am heading home, after a day hauling my daddy’s farm produce to a wholesaler in town, maybe talking to my girlfriend on her front porch as I pass by her parents’ farm, going to my parents’ remote farmstead on the edge of the mountains. I look forward to hearing the whippoorwills and the owl hoots. I see the deer coming into the meadows to feed. I smell the same kind of smoke from a distant fireplace and smell the same rich earth from a nearby plowed field. I see the same moon rise in 2008 as in 1910.
It is hard to imagine being in a better place or time!