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Big Bikes and Geology Lessons

As the end of my time in California looms closer and closer, I’m realizing there are a lot of things I haven’t done yet. I haven’t been to Nixon’s library. I haven’t visited the San Juan Capistrano Mission. I’ve spent time in neither San Diego nor Los Angeles (except in passing) and I haven’t gone surfing once. I’ve even neglected Legoland. All of these things are definite California “must-do’s,” yet the most insistent items on my list are simply the trails I haven’t ridden yet.

Luckily I got to knock off two big ones this week,  tossing my first ever squishy-bike rides into the mix. I also broke my first wheel and visited my first true biker bar. Yes, it was a glorious weekend of firsts.

It all began with Chiquito, a locally famous shuttle off the Ortega Highway. We’d arranged for me to borrow a suitably big bike for the job, but I was a little worried anyway; I am, after all, a skier-turned-roadie-turned-xc-rider, and my technical “skills” could easily be confused with “stupidity.” Add to that a fresh(ish) shoulder and an unfamiliar bike, and I was asking such subtle questions as, “So… how big are these drops?” and  “What kind of ride is this going to be?”

Of course it was the awesome kind. The bike (a Specialized Enduro) ate up everything and begged for more. While it’s true that the Enduro isn’t the biggest bike out there, it was by far the biggest bike I’ve ever been aboard, and it felt like flying. Every line I could dream up suddenly became possible, and before I knew it I was railing the berms and diving, kamikaze-style, into the rock gardens. Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of things that totally out-gnarlied my limits, but they were fewer and further between than usual. It was actually pretty humbling, because for once I couldn’t deflect blame onto my inadequate travel- anything I didn’t ride was due purely to my own pansy attitude.

We were cruising through the bottom of a valley between rock gardens when Joseph was claimed by a Punji pit. If I’d known the hole existed, it’s likely I would have been hangin’ out in there already (I tend to get magnetically pulled into any hazard I’m aware of) but as it was, two-out-of-three of us passed the hole in happy oblivion. Unfortunately, holes of that size usually demand at least one sacrifice in exchange for safe passage.

Squirrel and I heard a progression of yells, ranging from mildly surprised to legitimately concerned to full-on panic, and when we rode back to check on him, Joseph was not visible. He (and his bike) had been swallowed by about six feet of poison-oak-ridden earth. Miraculously everything was ok and rather than gruesome injuries, the only souvenirs we got from the episode were some hilarious pictures, gleefully snapped while the rescue took place.

The rest of the ride passed without incident, other than some good-old-fashioned whooping and hollering. When it was all over I practiced my wheelies in the parking lot while the boys got the other car. Yes, I can kind of do a wheelie now. (Things I learned at Bikemag.) It was a perfectly happy ending to my introductory big-bike experience.

We took a day off to reset our brains and show everyone pictures of the mythical hole. It would be my last day in the office so I went on a final fact-checking blitz, signed off my computer, and said my goodbyes. It sounds like a pretty standard last day, but when it came to the moment of truth I just mumbled some thank-you’s, waved stiffly, and scurried out the back door, avoiding all eye contact and pretending I haven’t devoted the last four months of my life to this place- I hate goodbyes.

The next ride on the list was Joplin, a gnarly drop from the top of the Santa Anas. Still high on Chiquito, I was feeling ready to conquer the world. Nope.

The day began with a few hours of climbing on increasingly loose and steep fireroad. This was where the implications of riding an all-mountain bike really started to show- the Enduro may only have been 3-5 lbs heavier than my xc rig, but it also had beefier, slower-rolling tires and suspension that sapped a little of each pedal stroke.

Plus, due to various Friday night activities, we’d stupidly decided to start at high noon, which meant that it was close to one thousand degrees out, with rare shade. Finally, to add the cherry on top, every bug in the world seemed determined to eat the (copious) sweat off my face, so I was constantly swatting at a cloud of anonymous, buzzing black dots. Fireroad at its best.

About to drop in. Note my awesome DH costume.

The majority of the first section of descending was fairly steep and composed of loose, shaley chunks, which make bike riding feel very similar to ice skating. I was alternately terrified and pissed off about being terrified, and in one of my fits of rage I launched aggressively (insanely?) off a little ledge. My courage faded in midair, and I landed scared on the shale at the bottom, which obligingly ate my tires and tossed me sideways off the trail.

I could get really dramatic about the crash, but I’ll just say that it’s lucky there was plenty of grass to use as handholds as I clawed my way up to the seething trail, which I’m pretty sure had no interest in welcoming me back. (Thank you, may I have another?)

I kept trying to attack the shale but I found myself putting my feet down more and more often, at times getting a better look at the geology than I’d signed up for this semester. My mouth was so dry that my lips were stuck to my teeth in an (attractive, of course) sort of permanent snarl, and my eyes were full of dust. I became dimly aware that my front end felt pretty noodley, but I assumed it was probably just because I sucked so much, so I kept pedaling.

When I finally took a second to look down I found I’d busted two spokes. It sounds like a mishap but it was actually perfect- twisting the traitor spokes onto their sturdier neighbors effectively switched my mentality and suddenly everything became a big funny joke. I jounced suicidally through the remainder of the rocks with no remaining concept of safety, hitting trees and trying to make the wheel give up before I did. It was fun but it resulted in lots more crashing.

At one point I looked down to find that there was a little stick coming out of a bloody hole in my leg. I pulled it out, which was kind of cool, but not that cool. Bike and I were not in good shape.

When we got to the next climb (and the next, and the next) I was so fried that I couldn’t even swat at my bug cloud. Squirrel was in similar shape and we kind of just hallucinated our way through the rest of the ride. It was hot and we were out of water, pushing four hours in the saddle. Frosty beverages danced through our minds with increasing frequency. My wheel became totally distorted, wavering more and more comically with each revolution. We found this inexplicably perfect tableau at the top of a hill (these things only seem to show up when you’re in a state to appreciate them) and floated down through the last descent, pretty much incapable of even standing up in our pedals.

Which just goes to show- this sport is not kind or nurturing. It is insane. It is hard. It’s questionable how good it even is for you. Some rides are fun and sunny. They end with wheelies in the parking lot and make you feel good about yourself, but the best rides leave you fried and dirty, with a broken bike and sticks coming out of your body. They’re the rides that make a glass of iced-tea taste like the essence of life

We procured these glasses of life-essence at Cooks Corner, the famous biker bar at the base of the Santa Anas, where some drunk guy in a Hawaiian shirt became our insta-pal. We were so totally bonked that we’d been unwilling to drive the extra ten minutes it would have taken to find a gas station, and this dude apparently couldn’t see the sweat dried to our pallid faces. My hair was sticking out in an especially good rendering of helmet hair, and we babbled with him for a little while (probably in an equally incoherent fashion) about Colorado, of all places.

Even strangers in biker bars are pointing me home. Hope it’s not snowing when I get there. Thanks again for reading, people!

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