He has a finger lightly on each brake; his eyes, barely visible through tinted lenses, are trained far up the trail, picking a line that leads around the twisted trees through a small gap in the rocks and into the kicker. A quick flick of the front wheel and then the rear avoids square-edged sandstone. Arms and legs and fingers are judges and jury, laying out verdicts of movement that bypass the mind, which is far too slow. Momentum is high.
On a collision course, headed up as he heads down, I’m climbing, sweating, hurting, staring with blank eyes just a few feet in front. My oxygen-deprived brain is situated on the beauty of pain, of mind over matter, and, for some reason, Star Wars. This forest feels like Endor.
The legs are not buying the first two. “You are full of shit,” they say. I’m on my bike for, like, 90 minutes every few days. What are you on?
Momentum is at a premium.
I look up as the unmistakable sharp rattle of chain-on-frame contact wafts through the trees. The metallic noise cuts sharply across ears tuned only to my own breathing. It’s early, just after sunrise. Surely, nobody hit the trailhead before me? Or, at least, not so much earlier that they had time to climb and descend this 30-minute monster, returning to the lower switchbacks where I now grind away. He would have been climbing in the dark. I take a moment of pause to admire the assumed dedication.
The rattler nears, sliding into view around a bristled bit of scrub, kicking up dirt from a fat rear tire. I expect gnarled dirt Jedi, an early morning conqueror getting his dirty turns in before another day as a desk jockey.
Instead, he appears for all the world to be dressed for battle, a Storm Trooper equipped, apparently, for the imminent Ewok onslaught. White helmet, padded legs and elbows and shoulders, inches upon inches of suspension: too much to have ridden up in any sort of comfort. I imagine black eyes, pits really, hiding behind those lenses. Fangs out, he charges at me.
He is, despite our two-wheeled camaraderie, my apparent opposite. He is baggies to my lycra; 200mm rotors to my 160; downhill to my up. I am, admittedly, as much a roadie now as I am a mountain biker. He looks like he couldn’t pedal his way out of a wet paper bag.
This is a unique circumstance. Two individuals, who would appear to any outsider to be participating in the same sport, are now consuming the same space in radically different ways. Both are cyclists, but only because of the very broadness of the term. Most sports are not so diverse.
There is no vast mountain-golfing movement afoot, as far as I know. Very few golfists are busting out the four-wheel drive golf carts and playing through un-mowed courses, whacking balls off trees and yelling “fore!” at Bambi. Perhaps the sport could use such a kick in the pants. Storm Trooper might play if he could turn his bogie into a birdie by gap jumping the cart. I might play if the victor was the first to finish 18 holes, regardless of strokes taken.
The great team sports are similarly uniform, pun fully intended. Each may contain slight rule variations coinciding with levels of ability, but are generally played consistently across the board. Baseball is baseball, even if you hold the ball up with a stick for your five-year-old. Football is always football, even if a snatched flag marks the end of a play. Unless, of course, you play it with your feet like the rest of the world.
Even running, with its myriad surfaces, lengths, and intensities (with a corresponding shoe type for each) is still largely homogenous. Rarely do runners avoid heading off-road for fear of crashing, as many roadies do. Even less frequently do they take shuttles to the top of mountains simply to run down.
Cycling — the new golf, in case you hadn’t heard — stands apart. Among the old-world sports, its evolutionary tree has split more than almost any other, growing branches off its branches, little green leafy bits off already thin, whispy limbs. The sport is now sports, tied loosely together by a piece of equipment that has evolved along with each green shoot and fresh leaf.
Which brings us back to the Storm Trooper.
We’re in a game of chicken, Storm Trooper and me. IMBA says I have the right of way, as the climbing rider. Gravity and momentum say otherwise. His pads, and those fangs I’m certain lie beneath the helmet, also beg to differ. I have more to lose.
The trail here is wide enough for two, but only just. I slide right, prepared for Storm Trooper to rocket past, expletives and insults already forming at the back of my throat.
The squeal of a set of overheated brakes being slammed to the bars cuts through the early daylight. Dirt skitters away from his fat front tires, fork slamming down with the sudden change in momentum. Storm Trooper slides, often only on his front wheel, through the 15 yards between us, halting, finally, just a few feet ahead. His rubber-soled right shoe crunches into the pine needles, pulling body and bike up the side of the trail, out of the way, in one smooth motion.
“Sorry, didn’t see you; usually have the trails to myself this early,” he says in a surprisingly human voice, smiling so I can see his slightly askew but severely un-fang-like teeth.
“They’re just squirrels, bro,” I send in retort. The insult concocted by a mind still stuck on Ewoks and Star Wars is all that slips out of my own mouth. He cocks his head, puzzled, then shakes it, releasing his brakes and gliding on.
My own fangs withdraw as I watch him hurtle down the next two switchbacks, taking a line over the moss-covered rock I’ve never used before. He glides out of sight, still clanking away like only a downhill bike can, but rolling on two wheels that look an awful lot like mine.