Normally on a Saturday morning, I’d drag myself out of bed around 10 o’clock, make some strong coffee, and check my e-mail.
Last Saturday was not normal.
At 10 o’clock I was squinting in the sunshine, peering into a black hole in a forest. A trail led steeply down in there, somewhere in steepness between a chute and a cliff. I was expected to fling myself into this hole. On a bike.
Actually, it all started with the bike. I’ve ridden mountain bikes for years. I always worked on them myself, and upgraded them part by part, so technically I still have the same bike that my dad bought me when I was 15. Like George Washington’s axe, it’s had several new handles and several new heads, but it’s still the same old axe. This year, with the addition of a second-hand Kona Stinky frame, it got full suspension with 5″ of travel at the front and 6″ at the rear. It already had disc brakes and burly Sun Mammoth wheels. It lurked in my hallway, and every time I passed, it whispered: “Dude. Ride me off a cliff. It’s gonna be sick.”
So, inexorably, the Stinky and I were drawn towards heavier and heavier riding. Spooky Wood and the freeride park at Glentress. The amusingly named “Ae Line” at Ae Forest. A weekend of mayhem at Fort William and Laggan. Now the downhill trails at Innerleithen were the proverbial bomb with my name on it.
Still that hole in the forest was waiting. I put on my full-face helmet, strapped on knee, shin and elbow guards, while the rest of the party did the same and then put on body armour too. I didn’t have any armour and wished I did. A sign by the trailhead graded it: “Bike Park Extreme. Tabletops, doubles and drop-offs. Jumping ability mandatory. In case of an accident, dial 999 or 112 from a mobile phone…” Accident. Flies buzzed round a dead rabbit in the blazing heat.
I knew that if any accident did happen, it would probably involve jumping ability. I learnt to jump a BMX on ramps made of scrap wood as a teenager and have been a mediocre jumper ever since. Now add an extra three stone of flesh, make all the jumps four times bigger, and put it all on a steep downward slope to make it five times faster. Kids bounce, adults shatter. I got coaching from Chris Ball at Dirt School.
To cut a long story short, Chris was awesome. He pointed out a few silly flaws in my jumping technique, and by the end of the day I was feeling a lot smoother and more in control. The video evidence showed that I was getting more air than before, too.
But nevertheless, the hole with its “doubles” and “mandatory jumping ability” was still waiting. I now knew what this implied. A double is a jump composed of a launching ramp and a landing ramp, separated by a pit that you have to jump over. Mandatory means that if you land in the pit at speed, you’re screwed. Two local riders showed up, invited us to follow them down, launched themselves into the hole, and were gone in an instant. Ed, the newbie freerider with the bright orange hair, flung his chunky Norco Six in there next. Iain, psyching himself up for a fortnight in Whistler, would go last. The hole was now waiting for me and there was no reasonable excuse to get away.
I took a run-up, dropped in over a small rock ledge, and straight away I was in what could be best described as a spin dryer trying to mix me with gravel and pine trees. The trail plummeted down over drop-offs, snaked left and right, and then there were a bunch of jumps. And I messed them all up and landed in that pit. It was really just a hollow, with sides shallow enough that sheer momentum carried me straight out of it, though I came within an inch of flying over the bars and headbutting the ground.
It was a mess. There really was nothing for it but to go back and try again, until I either cleared the doubles or woke up in the Edinburgh Royal. On my second attempt, I went slowly and tried to read what the trail was saying, how the builders intended it to be ridden. It explained that I had previously been going too fast to roll the jumps safely, yet not fast enough to clear them safely. It said “Commit, and go a shitload faster”.
The day had started sunny, but now the air was hot, dull and sultry, and growls of thunder could be heard, getting closer, echoing around the mountain as we neared the top again. The light was now dim, and there was the hole in the woods, now completely black, waiting for my third attempt.
And I was determined to make it my final attempt, one way or another. I took a couple of hard pedal strokes along the fire road and dropped in as fast as I could.
Something then happened that I can’t explain. I don’t know what I did, but I swear that I spent more time in the air than on the ground, sailing through the dark woods like a deranged hang glider, or a butterfly stapled to a brick and lobbed. The section was over in an instant. I caught up with the other riders who had gone before me, and still carrying all of our speed, we burst out of the forest and tore down a disused trail that the locals had tipped us off about. We were now carving down the open hillside as fast as we could, blasting over drop-offs, down into a valley shrouded in sheets of rain opening before us as lightning cracked, and spray from above and from the wheels below began to soak us through, as if we were bringing the storm, the act of our descending itself carving open the clouds and pouring out torrential rain.
I swear that’s what it felt like. It f***ing rocked.