Among trusting me with trailers full of boats (which results in me chasing them down various hills around town) and boats full of clients (leading to some pretty good fiction, in my humble opinion), my company had another lapse in judgment when they allowed me to work in the bike shop. Armed only with my love of biking and a desire to learn, I’ve been attempting to master the basics of bike maintenance and mechanics, which has surmounted to some hiccups. For instance: my manager handed me a bike one afternoon and told me I could assemble it.
“How?” I asked. “I don’t know anything about bikes.”
He gave a carefree shrug. “You’ll figure it out as you go.”
As it turns out, “figuring it out as I go” is about as comforting a guideline as “you’ll stop eventually” and consists of a lot of backwards handlebars, searching for missing parts on the floor, and a good deal of “No, no, no please don’t sue. Yes, I know. I am so sorry I gave you a bike with no breaks…but please don’t sue. Please?”
Fortunately, the rest of the bike shop employees are extremely knowledgeable in the ways of biking. They also know a great deal about the various bike trails on Mount Desert Island. It was through them that I found out about Breakneck.
Breakneck is one of the only mountain biking trails on Mount Desert Island. Technically speaking, it’s not an actual trail and isn’t even in the park. The land it runs along is an old deserted service path that has long since been returned to nature, but is still owned by Bar Harbor, rather than Acadia. The trail is not marked, nor is it maintained by anyone other than an assorted group of dedicated mountain bikers. A couple of them are my co-workers and they invited me to join them in a ride one evening after work.
For being the only trail in an otherwise depraved park, Breakneck was fairly technical; it lived up to its name. Fortunately, I had my co-workers along to give pointers. In mountain biking (as with other downhill sports) the path you follow on your descent is referred to in slang as “a line”. As I went out with my co-workers that evening, one of them was careful to point out the various lines I should keep. There was one particularly tricky section (which I’ll refer to as “the creek”) in which the line cut across a washed out creek bed, to a ridge on its’ left, then back down onto a smooth rock face, before banking off a wall of dirt on the opposite side.
“Just a heads up: you may want to take this slow the first time,” my co-worker told me, “Watch me carefully and follow my line, or else…”
He didn’t finish his sentence.
“Or else?” I asked.
He shrugged. “It might hurt,” he said, then turned and was off.
How comforting. This reminded me of the line smiling doctors would use on me as a child right before jabbing a needle deeply into one of my butt cheeks. I didn’t trust them and I didn’t trust myself biking down this section.
But I had no choice.
So I took a deep breath, tried to remember if I had ever finished writing my will, and took off.
My co-worker had been right: it was a tricky line, but I made it through the first time without incident (albeit, riding the breaks the entire time). I looked back when I was done and attempted to memorize the line through it for my next trip.
A few days later, after a long day at work, I decided to bike Breakneck that evening. I clocked out, ran back to my house and within five minutes had changed, loaded my camelback and was on my way. The ride from my house to the start of the trail itself is about twenty minutes of roads and gravel bike path, so it was fairly uneventful. I reached the beginning of the trail, took a deep breath, and began.
The first part of the trail featured a gradual decline with only a few technical parts and I was able to remember the lines from my previous outing pretty well. I flew down the trail, branches snapping past and a few bugs taking residence in my eyeballs and mouth. Then I reached the creek and stopped about twenty yards uphill of it.
I took a moment to spit the bugs from my mouth and glanced down the trail.
Through the fading dusk, I could see the creek bed disappearing under the trees and could trace out the line that I needed to follow. It didn’t look so bad and since I had done it before, I was (stupidly) confident in my ability to breeze through it solo this time.
I shoved off, found my pedals and was on my way. Starting on a large granite face at the top of the bed, I cut left onto the ridge. The ridge steepened and I griped the breaks just a little as I eyed my next move. The line ran down to a small drop-off, which then led into the creek bed itself. This consisted mostly of loose rock but had a small line to the ridge on the other side. I aimed for that line.
It’s moments like this when I’m certain my guardian angel starts to wonder if he’s underpaid. Without decreasing my speed, I aimed for the line and leaned back slightly to compensate for the sudden drop off. My front wheel went over the edge (which turned out to be slightly larger than I’d expected) and hit the ground in front at an awkward angle. Feeling the bike tilt forward, I panicked and slammed on the brakes.
Both wheels screeched to a halt, unlike my body. I flew over the handlebars and into the creek bed, landing with a thud on my left side; the bike tumbled afterwards.
The first thing I heard was myself procuring harsh language. The first thing I felt was a throbbing in my knee.
I looked down and sure enough my kneecap was beginning to swell with a nice cut drawing blood as well. I bent it slightly. It didn’t feel good.
Nonetheless, I followed the go to rule of first aid evaluation; namely, if you can feel the pain then it’s not that serious (right?) and determined it was just bruised. I managed to get up and limp around until the pain subsided. I was extremely worried about the bike; after all it costs money to replace. Upon limping up hill, I was happy to notice that, apart from a loose chain, it had escaped without damage.
My fall had brought me to the end of the creek bed and I could easily walk to a nice flat portion and continue the rest of my ride uninhibited, which is exactly what I planned to do. I checked the cut in my leg and ignored the pain in my knee. I picked up my bike, put the chain back on and turned to walk down the rest of the creek bed to continue my ride.
But then I looked back.
The creek bed stood before me, like my brother when we were kids, sticking it’s tongue out and saying “Na na na na na, you can’t get me!” I looked down the rest of the path, then back at the creek bed and I knew I couldn’t leave without getting it right.
Take 2: I walked my bike back up to the top as my guardian angel reached the conclusion that he certainly was underpaid. I stopped about twenty yards up from the creek bed and mounted my bike. I took a deep breath and was off!
This time, I was slightly more cautious, taking the first ridgeline considerably slower than before and remembering not to slam on the brakes. Nonetheless, when I came to the drop-off, the line I was aiming for seemed to disappear and instead my front wheel lunged into a slot between two rocks, stopping the bike in its’ tracks.
I was blessed not to go over the handlebars this time, although in retrospect I might have preferred it. Instead, my body continued moving forward and smashed groin first into the handlebars reducing me to a bent-over crumbled mess on the rocks once again.
Just for good measure I smashed my left shin into the pedal as well.
When I’d recovered and come to grips with the fact that I would never be having children, I stood up and glared back at the bed which responded with another “Na na na na na you can’t get me!” this time pulling it’s pants down and mooning me for good measure.
Take 3: I returned to my starting point and took off once again. I took the ridge a little faster, then as I approached the drop off, I cut a line to the right, to avoid the rocks from the previous attempt. My front wheel cleared the drop off and for a split second I thought I might make it. But then I felt my back wheel sliding out and in panic, slammed on the breaks.
Wrong answer again, moron.
This time I flew over the handlebars, into the opposite ridge, which was made up of mostly sod and pine needles. I went face first into the sod, then rebounded like a toy mannequin and flopped into the creek bed, smashing my right side into a rock on the way.
I yelled in pain: well, I tried to, but all that came out was a mouthful of sod. My shin was bruised and now I could feel both knees throbbing. But I got up and tried it again, about the same time as my guardian angel handed in his letter of resignation.
Take 4: Once again, I returned to my starting point. I was covered in dirt, limping, bleeding from cuts on both legs and beginning to see stars. Or maybe those were just dirt particles stuck to my eye.
But when I began to mount my bike, I stopped for a moment and glanced at the trail. It was then that I noticed something. It was as if a hand from heaven had come down with a highlighter; I’d been following the wrong line. I could remember now that my line was supposed to cut down into the creek bed much further from where I’d been attempting, on a more gradual slope. This prevented me gaining too much speed before and allowed time to successfully maneuver through the rocks at the bottom (specifically the ones that had claimed my future children).
I reached the bottom of the creek bed and looked back. To say the feeling that came over me was a good one is a stretch: it felt more like I’d been tossed around a creek bed by a possessed bike trail for the past half hour. But there was a feeling of fruition, of learning and of adventure. And that felt glorious.
It was dark out when I finally got home. I showered, made myself some dinner, then grabbed a bag of ice, ibuprofen and Neosporin.
There’s a thin line that marks the difference between a determined adventurous nature and complete idiocracy. I ride that line daily. Actually, my mother thinks that I’ve plummeted well off of that line into the territory of “God-help-my-lunatic-of-a-son”, but that’s beside the point. I need the lines in life that show me where to go and the determination to follow them. I need the scrapes and the bruises, the trips over the handlebars and the determination to get back up and try again. I need the occasional revelation that I’ve been following the wrong lines, and I need to be able to look back over parts of my life, scanning up hill at something that used to scare me to death and know that despite everything, I had followed the line I needed to follow.
Even if it meant I would never have children.