“We’d recommend you take the body armour, it’s included” worried the bike shop man as I pretended to test suspension settings on a downhill monster so far removed from my riding world it may as well have been delivered by aliens.
Trail lid, t-shirt, wimpy knee pads, delusional view of competence, second language: ‘I’ll be fine with these I think“. Some fevered Slovene muttering suggested otherwise so I took the hint and armoured up with body suit, elbow pads and a stinky full face. I refused hard-shell knee pads though on the grounds I’d transported these ones 1500 miles and they only reeked of me.
Proper DH bikes pedal badly especially configured with a short rear cassette. So I pushed to the lift and hefted it onto a hook clearly welded by the lowest cost bidder. Watching it swing behind me displaced dark thoughts of imminently being shit and poo-ing the bed on steep trails cut through the forest passing under my feet.
Slow chairlifts are not happy bedfellows for the imaginative ensuringÂ fifteen minutes later hadÂ me wrestling the beomoth from the hook like a man only recently acquainted with any kind of motor control. The lift fellaÂ looked a bit contemptuous as the next car smacked me up the arse. A fine start to what could be a long day.
A day really that should be spent with my lovely family who I dragged to Slovenia promising mountain views, no hiking, no boring museums and no mountain biking. Two out of three ain’t bad, but when you’re an ancient fucker like me and the balcony view showcasesÂ trails bakedÂ into aÂ mountain side simply accessed by a summer chairlift, selfishness will out.
I rather wish it hadn’t as I careered down a scree slope entirely bereft of anything back in the UK we call ‘grip‘. Â Or indeed ‘ability‘. Â Strange bike, bit worried, encased in unfamiliar plastic – as a start it was inauspicious. Being stupid I felt things would improve if I ignored the easy trailÂ and plunged instead into a rooty horror soaked fromÂ the previous weeks endless downpours.
I can ride wet roots. I live in a place where it pisses down almost endlessly. I have transferable skills here. Oh. Fuck. No. I. Don’t. Tree anchors the size of my arms pitched on a slope best thought of mostly vertical. I tripod’dÂ down bouncing off arboreal trail markers and travelling sideways any time I felt touching the brakes might be a fine idea*
Couple of minor offs. A bit of walking. Surfing the last chute on my arse while vaguely connected to a mountain bike. Checked the trail markers. That’s a red. Blimey. I diverted to the blue which pitched me into 20 linked berms superbly built but barely maintained. Stray off the line and it was all cracked earth filled with marbles and upside down mountain bikers.
Finally a set of well constructed table tops over whichÂ I was universally shit. Â A little bit of this was the unfamiliar bike and the effort/speed needed to make it work butÂ most of it was me – despite the armour – tensing up and slowing down.
Groundhog day. Top of the lift but this time go leftÂ to a barely distinguishable trail marker promising another ‘hard‘ trail through the woods. What was I thinking? It was essentially a walkers path with all the easy bits circumvented by desperate plunges into the valley. Â Steep enough to suggestÂ walking it would result inÂ a broken ankle with a side order of no phone signal. No one else riding it – surprisingly – so I minced down often using the bike as a fence. Near the bottom an lengthy off camber root section looked too hard for feet so I just closed my eyes and went for it. Went well until I crashed.
Right give myself a talking too. ThreeÂ more uplifts things improving, drops being dropped, jumps being jumped, big stuff being ignored. Making use of the insane grip of a DH bike. Â Picking some harder lines off the brakes. Popped back into the shop to reduce fork preload clearly set for a man who had eaten only pies and pasties for the last ten years ‘if you’re struggling with the roots, you must go faster‘ said the clearly skilled mechanic. Sounded counter intuitive. Went for lunch with the family instead.
Five more runs. Mostly together with occasional terror as learned lines were nothing of the sort. Rode a few more scary things but waitingÂ aboveÂ the final tabletops wasÂ a ladder drop higher than my shoulder. Rolled into a few times. Rolled back everytime. Knew I could ride it, really didn’t want to. Looked for excuses, found none.
Last run. Mind frazzled, arms floppy, calves aching. Chatting with a lovely Slovene on the chairlift. Explained my angst. Easy he said, follow me. I tried but he was gone in 10 seconds leaving me with the hope he’d have forgotten who the hell I was onÂ finally turning up. No such luck.
He’s a coach. Cool. Of the Slovenian DH team. Not so cool. Conversation went ‘you have the bike‘ POINT AT DH RIG ‘you have the protection‘ POINT AT HEAD TO TOE BODY ARMOUR ‘what is your problem?‘ me: POINT TO ME ‘this?‘. He laughed and dragged my elderly arse through a section that’d had me off earlier. Somehow I stuck with him with any brain activity entirely focussed on the biggest drop I’d ever attempted. One that’d recently skewered the spleen of a MTB journo.
We flew over the ‘qualifier‘ and fuck me it was brilliant. ‘See he said, even old guysÂ like you can ride this stuff’. Thanks. ‘Come on, follow, follow‘ came next with a big arm movement and a velocity suggesting rocket propulsion. Arriving sweaty and scared before the drop I was ready with my excuses, but he** was having no truck with that.
‘Follow, Follow’ beckoning me on at a speed entirely inappropriate for a man a week short of his 48th birthday. Hitting the ramp all I could think of was ‘How important is a spleen? Will I miss it?’ Then a moment of gorgeous silence punctuated by a spinning freehub, then some ground rush, then 8 inches of suspension compensating for my shit technique, then endorphin rush and high fives.
‘Follow Follow, let’s do it again‘ my mentor grinned at me. But I declined. He looked disappointed and in retrospect so am I. But nothing could better how I felt right then, plus the factÂ I was fucked physically and mentally. Pushing back up for photos required determination for which I had no courage left. Every last drop had been eeked out on that drop. I was spent.
I’m not a great mountain biker. Especially when faced with bike park obstacles. But it is in the mountains is where I feel most at home. And at peace. I felt the fear and did it anyway. Then sat watching proper riders boost off those tabletops while I drank beer in the sunshine.
Is that enough? Oh fuck yes. More than enough. Nothing else feels like this. When I’m properly old and broken I’ll remember days like this. But right now I feel like I’m the luckiest bloke on the planet.
* Feel free to translate to Klingon if that’s your thing.
** thankfully I was running UK brakes after refusing a bike configured the other way round. Glad I stuck out for that one otherwise I’d be writing this from hospital while drinking through a straw.
*** told me his name. Forgot it instantly. I do owe him a beer or two tho.