Dirt Dancing

One of my favorite things about a long weekend is that I can use the first day of the weekend to unwind, and I still have two full days to do fun, exciting stuff and arrive back at work not just rested, but also rejuvenated. To be honest, it doesn’t always work out – but it’s pretty fantastic when everything comes together. This Labor Day weekend was one of those times. I was able to take it easy on Saturday, then get in two days of downhill mountain biking – one solo day at Keystone, and one day with my friend Tim at Winter Park.

Two sexy bikes on a big ol’ truck

At Keystone, I started out on a familiar blue trail, Eye of the Tiger. A couple of riders on cross country bikes with typical XC gear (standard bike helmet and no body armor) went straight for it; I followed on my long-travel bike, wearing a full face helmet and full armor, thinking the trail would be fun and easy. But it wasn’t. All the recent rain had rutted the loamy trail into a V-shape interspersed with rocks and roots. With the tight turns, I was braking hard all the time. It was honestly pretty miserable and nerve-wracking for me. I walked a few sections. I also met up with some friendly riders who told me that the top of Mosquito Coast, which is normally a fun, flowy blue, was completely rutted out and not terribly enjoyable right now.

Conventional wisdom – one of the voices in my head – would say, well, that’s that. Ride the green, maybe, or call it a day. But then there was this other voice in my head, reminding me of how much I’d enjoyed Money, a true flow trail with tabletops and big bermed turns, in 2012. Sure, it was rated black, and it was my first day on the downhill rig, and I was riding alone … but hey, I know how to evaluate terrain. I can tell when a feature is too risky for my tastes. I can hop off my bike and walk it. So I asked some questions, checked out the map, and established that I could ride TNT to Paid In Full (a favorite at Keystone) to Money (another favorite).

TNT is an all-out bone-rattler. Even on a bike with more than eight inches of travel, it’s a rough ride on loose shale and pointy rocks. But after that, heaven, in the form of Paid In Full. Sweet flowing turns and table tops leading to Money, with even more sweet turns and table tops. I did the same lap again and then called it a day. Honestly, getting pelted with rain on the lift when you don’t have a rain jacket? Not that much fun.

My favorite part, actually, was an open field between where TNT dumps out onto Paid In Full, and where Paid feeds into Money. It looked like every other transition trail – nothing special; just a way to get from point A to point B. So I picked up a lot of speed, and then suddenly saw the two orange flags that Keystone uses to mark jumps. (Thank you, Keystone, for saving my butt with those flags.) I just had time to register the color when I went sailing over the small jump – really just a bump – much faster than I would have done if I’d realized there was a jump. As I sailed through the air, I pushed my bike out in front of me to make sure I’d stick the landing. Which I did. And the second time around, I managed to completely forget about the jump, so I had the pure joy of doing it again.

So here’s the part I don’t get. Nasty, rutted-up trail with lots of technical spots: marked blue for intermediate. Smooth, flowing trail with tabletops that you can roll: marked black for advanced. What’s up with that? I have two theories. One, my long-travel rig may be obscuring what would actually be a pretty rough ride with less suspension, and green and blue terrain is maybe supposed to be the stuff you can ride with a less specialized bike. Two, tabletops and big bermed turns are features fairly unique to single-use downhill bike trails, so if you’re a cross country rider visiting for the day, it might actually be scarier or more dangerous than more “typical” trails with rocks, roots, mud, etc. You can get going a lot faster, and you can unintentionally launch pretty far off of the jumps.

I want to go back and start from Motorhead instead of TNT, but I probably won’t get there before Keystone closes for the season. That’s a bummer, but I can look forward to exploring it next season.

Winter Park (Trestle, in the summer) is a much different experience. Most of the trails are predominantly flow, not technical. I expected to take it pretty easy, sticking mostly to the blue flow trails – blue trails at Winter Park are not nearly as punishing as the ones at Keystone. And that’s how we started. Actually, because of a race in progress, we ended up riding Green World for the first lap. I love Green World on a trail bike; a long-travel bike is wasted on that trail, though, and distinctly unwelcome on the one short climb. We pushed our bikes up that ascent, thank you very much.

Anyway, as the day progressed, I got more and more confident. I picked up a little more speed on this and that part of Long Trail; I intentionally aired all four of the little jumps on that one section of Shy Ann before Five Points, and then I did it without braking at all in between them; I actually went for air on the hips right before those little jumps; I rode the rock garden at the top of Boulevard without freaking out. I rode out the wooden wall ride on Boot Camp – twice!

And a funny thing happened. And by funny, I mean, “that thing that everyone tells you but you don’t really get, until you get it.” As I gained speed, it started feeling like a completely different, effortless, exhilarating experience. My hands didn’t hurt because I wasn’t braking so much. Switching from a right hand to a left hand banked turn was an exquisite dance, with physics as my partner. My grin just kept growing.

Tim suggested that we finish up the day by riding Search and Seizure – a short trail that starts out steep and then keeps ratcheting the intensity until you bail onto Shy Ann or keep going onto the Trestle race course. I wasn’t so sure. We’d finished up the previous season by riding Search and Seizure, and I had trouble believing that I was anywhere near the ability level I’d had at the end of last season. But Tim said, actually, I’d been progressing and was riding better than I had been even at the end of last year. So, okay. What the hell. We rode up to the entrance. “That doesn’t look so steep.” If feeling confident, loving it, and not losing traction is kicking a trail’s butt, well, consider it kicked. It was just the right level of progression – a little bit scary, but not enough to freak me out. Just enough to make me feel awesome when I successfully rode it. We finished out the day on middle Rainmaker to Boot Camp.

What’s weird to me about this excellent day at Trestle is that I really haven’t ridden that much this season. I would have expected to be slow, cautious, and risk averse. But somehow, it just felt right. I didn’t feel like I was pushing myself, really. I felt like I was choosing things (speed, air) to a degree that I hadn’t done before, but that I knew I could handle. And the fickle dirt gods were kind to me, because they supported my confidence by letting me keep the rubber side down. There’s always a chance for something to go wrong, but on Monday, nothing did.

It’s especially weird because I fell while trying to go off a wooden feature at Valmont Bike Park two weeks ago. I tore up my left side pretty good, with scabs on my arm and leg to prove it. Typically, I’d expect that to send me far back into my comfort zone. I don’t know why it didn’t. Maybe I internalized the lesson of that wooden feature – as Tim’s friend Jimmy said, “If you’d just gone a little faster, you’d have had it.” Speed is your friend in mountain biking, but only if you have the skills to handle the speed. I hate it when people – almost inevitably male people – say “You just need to go a little faster, and it will be so much easier!” It’s true, but it doesn’t really help if you don’t have the skills or the confidence to trust yourself at those faster speeds. All I can figure is that despite not having had much trail time this year, I somehow have integrated the necessary skills into my brain and body, and something “clicked” that allowed me to make use of it all without having put too much time into it. Or maybe it was a fluke? It doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that would appear one day and disappear the next, but I won’t really know until I’ve gotten out there more. Which will be tough with all the lift service closing down in a few weeks.

I had a realization recently, talking to another friend. She’s a strong downhill rider. She was talking about loving Trestle Downhill, which is a trail that scares the crap out of me. And I realized, hey, wow, on the day that I’m ready for that trail – it won’t feel like a scary, nasty challenge that I have to force myself down. On the day I’m ready for that trail, I’ll look at it and think, wow, this is going to be fun. And I’ll be whooping it up the whole way down.

Just like I did on Search and Seizure this Monday.

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