Children are innocent
Teenagers fucked up in the head
Adults are even more fucked up
And elderlies are like children
Perry Farrell might be on to something. I’ve had this sense of, ah, regression lately. At first I thought it was anhedonia, the byproduct of various professional and personal disappointments, but now I recognize it for what it is — not an inability to feel pleasure, but a disinterest in the pleasures of late adulthood. I don’t want to drink interesting vodkas or travel to fascinating places or earn enviable sums of money. Don’t want to win arguments or write enduring prose. My interest in what used to be called “the fairer sex” before society decided that was unfair — still present and accounted for, but no longer shouting quite so loud in all the corners of my skull.
This is what I want to do: as another pansexual lead singer once declared, I want to ride my bicycle.
My son’s trip to Angelfire Bike Park was so successful that I decided to replicate the experience closer to home — specifically, at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia for their last mountain-bike weekend of the year. Feeling somewhat superstitious, I called Angelfire and had them deliver an exact copy of John’s rental bike to the house, because I knew he would have success on it and there’s no point in working your tailfeathers off in this world if you can’t make something just right for your son. Then I went shopping for my bike. I’d just about settled on the grownup version of John’s bike when the pro shop at Angel Fire called. They had something that I might like: a larger and more elaborately equipped variant of the Trek Session 9.9 that I’d ridden down their mountain. Was I interested? Sure.
God knows I’ve spent some money on bicycles over the years — my last couple custom-build BMX and dirt-jumper bikes each cost as much as a new Honda Grom — but this was a new frontier. In cost, for sure. In complexity, absolutely. The Session’s four-piston hydraulic brakes need to be bled, they need pad changes, they become hot enough to burn through skin on long downhills spent trailing a very fast 10-year-old who is still a 10-year-old. Servicing the bike’s frame and suspension requires three different ranges of torque wrench. It’s slightly smaller in total dimensions than a 350cc four-stroke off-road motorcycle, but longer front to back than my Honda CB1100. It’s the lightest long-travel downhill bike ever made, thanks to the painstaking engineering of its carbon frame, but it still weighs thirty-five pounds. The UPS shipping calculator warned me that if I had underestimated the dimensions of the shipping box by more than five linear inches I would be subject to having my shipment confiscated and sold at auction. My first serious racing bicycle cost $169 on closeout and could be serviced with one hex key and two sizes of open-end wrench, but this one needs to have the carbon-fiber handlebars tightened to between 3.8 and 4.2 Newton-meters lest they slip (if too loose) or explode on impact (if they are too tight).
I took all of it seriously. Our trip to Snowshoe, undertaken in the company of my former racing student (and John’s current racing instructor) Martin “El Jefe” Larrea, was planned with Guderian-esque precision. We rented an enormous house at hilarious cost and roamed through its eight bedrooms claiming dibs. Our vehicle was another rental — a brand-new F-150 King Ranch with massaging seats.
The weather did not cooperate. The mountain was closed for fog, then it rained in forty-three-degree drizzles on our early sorties down the hill. John crashed twice and injured his knee a bit. I tore some ligaments off my foot slipping a pedal in midair. Jefe’s Specialized Demo 29, which did not cost more than a new 600cc sportbike, snapped a spoke then developed a worrying tendency to wobble its front end at speed. We took a break to fix what we could. I self-medicated and gritted my teeth; unable to stand without help, I could still hold myself steady and clear a 25-foot tabletop on the Session.
It’s a wonderful bicycle, to put it mildly. I’m not sure it can be crashed. It reads my mind and is magic-carpet stable in the air. On the second day, when John got a flat tire and I had to dry-heave my way five miles up a hill in order to retrieve our truck, I realized that the big Trek should never be pointed in any direction but down a grade of at least five percent. If you abide by that rule, it will never do you wrong. The UCI Downhill World Championship was won on this frame, just a random example pulled off the line. It’s ridiculous for me to own it, but the same topsy-turvy world that lets hedge-fund managers stumble around a racetrack in a McLaren Senna also allows me to own and operate this vehicle at any skill level I can manage. Let’s hear it for the free market, that magic invention that saw me using JB Weld on my bikes back when I could ride worth a damn but now gives me a chance to treat the world’s most advanced downhill bike like a cafe racer.
Securely mounted by all remaining ligaments to the Session, which I think of as “the Sesh”, I trusted it enough to start asking it questions as we descended Snowshoe’s infamous “Skyline” freeride trail.
“Sesh,” I said, “there’s a woman whom I have loved deeply and I know she is hurting right now. Should I reach out tonight to make sure she is okay?”
“That’s weak,” Sesh replied. “What you need to do is get two more pedals in before that long step-up. Then I won’t have to save your bacon when you smack the second hump with the back wheel at 27 miles per hour.”
“You have a point. Hey, Sesh, I’m worried that I’m not where I should be in my career or my life right now. I’m forty-seven and…”
“Dude! You won’t make it to forty-eight unless you drag the back brake a bit and get your outside pedal down around this turn. We both know there are three long tables on the far side.”
“Okay, okay. Hey, Sesh, on the way here we drove past the home of this girl whom I really hurt five or six years back and it makes me think that…”
“Your ten-year-old son just cleared that gap jump,” Sesh snapped, and lightly kicked me in the ass via the 550-lb/ft rebound rate of the Fox DPX2 rear shock transferred to the seat. “If he looks back, will you be lost in thought… or will you be in the air, where you should be?” After thirteen trips down the mountain, it was obvious that Sesh had all the answers I would ever need. Not that I don’t get some of that clarity during a club race, but that’s a byproduct of the mainline hit from that activity which is the necessary thrill of head-to-head competition. At Snowshoe, I had no competition but my own expectations. I was free to focus on riding my bike and being better at it. I feel better at the bottom of the mountain, like I’ve hauled some of the garbage in my head out to the city dump. Sesh has only one flaw: he’s not made in America. Nobody’s building a full-travel downhill bike here now. Trek moved production to their bespoke Taiwan facility in 2015, and Intense followed shortly after. I’ve asked the kick-ass dudes at Guerilla Gravity to consider addressing that problem for 2020. Right now their longest-travel 29″ wheel bike has 130mm of travel. Sesh has 190mm, and that’s the difference between me rubbing my knees after a ride and replacing my knees after a ride. So in the meantime, I’ll just have to deal.
My three-man crew was in sync. We laughed and told jokes and talked smack on the long rides up the ski lift and in the bustling restaurants between those rides. Our topic was “progression”. Martin had hit a pretty big drop on Skyline. John wanted to do it but I didn’t think we’d brought a stout enough neck brace. I also wanted to do it but I suspected that my injured foot would call time when I hit the ground. We set other goals and we achieved them, or we didn’t. John ran down a bunch of college kids. Some of them were tickled to be overtaken by a child. Others were ungracious about it. My son greatly preferred the latter reaction. At the lift, he pointed to a handsome fellow who looked like the mountain bikers you see in REI ads.
“That old guy,” he said of the twenty-something, “he wasn’t hitting the last gap before the bridge, and it was trash slow,” he said in an outdoor voice approximately thirty decibels above his whisper-quiet normal speaking volume, “so I cleared it and rode up next to him and HE… GOT… YEETED… ON.” The parent in me wanted to correct this behavior, but I’d given all my adult personae a long-term leave of absence to be revoked only if absolutely necessary.
“Yeet not,” I suggested in response, half-heartedly, “lest you be yeeted.”
At the end of Sunday’s session I rode Sesh out to the King Ranch, lifted him into the bed, and grimaced as both of my hands cramped shut like the claws of an old crone. I’d spent tremendous money, time, and thought delaying this broken-body reaction: Revolution Suspension grips, Deity’s carbon-fiber vibration-damping 35mm bar, careful adjustment of the megabuck Fox Factory 49 triple-tree fork. My planning had carried me to the very end but not a moment longer. I was seized by the unfortunately legitimate notion that I’d been one of the oldest men on the mountain, and almost certainly the least mens-sana-in-corpore-sano among them.
“Sesh,” I said, “this one hurt. You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”
“There’s only one thing,” Sesh replied, wisdom radiating from the inscrutable forged-carbon texture of his unbreakable bones, “you did wrong. Stayed in West Virginia… a ride too long.”