We meet then, appropriately, via an interruption. My son and I were standing in the line to register for a day at Windrock Bike Park, a hardscrabble collection of steep descents and unpleasant terrain just west of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was our first visit to the place and we had no idea what we’d be seeing or riding. All we knew was that there was a no-entry-fee race being held in the afternoon, and that there was some sort of youth division.
“Should I race?” John asked, leaning close to me so I could hear him over the conversational madness of the queue. This was also the line for Windrock’s ATV and SxS trails, so we were very close to a lot of very loud people. They were also very fat. I can say that because I, too, am overweight — but I was between fifty to a hundred pounds short of the average off-roader in our vicinity, regardless of gender.
“Well, John,” I said, loud enough for him to hear me but no louder, “we have no idea what the race course will be. It might be a lot of really steep and rocky stuff, which you don’t like riding. Or it might be ten big jumps in a row, and you’ll be the only kid to clear them.”
“HE AIN’T GONNA BE THE ONLY ONE, BUDDY.”
I swiveled my head and eventually located the source of the noise: a whipcord-muscled fellow, with a sunken face and massive mustache, about five foot eight, dressed in a bunch of brightly-logoed motocross apparel. Two young boys flitted around behind him, maybe eleven and thirteen years old. “THESE BOYS CAN HIT EVERY JUMP IN THIS FUCKIN’ PARK.”
“Alright then,” I replied, and turned back to my son.
“YA’LL NEW HERE? WHERE YOU COME FROM? WE DRIVE SIX HOURS FROM GEORGIA AND MY BOYS CAN JUMP EVERYTHING HERE.”
“Yes,” I said, “you’ve told me.” Unfortunately for me, the line was moving at rural pace and so both my son and I had to listen to him for the better part of twenty minutes. He was full of advice, most of it completely useless. He had a lot to tell me about himself and his two boys. How great they were. How easy mountain biking was for them. How we could learn a lot by watching them. When said children stopped running around long enough to interact with us, they were wild-eyed, feral. “GIT!” he yelled at the younger one, swatting him away from some candy on display.
An hour later, we ran into them at the top of the mountain. It became obvious that the fellow was having his kids chase John down the mountain segment by segment, yelling unwanted advice and generally being as obnoxious as possible. After a thousand vertical feet of this, I rode up past everyone and pulled John over. The kids and dad behind us stopped on cue.
“Why don’t you keep riding,” I suggested. “This isn’t helpful for us.”
“JEST TRYIN’ TO GIVE YOU AN IDEA OF WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE RACE!” the father snapped, but under my consistent gaze he called out to his kids in sled-dog fashion and got them going again. John looked at me and his face was clouded.
“I want to go home,” he said. “I don’t like this place and I don’t want to race those kids. They’ll beat me and then they won’t shut up about it.”
“It wouldn’t be the worst thing,” I suggested in response, “to learn something in the course of losing to more experienced riders.” After three runs down the mountain, however, he wasn’t feeling much more optimistic — so when it was time to line up for the 14-and-under race I let him return to the truck and have a snack. I was conflicted about doing so; while I expected he would do well in the race, I was also worried he would hurt himself on relatively unknown terrain while doing so. Then we returned to the mountaintop and John spent two hours working on his front-brake balance during long descents. Even the “blue” intermediate trails at Windrock featured some steep, rocky sections; the experienced MTB racer we brought with us as part of our rider group for the weekend found himself walking a few particularly unpleasant features while prepping for his own race.
Sunday morning found us working on Windrock’s “freeride” section, a series of five jumps in a row. Somehow these same two kids ended up taking a shuttle ride to that area with us, absent their father. They were unable to get their bikes on or off the shuttle trailer, so I did that for them while they attempted to engage John in conversation.
“HEY KID,” the older one blared in uncanny parental imitation, “YOU GOT THE MOST EXPENSIVE KID BIKE EVER. ARE YOU RICH? WHY DIDN’T YOU RACE YOUR RICH-KID BIKE?” John attempted to answer but his voice was too quiet for the children to hear over their own spontaneous yelling. The father showed up with the next shuttle.
“WHERE WAS YOU AT THE RACE YESTERDAY? MY BOYS PRETTY MUCH WON THAT RACE. WOULDA BEEN NICE TO HAVE SOME COMPETITION.” I looked around and John was gone, having retreated to the corner of the roll-in for the freeride section. “YOUR BOY DON’T TALK, DO HE?”
“I’m not sure he has anything to say. Why don’t you enjoy your ride?”
“YA’LL STAY AROUND AND SEE WHAT WE CAN DO HERE. MIGHT LEARN SOMETHING.” I noticed that John had put his bike down and had wandered over to a place where he could see the kids ride. The younger one went down the trail. His rear wheel never left the ground. He looked like what he was: a small child trying to get his bicycle up and over features designed for skilled men. “THAT WARN’T BAD!” the father screamed. “WATCH YOUR BROTHER.” The brother did slightly better, but at no point was he in danger of leaving the ground for more than a half-second. “YOU JUST ABOUT GOT THAT SECOND ONE, BUT YOUR FIRST ONE AIN’T RIGHT YET!” was Dad’s feedback. The father rode it last, bumbling down the trail and nearly stalling on the ramp up to the largest jump before dropping his feet off the pedals and shoving himself over by main force.
John’s eyes were unreadable behind his Oakleys but I could read something in the dust-raising way he shoved his bike back up to the trail entrance. “Let me ride it first,” I implored him, knowing that the father and kids would be waiting at the end.
“I don’t care,” he replied, “if you do or don’t.” So I took a few pedals and headed down for a low-key line that saw me tapping my back wheel for stability’s sake at the end of each jump. Sure enough, the father was deliberately in my way as I exited the trail.
“YOU AIN’T BAD,” he said. “MY BOY HERE IS JUST ABOUT JUMPING SOME OF THIS STUFF.” Then we turned to see John heading down the line. He didn’t just clear each jump — he overcleared them, landing five or ten feet on the back of each step-up like Evel Knievel showboating his way into an extra thirty seconds of television exposure. When he got to us he didn’t stop and didn’t speak, turning right to return up the hill for another run.
“HOLY. FUCKIN. SHIT.” was the father’s response, delivered mostly to the air. The boys behind him pawed the ground with worn shoes; their body language suggested they expected to shortly be on the receiving end of a lecture, a beating, or both. “CAN HE DO THAT EVERY TIME?”
“Hard to say,” I replied, “it was only the second time he’s ever tried the section. I’m sure he’d love to teach your boys how to ride that,” I continued, putting my helmet back on and preparing for the walk back up the hill, “but he speaks very quietly, so maybe they won’t hear.” At the trailhead John had his helmet off and his eyes looked watery.
“Those kids suck!” he snapped. “If I’d known how bad they were I’d have raced! I would never talk like that if I couldn’t ride!”
“One of the problems with being generally truthful, John, is that you assume truthfulness in others. That crazy dad is a liar and his kids are loudmouths. You were scared of them—” and I raised my hand before he could protest the contrary, “—but all you needed to do was to focus on your own riding and it wouldn’t have been a problem. Not everyone,” I suggested, “is worth respecting, or even acknowledging.”
“I’m going to take the long run back down,” he told me by way of response, pedaling away as he did so, “and this time you won’t catch me.” He was right.