We’re only in the middle of March and Slim Shady is already droppin’ bodies. Not Slim Shady the middle-aged rapper who keeps trying to get Donald Trump’s attention, but “Slim Shady” the semi-secret downhill jump line in Newark, Ohio. Built by a coalition of junior-pro MTB racers and wealthy farmers with time on their hands, Slim Shady is intended to be the biggest and gnarliest set of jumps between Highland Park in New Hampshire and Trestle Bike Park in Denver. Forget Snowshoe Mountain, Bryce, or even Windrock; this stuff is stouter by far.
Unlike at all of the aforementioned places, you can’t buy a lift pass for Shady. Because there’s no lift. You get there by riding through a series of trails. If you don’t know where it is, then you’re not likely to find it. The total drop of the line is about 250 feet, and you have to walk your bike back up after each run.
When it is dry and complete, Slim Shady will have about twelve jumps. Right now there are nine of them, split almost evenly between gaps and tabletops, the longest being 31 feet across. Yesterday the bottom five jumps were still too wet from a recent rain, but the top four were rideable albeit sticky and slow.
Thirteen riders, including myself, took a shot at the top four while I was there. Nobody was seriously hurt, thankfully, although people have already been testing the patience of the local ambulance staff on this trail before Spring has even officially sprung. Two of the thirteen riders managed to clear all four jumps. One of them was my old pal, Bolivian professional BMX racer Javier Larrea. The other, of course, was my eleven-year-old son.
John’s been bugging me to give Slim Shady a try. Late last year, after I broke my fibula in Austin, he’d ridden some of the easier jumps in the intermediate section on the way to Slim Shady, but we were limited by how far I could walk with him on crutches. (I don’t recommend going a mile or so down an MTB trail on crutches, largely because of the depression that sets in after you realize you have to go back up the hill the same way you came.)
Until this weekend, the trails were considered closed due to weather, but on Saturday the trail masters announced that it might be possible to go have a look, at least. So Javier, John, and I loaded up, drove out to Newark, and rode up to the top of the hill. The first jump didn’t look bad — it’s 28 feet across, but the top is flat. Unfortunately, there’s a large roller right before the jump that either steals all your speed or causes the imperfectly skilled to be hideously off-balance when they hit the launch (see above for an illustration of what happens, taken from another section of the same trails).
Javier and I test-rode the first jump and didn’t get much more than about five feet across it before landing. Javier pronounced it too unpleasant to try clearing the jump, at least while the ground was still wet. “I didn’t come here to not try it,” John said, and rode down the hill before I could stop him. His first attempt was a “50/50”, meaning that he landed with his front wheel on the backside of the jump and the back wheel on the top. He pushed his bike back up the hill and tried again. This time, the shock of landing caused him to hit the chinbar of his helmet on his handlebars, at which point he wobbled off-trail into a group of bushes.
“Alright, you tried it, let’s go home,” I said.
“What I need,” John said, “is to go faster.” This is one of those moments where, as a parent, you have a real shit sandwich of a decision matrix. My son had just escaped injury on a jump trail that is already notorious for putting people in the hospital. He wasn’t wearing any of the chest or neck protection gear we take with us to Snowshoe or Denver. The safest thing to do was to pack up and tell him we would return another time — and to not return until he was 13 or 14 and physically large enough to conquer the jumps out of sheer strength and will.
Ah, but there’s this: Every time you make the safe choice in front of your son, whether it is for him or for yourself, he is watching and learning from you. Can my son break fifty bones on a bicycle, spend a total of a few weeks in an ICU, and still arrive at adulthood healthy enough to do business? Certainly he can; that’s what I’ve done. Can my son have the life he wants if cowardice and timidity are his default behaviors? Of course not.
It’s easy to envision the consequences of letting him take too many risks: he is dead, or paralyzed, or crippled. I can summon those images in my mind without effort; indeed they arrive unbidden. It makes me want to take him home, set him in front of the computer, and announce that this is Video Gaming Weekend and so is every other weekend.
The consequences of blunting his spirit are harder to understand, but I can sum them up like so: he becomes a bugman, a coward who takes selfies with his mouth submissively open in front of consumer goods, a man who avoids confrontation at all costs, a “consoomer”… someone else’s fan. It is within my power to take this male child, someone who spent four days riding Boreal Mountain with a torn ligament in his arm, someone whom I once witnessed get into a shoving match with a grown teenager over a practice gate slot at a BMX national race, and turn him into… well, I won’t name names, but you’ve seen the average male autowriter, right? You know plenty of corporate executives, right? You’re aware of the kind of human being who thrives in the university environment?
Man, better to be a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
I took a deep breath. “If you think you can do it,” I said, “you should try.” And he did, touching his rear wheel down at the 31-foot mark like a deftly-landed regional jet before continuing to the next jump and coming within six inches of clearing that one as well. Five minutes later, Javier tried the first two jumps and cleared them. He and John pushed back up the hill and ran the jumps together. On their return, Javier said “I do not think it is possible until John, he show me. Now, I think,” and he squinted in my direction, “it is possible for you.”
Well, to make a long story and the effort of an hour short, it was not possible. My Guerilla Gravity Megatrail, specified in cost-no-object fashion, saved me from the consequences of twelve failed attempts thanks to its American-made MRP suspension. My last jump was a “50/50”, just where my son had started. I just couldn’t get the requisite velocity. The ground that didn’t sink beneath 120 pounds of my son and his bike, or 200 pounds of Javier and his, proved molasses-like with 291 pounds of author and Megatrail. Possibly I can get it in a few weeks when the trail dries up.
In the meantime, however, John and Javier had moved on. The third jump was just 12 feet across, but it had to be jumped at an angle so you could pick up a curved downhill run to a 26-foot angled gap. There would be no short landings or cautious attempts possible on this. Fail to clear it and you’ll put your front wheel into a dirt wall at what Strava tells me is 29 miles per hour. This will put you in the hospital.
“Under no circumstances,” I said, “do I want you trying that fourth jump today.”
“I agree,” John said. As I was pushing my bike up the hill for yet another failed attempt at Jump One, I saw him streaking past me in the other direction, clearing the first one, then the second, then the third, disappearing from view… then I heard this high-pitched screech. I dropped my bike and started running in that direction…
…because I’m an idiot who, hearing my child screaming at the bottom of a 75-foot elevation drop, would obviously run that way instead of using a bicycle designed for the purpose of riding rapidly down a hill. Javier, who had been posted up on the third jump, saw me galumphing in his direction on an ankle that, frankly speaking, still isn’t working very well, and bellowed in my direction,
“NO! HE HAS MADE IT! HE IS NOT HURT!”
Alright, readers, it’s time for Parenting Decision Number Two Of The Day. The obvious thing to do is to punish John for doing something I told him not to do. This is how I will keep him from wingsuit-ing through Delicate Arch. (Last week, he asked me, as if the idea had just come to his mind, “How old do you have to be for BASE jumping?”) If I fail to discipline him for this disobedience, no matter how high-spirited, I risk him coming to harm in the future from similar disobedience.
I know from experience what it is like to have that moment where you are certain you can try something on a bike, or in a race car, that didn’t seem possible just seconds prior. These moments are the building blocks of heroism, of savoir faire, of manhood. So I waited for John to push his bike back up to me. “Didn’t I tell you not to do that?”
“Yes… but I saw the jump, and I knew I could clear it, and I just forgot what you said.”
“The fourth jump is today’s limit. If you even roll the fifth, we go home and I come up with a punishment you will hate. No fifth jump. Say it.”
“No…” a brief murderous look that made me profoundly grateful for being three times his weight and strength, “…fifth jump.”
“Alright. In exchange for that, you can whip the first jump.” A “whip” is a deliberate sideways motion in mid-air. It requires more speed and therefore raises the possibility of something else going wrong.
Which is how we get to the final part of the video that starts this article, cropped together from two runs because I kept dropping the phone out of concern. John whips the first jump, overshooting the landing at about the 33-foot mark and causing me to break the Third Commandment, before clearing the second jump, tail-tapping the third, and pedaling down the hill to effortlessly clear the final gap.
At that point, seven of the ten adult riders who had been watching all of this decided to quit for the day. And I can’t blame them. None of them had even gotten as far as I had on the first jump, let alone cleaning four in a row during slightly muddy conditions. I watched John panting at the bottom of the hill. Javier and I looked at each other…
“He’s done,” I said.
“I agree,” Javier replied. “But now… I have to do all four, so I’m not humiliated by your child.” Which he did, while John and I watched.
“Why do I have to be done riding?” John asked.
“Do you know the phrase, ‘dodging a bullet’?” I replied.
“Yes. It’s stupid. I can dodge an airsoft,” and it’s true, I’ve seen him simply disappear from the path of a 400fps BB during indoor matches like a ninety-pound Keanu Reeves, “but nobody can dodge a bullet.”
“It’s more of a metaphor. We’re going to leave, before anybody starts thinking about styling over these jumps. And I think you’re tired.”
“I’m not tired.” But in this Parenting Decision Number Three, my intuition was completely correct; he ran out of gas on the way back up the hill and I ended up carrying both of our bikes on a mile-and-a-half hike out of the woods. During the drive home, he kept chattering about how possible the rest of the jump line would be. “I mean, if you get the sixth one, the seventh isn’t even that long…” This is going to be a hard summer for me. Not just because I’ll be worried. “Dad, once you clear the first one, the rest will be easy, in my opinion.”
I paused for thought before responding. “John, it’s possible that I won’t ever get the first one, or any of them afterwards.” In the rearview mirror, I could see him frowning.
“But… you’re a great rider! You can do anything that I can do! It might just take you longer, because you’re still recovering from being hurt.” Time for Parenting Decision Number Four:
“John, in the months and years to come you’re going to find yourself doing more and more things that I can’t do. I apologize for this. You were born late; I was already way past my prime as a rider by then. And now I’m so far past it, I can’t even remember what it was like. This is the natural order of things. There are very few great fifty-year-old mountain bikers, and I’m not one of them. I don’t want you to worry about whether or not I’m going to clear any part of Slim Shady. I’ll still enjoy myself going there even if I keep bouncing off that first jump.”
“We don’t have to ever go again,” he snapped, and looked out the window.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course we’re going to go. There’s just one thing you need to remember.”
“I can still beat you up.” The cloud crossing his face cleared, and he returned to watching the Send ‘Er Buds on YouTube, so I didn’t continue as I’d planned, which would have been to say,