A tribute to the unsung heroes of local mountain bike trails
Pedaling a mountain bike on a trail blazed by deer seems like a perfectly reasonable pastime until you see the boulder that had been hidden by a tuft of elk sedge.
It is then, in that awful instant before impact, that you come to understand the essential truth of your situation.
Which is that a deer, equipped with four legs and a sense of balance that would embarrass one of those tiny Olympic gymnasts who leap about like sprites, is far more capable than you are of avoiding obscured rocks.
Or visible rocks, come to that.
You realize as well that your disadvantage, compared with any ungulate, is greater still because you’re not even relying on your own two feet, clumsy though they may be, but rather on two strips of rubber.
The latter being quite effective at rolling over rather smaller obstacles, but which have a distressing tendency to stop abruptly when they collide with larger ones.
Knee-high boulders on forest trails, for instance.
Inertia, of course, obstinate physical law that it is, insists that you, the rider, continue at the same velocity, leaving your chro-moly steed to recede in the distance.
Not that such encounters always result in swathes of skin being abraded and quantities of blood being spilled.
Sometimes you get lucky.
You close your eyes for just a shake, and when you open them your bike is still on the trail, more or less, and you’re still in the saddle, or close to it anyway.
Something like this happened to me on a Saturday in July in the mountains near Phillips Reservoir.
I was riding as the invited guest of Aaron Harrell and Dr. Jon Schott, both from Baker City.
Not only were they kind enough to ask me along, but they kept to a pace that wasn’t beyond my modest cardiovascular limits.
And by modest I mean negligible.
We had been pedaling through the woods for perhaps half an hour when we heard a man holler from the slope above us.
As we rode closer I could see that he too is a mountain biker.
A far better specimen than I am, in fact — he was wearing a set of those tight-fitting garments that bicyclists prefer. Also, like Aaron and Jon, he had actual biking shoes, the ones that lock into cunning little metal clips on the pedals.
As an infrequent cyclist myself, I’ve never felt qualified to don that sort of gear.
I get along with baggy cargo shorts, a cotton T-shirt that gets drenched with sweat in 20 minutes and then doesn’t dry until next Tuesday, and a set of those nasty plastic pedal cages known as toe clips.
Never mind what Ralph Nader says, toe clips make the Corvair’s swing-axle rear suspension look like Air Force One.
What toe clips are supposed to do is keep your feet pressed against the pedals, which maximizes your legs’ efficiency.
Toe clips actually do that.
What they also do is trap your feet on the pedals when what you really want to do — need to do, in fact — is yank them free.
When you’re rapidly approaching a big rock, for instance, and you wish sincerely to leap off the bike before the aforementioned inertia extracts you in a rather more messy fashion.
Anyway, the rider we came upon was trying to maneuver a wind-felled ponderosa pine that had come down across the trail.
This was an ambitious goal, as the pine was a good two feet through the middle.
The man, whose name is Mike, had cut a couple of sections from the tree to use as rollers. This was I thought a clever strategy, rather like that employed by whoever it was that built Stonehenge when they hauled those monoliths across the Salisbury Plain.
We three helped him swing the log several feet, far enough to let a rider easily pass without banging an elbow on the pine’s butt.
Mike told us he had been working on several trails in the area. Then he showed us a few of them.
Some are actually old abandoned roads — ones built, I suppose, to haul pine logs to the mills in Baker City.
(Which is one way to keep the trails clear.)
A few trails, including the one I mentioned before, the one with the boulder, follow paths impressed in the forest duff by the hooves of deer, elk and cattle.
Mike, and other local mountain bikers, have spent what must amount to hundreds of hours over many years riding these trails and doing the grueling labor needed to make them accessible to cyclists as well as big game animals.
Moving ponderosa pines by hand, for example.
They do this because mountain bikers savor what they call “single-track” with the same enthusiasm beer aficionados devote to a favorite ale or lager.
I understand this devotion, even though I’m not much of a mountain biker.
The lure of single-track — a single path rather than a pair of vehicle tire ruts — is that it enhances both the apparent speed of the rider and the actual challenge of a trail.
The difference between riding a single-track and a logging road is like the difference between strolling along a flower-lined path and trudging up a flight of concrete stairs.
Both will give you a decent workout.
But single-track is fun — the word “work” rarely occurs when you’re zipping along a narrow trace through the woods.
Except that for riders like Mike there’s a whole lot of work involved.
As I struggled to stay within sight of Mike, Aaron and Jon, I wondered how many Mikes there are around here, people who toil in obscurity. They heft logs and extract rocks and wrench their backs to facilitate their own amusement, of course. But they must know, too, that other people, who haven’t shed anything like the same volume of sweat, will enjoy the same benefits at what amounts to a bargain price.
I never asked Mike for his last name.
He’d probably have told me. But he didn’t seem to me like the sort who craves publicity. And besides I didn’t want to intrude on a perfectly pleasant ride with an interview, even an informal one.
Yet Mike, and the other anonymous mountain bikers who aren’t satisfied with being followers, deserve a hearty thanks from riders like me.
When I rode blissfully past a key trail junction Mike hurried to catch me and point me in the right direction.
Otherwise I’d probably have ended up in Sumpter, looking perplexed.
And with an empty water bottle besides.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.