“Mountain biking?” was the question.
“Why not?” was the reply.
Well, mainly because I never had, and it was 10 years since I’d been on any kind of bike. But as an eight year old I was the proud owner of a Raleigh Grifter, so how difficult could it be?
I suppose it depends when and where you ride. In early August the forest-covered Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California boast sufficient heat and altitude to turn strolling into an extreme sport. So it was strange that neither the conditions nor the name of the trail concerned me, right up to the point that I failed to conquer the first incline of Mr Toad’s Wild Ride and rolled gracelessly back towards the highway.
At the second attempt I was away, pedalling furiously up woodland, steep, dry and at twice the height of Ben Nevis. Soon my path was blocked by a jumble of rocks known charmingly, but wholly inappropriately, as a garden, conjuring images of calm, relaxation and perhaps a little skipping instead of fear, trepidation and a whole heap of pain. It was the first test of my technical skills; I failed miserably, thudding to a halt against the trunk of a tree.
Enthusiasm undimmed, I continued. The sky was huge, the sun high and the air thin. My nostrils filled with the scent of pine, my eyes with an ocean of sparkling flowers, my lungs with nothing. My body poured with sweat and my hands shed their skin. Bugs feasted, undetected, on my flesh as I faltered in the dirt. Trail truly became trial when a man twice my age passed at twice my speed, provoking in me a self-loathing that knowledge of his recent heart surgery did little to soothe.
Far below, Lake Tahoe shimmered, rippling with all the activity of a resort in high season, but at the summit the only movement was a chipmunk’s scurry, the only noise a cyclist’s gasp. As if tossed nonchalantly by a giant’s hand, huge orange boulders littered the track; vegetation was sparse. Rather than celebrating an inept but bold ascent, I shuddered, understanding that incompetence is more dangerous when you’re going downhill.
Some time later, clambering down a ferocious ‘garden’ with my bike on my shoulder and long since resigned to failure, I asked whether it was possible to ride such terrain. The answer came quickly. Hearing a shout, I turned to glimpse a blur of colour then, with my swiftest and most effective manoeuvre of the day, dived to one side. A fleeting whirring noise, a gust of wind and it was gone, a fellow rider whose solution to the horror of Toad’s was simple: air-borne, he soared rather than rolled. It was a humbling sight.
As the day closed I finished, grimy, exhausted and relatively unscathed, leaving nothing more than my pride on the hillside but vowing never again to set arse on a bike.
Four days later I rode once more.