Over the Edge

Summer heat has settled over our valley and the mountains’ promise of cool breezes and deep-forest shade enticed Mike and me to load our bikes onto the truck and head for higher elevations. Our favorite local trail, the Santa Ana River Trail, clings to the mountainside a few hundred feet above the river, dipping into quiet, oak-shaded glens that, in normal rain years, have small streams coursing down to feed the south fork of the Santa Ana River, one of the valley’s major water supplies.

South Fork Santa Ana River

As lovely as this trail is, few mountain bikers pause for any length of time to savor the panoramic views and dizzying canyons below, preferring to focus on the two inches of trail ahead of our knobbed tires as we desecrate the trail by turning it into a racecourse. Sally and I combine the exhilaration of flying down rock-cobbled straightaways and carving high speed turns with short rest stops to admire the scenery, though admittedly, the stops are primarily to catch our breath and let our exhausted legs recover.

Riding with Mike allows no such periods of recovery for me because even though I’m pushing myself as hard as my stubby legs will turn the cranks, he’s cruising along without even breaking a sweat.

After climbing the River Road up the canyon, we paused to put our protective downhill gear on before leaving the dirt road to ascend the singletrack . While I was gobbling down a quick breakfast of nuts and a peanut butter cup, a group of about thirty riders, some on E-bikes, jumped onto the trail ahead of us. Being the elitist bike snobs that we are, we quickly surmised by their apparent fitness level (or obvious lack thereof) that they would soon become obstacles to our progress on the mostly downhill trail. We lingered a few minutes, giving them time to put some distance between us and to allow the dust to settle.

It took only a few minutes to catch up to the stragglers at the back of the group and they considerately moved their bikes to the side of the trail to allow us to pass but a few minutes later we came upon the main group of riders who were obliviously blocking the path entirely. I sweetly suggested that they might kindly move to the side to allow us to pass and a few of them did but most of them stood, looking dumbly as if it were inconceivable that we two geriatric riders could possibly pass them, even though they were standing still. I trudged past the group, pushing my bike on the loose, outside edge of the trail. The lead riders, not wanting to be stuck behind slower riders jumped on their bikes ahead of Mike and me, abandoning their group.

Mike, who is probably one of the best singletrack riders in any age group, had been following me with the GoPro camera, filming our ride. I’m no slouch on downhill singletrack, (for my gender) so the lead fellows didn’t put much of a gap on me and the ones following us weren’t being held up.

Highly motivated to maintain my position in the pack, I was riding at the limit of my ability and strength as we approached a series of extremely exposed (as in a steep drop-off) turns, made especially treacherous by the roots of uphill trees protruding into the trail. As we approached the bulge of the first tree, which has been painted red (as if one might not notice a knob the size of a gorilla head at handlebar level) Mike, who was behind me, advised me that I might want to pull off at the next wide spot in the trail as the faster riders had caught up with us. I assessed the loose edge, the sheer drop off, and the tree in a split second and deemed it safe to ride if I pedaled as furiously as possible and closed my eyes.

With eyes wide open, I grazed the tree root with my left pinky finger which was clamped onto my handlebar in a death grip. In a split second my bike was jerked into the tree and I fought vainly to correct my trajectory. The chopped, loose outer edge of the trail gave me no purchase as I tried to regain the two inches of firm soil I needed and in an instant, my bike was toppling over the edge, into the canyon below.

The idea of plunging head first down the vertical chute was unappealing enough to make my body react without thought, though it’s surprising how much crosses your mind as you assess your options at a time like that. I found myself sliding down the loose precipice on my new Troy Lee bike shorts, with my upside down bike preceding me and my thoughts were, not necessarily in this order, “Oh, this is not good for my bike” and, from years of downhill skiing, “Dig your edges into the hill”. The result was that my cleated bike shoes found sufficient purchase to arrest my slide only about 15 feet below the trail and my bike, handlebars dug in, came to rest just below me.

Mike, stopped in mid trail with a half a dozen other riders behind him, was aghast. In dismay, he blurted out, “What the !@#$ are you doing!?” And then, he chivalrously slid down the hill, filling his own shoes with loose gravel, to retrieve my bike. He was able to drag it to where one of the young men waiting above was able to reach down to grab a wheel and hoist my bike back onto the trail while I clawed my way back to the level path.

Shaken but relatively uninjured, I leapt back on the bike and rode the adrenaline rush through the rest of the section that so unnerves the acrophobic.

At home we reviewed the video, laughing more heartily each time we watched me waver, then drop from view of the camera. When the camera panned the faces of the young men watching from the trail above, I was reminded of the saying, “You know you’re old when people gasp rather than laugh when you fall”. Sadly, Mike won’t win any awards for his cinematography because he loses all focus when catastrophe strikes. The GoPro, which was strapped to his chest, got excellent footage of the ground, the sky, his feet, my bike, everything but my spectacular landing. And, if I do say so myself, it was a 10!