Imagine someone you hate. Imagine someone you so deeply despise that the mere sight of their face or sound of their voice sets off something so primal within you that, were it not for orange jumpsuits and all that unprotected anal sex, you would gladly push them off a cliff and consider it the perfect start to a day.
Now imagine that this person you detest is a cowardly, sniveling, weak, unathletic simp who folds under duress like outdoor lawn furniture.
Next, imagine that you are able to perform the most astounding acts of athletic amazingness, and then, to complete the picture, imagine that this person who you loathe above all others suddenly falls completely within your power for two hours.
How would you this worthless consumer of oxygen suffer the most hideous torture possible? What would you make him endure to crush, abuse, and humiliate him before finally snuffing out his miserable life?
Okay, I know it’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: You’d take him mountain biking.
Manslaughter had been trying for years to get me on a mountain bike, but I had always refused. At age 51, I know mostly what I like, and I know definitively what I detest. I detest television, I detest religion, I detest war, and most of all I detest mountain biking.
One time I bought a mountain bike. It was in 1988. I lived in Austin, and I rode it along a trail called the Greenbelt. On a scale of MTB difficulty from 1 to 12 million, it rated a 2 or a 3. It was flat, it had some grass, it had some rocks, it had a creek, and it had a hill. My hatred of mountain biking coalesced on my first ride, when I fell off my bicycle and got a scratch.
The next day I was talking with the guys at the shop and they asked how my ride had gone. I told them that I had fallen off and gotten a scratch. I showed them the scratch and they all shrugged. “It’s not a good mountain bike ride if you don’t fall off and bleed,” they said. They were serious.
By 1988 I had already been riding a bicycle for most of my life, having started at age four or five, and the one thing I knew, if I knew anything, was that falling off a bicycle and bleeding was bad. If I’d had two columns in my life, one for “good” and one for “bad,” falling off and bleeding would have been at the top of the “bad” column.
On successive rides I learned that MTB people are all liars. Many of them fell off their bikes, bled, and went to the hospital, at which point even they admitted that shattered femurs were not “good.” I also discovered they were lying when they said “speed is your friend” every time I slowed, put down a foot, or sobbed. Speed is your enemy and it will kill you.
They tried to blame the “bad” on trees, giant stones, and sheer drop-offs. “The speed doesn’t hurt you, it’s the sudden stop,” they said, as if the two weren’t integrally linked, kind of like looking at 2+2=4 and saying it’s not the 2+2 that kills you, it’s the 4.
Twenty-eight years after what I swore was my last MTB ride, there was a knock on my door. It was Manslaughter, who had come by for our morning ride. I was ready to go, and when I opened the door he was standing there with two mountain bikes. The cheap one cost more than all of the cars in my apartment complex, together. He gave me the nice one.
“What is this?” I asked, staring with loathing at the bikes.
“We’re going mountain biking.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let me go wake up Mrs. WM. I didn’t know she rode.”
“No, wanker,” he said. “It’s for you. I’m taking you out on a cupcake trail. I’m going to show you what mountain biking is really like.”
“Why do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you. You have a bunch of fucked up opinions about something you don’t know anything about. This will be fun, and easy, and safe.”
“Why are you such a liar? And not even a very good one?”
“I’m not lying. Now shut up and put on these shoes. I borrowed them from Tri-Dork.”
I looked at the shoes. “I’m not touching anything that Tri-Dork has sweated in.” The shoes were mauled beyond recognition, and I reflected on the countless mornings that I’d been leaving for a ride only to happen upon Tri-Dork, Manslaughter, Toy Boy, Dutchie, and Natty Yuck emerging from a trail, covered in filth from head to toe, blood caked or freshly oozing out of their legs, their faces plastered with the stupid, satisfied grins of Mongol warriors returning from having just butchered a village of women and children.
“Put on the fuggin’ shoes,” Manslaughter commanded. I did.
“Look, fucker,” I said. “This better be a fire road big enough to land an aircraft carrier on.”
“I think you mean ‘wide as an aircraft carrier to land a plane on.’ Aircraft carriers don’t land on things.”
“I think you better listen to me more carefully because I said what I meant the first time.”
“Don’t be such a sniveling little turd. I love you, I would never hurt you, and I’m going to take you on the most fun and bucolic bike ride of your life.”
“You are a piece of shit liar and you hate me.”
Manslaughter began showing me the fiddle sticks on the handlebars. “This is to lower your seat,” he explained.
“The seat height is fine.”
“No, stupid, it’s for when you’re going downhill, this lowers the seat.”
I had no idea what he was talking about so ignored him. We set off. It was amazing what a soft, spongy ride it was. “This sucks,” I said. “It’s like riding in an old Cadillac with more springs than a broken bed in a bad whorehouse.”
“We’re on asphalt.”
“You’ll see.” As we left the road and entered the soft grassy path that led to the trail I immediately felt the bike absorb what should have been a rough surface.
“Wow!” I said. “This sure is smooth!”
“It’s grass. It’s supposed to be smooth.”
At that moment a bike appeared at the trailhead. It was Jon F., covered in dust, his tongue hanging out, and sporting the stupid smile of a mass murderer that all MTB’ers seem to have. “Hey guys!” he chirped. “Have a good ride!” Then he recognized me. “Wanky! I didn’t know you did dirt!”
I was going to say something, but couldn’t. The grass gave way to a narrow trail that plunged off the side of a cliff. I’m not kidding. Manslaughter was already two hundred yards away, and with Dog as my copilot I realized that Gravity was the pilot, and he was insane and trying to kill me.
The bike absorbed everything on the trail except my abject terror and I got to the bottom alive. Manslaughter had been there for some time, say half an hour. “The worst is over!” he said, noting my white face and knuckles. “You can relax from here!” Then he fell off another precipice where I was expected to follow.
That was the precise moment, in fact, that my mountain bike ride became a mountain bike walk. “Fuck you,” I muttered, dismounting. “You aren’t going to kill me today.” Then I learned that walking isn’t much of an alternative in MTB shoes. The grade was so steep that I slipped and fell, rolling off the edge of the trail with the bike on top of me. The chain ring punched into my calf and out spurted the blood. Manslaughter came back to inspect.
“I guess it’s a good ride now?” I asked.
He shook his head. “It doesn’t really count since you didn’t actually fall off,” he advised. “But I won’t tell anyone that you fell down while walking.” He helped me remount at the bottom of a ravine that started at the bottom of a 20% wall.
Once I had hiked to the top, carrying the bike, we got ready to continue. “That really was the worst part,” he said. “It’s all pancake flat from here.” I’m glad I’ve never had one of his pancakes. The road plunged some more, went up some more steep walls, and branched off into more mountain bike hiking singletrack.
The high point of the ride was having Manslaughter scream, “Go faster!” as I madly braked for a turn and then flipped over the bars into a thorn bush. “That’s where Gussy fell the other day!” he crowed, as if falling with Gussy, a guy who I have never seen even wobble on his road bike, was a mark of distinction.
An hour later we reached the fire road, which was wide, yes, but straight up for the next four miles. We got to the top after being run off the road by a horse, a county Jeep, the game warden in a pickup, and several old people who glared at us as their pit bulls snarled and strained at the leash.
“Pretty peaceful up here, huh?” said Manslaughter.
“No. It isn’t peaceful.”
“Well, now you see what an easy pedal with someone who knows what he’s doing is like. What do you think?”
“Fuck you,” I said, stanching the blood with my lycra beanie.
“We’re going again on Thursday,” he said. “The guys would love to have you come along. You didn’t do completely terribly,” he said.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t have to.
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