The Eloquent Hack: Old Dog, No Tricks…


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It was a steep, arcing, rock-peppered, downhill right hander. More of a rut than a berm, something that would have been a switchback if it had been built into a trail thirty years ago. I laid the bike into it, kept my weight over the bars, my head over the stem, looking up and forward, letting the beefy fork sink through its travel as every fiber of my being screamed at me to load the brakes, to shift my weight back, to deal with this corner the way someone might have dealt with a corner like this 30 years ago, if a corner like this had been something a mountain biker would have encountered thirty years ago.

The riding habits that are ingrained in my reflexes are, generally speaking, not very desirable. They were established at a time when leaning over the handlebars while dropping fast into a sinking right hander was a recipe for swift disaster. Every time I ride a new bike now, I simultaneously marvel at what it is capable of and curse myself for my dinosaur habits that keep trying to pretend it’s sometime in the early 1990s. The basic physics of riding a bike haven’t changed, but the bikes sure have. Thank dog.

So, the 1992-ish playbook for a turn like this would run something like this:

Try to scrub speed, pinballing over the rocks into the turn (let’s assume that it’s the same turn as described above, even though this kind of turn probably won’t show up with any regularity for another decade and a half). Good luck with that. Each hand fully death-gripping a pair of levers that are in turn squeezing some cantilever brakes against a pair of narrow rims, pray that it’s not wet out if you want any actual deceleration to occur.

Lean into the turn, compressing tire edges into the ground for traction. HA! It’s 1992, fool! You’ve got something barely 2” wide, with the durometer of teak, pumped up to about 38psi in order to avoid what seems like an infinite plague of pinch flats. Again, good luck with that.

Get your ass as far back as you possibly can, arms stretched out in front of you to those 22-inch-wide Easton Hyperlite bars with their 5-degree bend clamped into a 130-millimeter or longer stem, trying to somehow not get your sternum caved in by the full-height saddle. Any hope for front wheel traction is now wishful thinking since the entire mass of your body is essentially in line with the rear axle.

Photo: Sven Martin

DON’T LOOK AT THAT ROCK, DAMNIT!

Sense through your clenched fists the forks flexing and compressing through two inches of vaguely defined travel, pitching the bike’s head angle to around 73-degrees. Feel a split-second of weightlessness before accelerating into the ground, bike somewhere behind and above you, in a yard-sale moment that happens so fast that your hands are still gripping the useless brakes, even as your mind catalogs every particle of dust hanging in the air in crystalline slow motion.

Steep head angles, short, short wheelbases, skinny tires, frail componentry, nonexistent brakes, suspension that was more aspirational than functional… things could go from fun to sideways with blinding speed, often on terrain that nowadays would barely even register as a potential threat. The average mountain biker who wanted to get a little rad back then grew accustomed to being a human lawn dart. Physics did not grant any hall passes for slowly evolving technology and human ambition, and it is a testament to the prescience and physical talent of athletes far more gifted than I could ever hope to be that the sport of mountain biking, and the technology, evolved at all.

Thing is, there were people out there absolutely charging on those sketchy old bikes. And they were thinking about what might be possible if only they had a little bit of suspension and maybe some more rubber on the ground. Truth be told, most of the really good riders I have known don’t seem to care about brakes as much as the rest of us, but by that same token it’s almost certain that nobody would ever want to show up at Rampage with rim brakes. But those hard charging pioneers know what they wanted, and now we all get to enjoy the manifestation of their lucid dreams.

Photo: Ryan Creary

My ability to use a rotary phone is not much use today. I can handle a splitting maul like a pro, not that anyone swings them anymore. The fact that I know the kickstart drill for a big old air-cooled four stroke single is arcane voodoo in this age of button start convenience. Shit, we’ll probably all be communicating via emoji in a year or two, so being able to string together sentences is even becoming a questionable asset. But, I am proud of knowing how to do what I know how to do. Except for when it comes to riding.

My old habits dog me everywhere on a bike. It took me a solid decade to learn how to weight suspension, to sit in it and ride the bike instead of pretending I was still on a hardtail, unweighting and incorrectly shifting my mass always at precisely the wrong moment. As bikes grew longer and slacker, I protested that they handled all wrong, even as I found myself going faster almost everywhere. I still grab too much brake most of the time. I still push my ass too far back most of the time. I still flinch in anticipation of the lightning strike endo that never comes anymore.

But with every ride, I keep learning.

I’ll never be able to do a backflip, or even a convincing whip. The odds of me getting more than a couple feet of air are never good. It is unlikely I’ll ever be able to manual for more than a few eyeblinks. Doesn’t stop me from constantly trying. And this turn? This half-berm, half-rut that only exists because someone faster and smarter than me saw a line on a hillside and rode it into existence? I’ve got this fucker nailed, even if my past is trying to pull me off the back of the bike like some ghost anchor forged from memory and fear. Head forward, eyes up, off the brakes. Small victories, baby steps.

 

*After penning Grimy Handshake during the entirety of Bike Magazine’s 27-year existence, Mike Ferrentino is back with a new monthly column, and he’s as self-deprecating as ever.

Featured Image: Anthony Smith