The steel horse I ride.......
Of all the sports I do, Down Hill Mountain Biking is the hardest and most dangerous. It amazes me that in the last 15 years, Scotland has become one of the best MTB countries in the world. The piece de resistance is the world cup Nevis Range Down Hill Track.
Looking at the bike warriors in full body armor gathered at the uplift (gondola) entrance, it’s reminiscent of a waiting area for Gladiators. Unlike the cross-country scene, the down hillers are a bit bigger. There are more shaven heads and tattoos, and more mud spattered. Despite the tough exterior there is a general calm in the collective knowledge of shared experience Despite the raw courage required to hurl yourself down hill on a £3000 pedal bike, it can be intensely geeky. Every bike in the queue is scrutinized for the latest gear mec. or hydraulic break system. I am an occasional down-hiller. I do not have the ingrained comfort with my equipment; a signal to those in the know that I am nothing but a well equipped part-timer.
I like padding up. It’s a ritual, the musty aroma of sweaty days past; the cuts and scrapes telling tales of near misses and the odd unfortunate impact with an immovable object. Mountain sport that is serviced by a ski lift or uplift truck seems overly consumptive, too much metal on the mountain, too much power used to haul people up a hill. This is down-hilling; electricity, diesel fumes and steel. Whatever the dubious economic benefits there are to running ski resorts in Scotland, they are there, and today I am complicit in their existence.
As the gondola leaves the station and drifts up the hill I try and study the course. One third of the way up I give up looking for tell tale loose boulders jumps and drainage channels. All I am doing is filling my head with jumbled information. The best riders practice the same run many times in there head before blasting off for a timed run. For me I know nothing.
I jump on my Iron Horse, the 8” inch suspension sags under my weight. Rolling down to the start of the run its fat tyres whir with a great buzz heralding faster times ahead.
I let machine run, feeling the balance, moving its weight below me, behind the helmet visor, clad in armour I feel strangely disconnected from the rocks and boulders I am riding over. That’s until the first slip on the loose surface brings me sharply to the awareness of what I am doing. The rear wheel kicks out on a dusty berm. I instantly feel my break hand receive an instruction from my over loaded brain, “break, slow down, survive” it shouts. But I know to touch the break would mean instant grounding and send my body crashing into the granite hillside.
After a minute of pounding, my forearms are screaming from breaking and trying to hold on to the bucking steel bronco under my feet. I pull over and catch my breath. I shake out my hands, which are fused shut; It’s intensely physical, intensely exiting and very scary. My heart is pounding and my breath quick. I try to breathe into my chest deeply to release the tension, a fast exhale and I set off again. And so the run unfolds before me. Inside my helmet, I am surfing a fine line between riding at the edge of my abilities and letting the steed run out of control. Processing the feeling of childish excitement and the basic human desire to not hurt myself.
This dilemma is in all adventure sport. There is an addictive balance between the supreme thrill of being alive and a basic sense of self-preservation. Those with the greatest skill, ride this addiction on a knife-edge between success and disaster. The most balanced completely accept that to flow close to the edge of supreme performance, hurt is a necessary companion. For me the knife is a little blunter, but as the bike and I blend for a brief moment on the track, I can hear the sound of a knife sharpening in the background.