Our long standing journalist Matthew Letch reveals how even the hardest lines get chipped away at and conquered. In time, everything will go…
These conversations happen regularly in the group I ride with, and I’m sure they’re repeated all over the world.
It’s always the same. Either an “I found a new trail while I was out for a walk with the girlfriend” (killing two birds with one stone; appeasing a loved one and scoping for something new) or you’re on a group ride and someone ‘sees’ a sliver of something heading down something steep, full of pointy rocks and roots (This has already been pre-planned by the finder who’s been looking at the line for ages) and then there are those fateful words from someone… “It’ll go, I reckon”. Cue sage nodding of heads before people start sliding down the slope on their arses for a recce.
This pre-plunge ritual is essential; less technical riders with no intention of riding it get to take part in a line choice that they’ll never use, and everyone has an opinion. Hand gestures abound, lines pointed out as someone rubs a rock with their hands, (it may be ‘critical’ to get tyre contact to make it round the next corner and into the next section). Roots are scuffed with shoes while someone else is stamping on a loose piece of soil; a war dance to appease the trail gods. A couple of people reckon it’ll never go, just adding fuel to the fire of the riders that are sure that it will.
Someone has to go first. Fidgeting ensues, a tyre is let down a little for more grip, or maybe the rear is pumped up so you don’t pinch flat, the ‘comfort dials’ on the fork are twiddled with and the world gets quiet except for some inappropriate giggling to calm those who are watching. There’s that irresistible urge to empty your bladder against a tree.
No more fidgeting. Line yourself up and roll in. For the spectators, the fear is worse, They’ve conspired with a friend to encourage them to ride down stuff they couldn’t stand up on, If you think you can ride it yourself you’re filled with those mixed emotions of relief that it’s not you first, though perhaps secretly wishing it was you. Then there’s the noise. The overall sound is best described as a tearing, it’s the schlepping sound of tyre and wet mud dancing with gravity between the world of traction and non-traction, there’s the metallic scraping noise as a chainstay is pushed into a supporting role against a rock, the forks are keeping in time with the drops in front of you making a wheezing sound for every drop down, the squeaking of occasional tyre grip on dry rock is in addition to the squeal of hot brakes as they’re dragged into the fight for the next 20ft.
At the crux there’s an almost imperceptible track-stand as the rider gathers themselves, then gives in to gravity. A sudden burst of acceleration and it’s over.
Everyone roars, back slapping and life affirming laughter, people sliding down the slope to congratulate the rider. It’s a genuine moment of community, even if you couldn’t have ridden it yourself you know that feeling; it’s the instant gratification part of mountain biking, the other end of steady cadence and hard breathing. If you’ve ever stepped out of your cycling comfort zone when it comes to your own technical ability, you understand how that rider feels.
Of course once it’s gone once, it’ll go again and for the next person it’ll be easier, not the moves themselves but the knowledge that it has been done makes the leap of faith easier.
Everything will go in the end. We ride now what we thought was once impossible. From trials riders on their back wheels hopping between gaps and riding along chain linked fences (Chris Akrigg doing it without brakes!) to BMXers grinding down handrails backwards as ‘easily’ as they do forward, seeing vertical walls as transitions? No one foresaw this 20 years ago.
Who decided that the other way of riding through the rain forests of Canada would be along slivers of soaking wet wood 10ft from the ground? Someone who knew it would go if they built it.
Then there’s the original big dropper, Josh Bender. Yes, he may have landed on his head more than he did with a bike under him, but don’t dismiss it, he saw the light, (and sometimes stars) and lines and gaps that weren’t there before. Because of him freeriders consistently land huge gaps, because they know they can, someone else has done it before making the path easier.
There’s never been anything stopping ‘us’ except imagination, and the youth have that in spades. Celebrate them, they’re taking the knocks for you.
Watching Sam Hill in the latest Earthed DVD is a revelation. The lines he picks in Mont St Anne were always there; it’s just that no one else saw them before. The, obvious to his eye, ‘double step down to nose bonking the front wheel to make the next corner’ needs imagination to see the possibility as much as the skill to do it. This year of course it’ll be ‘the line’ as it’s already been done, and Sam Hill, or some other up-and-comer, will have to reinvent what‘ll go all over again. If you’ve ever ridden anything that you thought you couldn’t or shouldn’t, pat yourself on the back. You’ve been part of it.
Everything will go.