Art of the Endo

It’s that time of year in the Northeast Kingdom when people prematurely put their bikes away for the winter. Sure, there’s a briskness in the air and it will certainly chill your lungs, but that’s no reason to preemptively surrender to the next season before it has arrived. Viv thought I was crazy because I was still heading out on daily afternoon rides. She said, “Don’t you know it’s time to hike?” Hiking, she argued, was the only sane outdoor athletic activity to pursue in the days between the ground being covered in dead leaves and when it would eventually be blanketed in freshly fallen snow.

I don’t hike anymore. Unless it’s with a really hot guy–a really hot guy who will take his shirt off at the summit. Yes, that’s about the only motivation I could summon for walking so far uphill for so long. I am, after all, exceptionally prone to blisters.

As I pedaled past the empty Mountain View parking lot and rode out to Harp for a quick warm-up, I thought about all the poor fools who were working in offices, fighting with perpetually jammed copy machines, breathing recycled indoor air. Suckers. There I was on Darling Hill Ridge riding the best singletrack the Eastern United States has to offer, and it was all mine. I was entirely alone with the whole playground to myself.

This new trail, Troll Stroll, had stolen the crown of my personal favorite ride from Kitchel which had previously usurped the throne from Sidewinder. Everybody loves Sidewinder because it’s like biking in a nearly continuous halfpipe. Kitchel is fast and flowy with banked turns that remind me of a luge track. I’ve spent some quality time in luge tracks before. Does that really surprise you?

But Troll Stroll is more unsuspecting. It uses the sidehill of Darling Ridge to create a harmonious flow track, and the freshly cut tree stumps call to mind toadstools. It’s hard not to feel like you’re in a mountain biking fairytale while riding this dry flume.  To give you a sense…

(video credit to YouTube user ‘BikingnStuff’)

On last week’s ride, however, I discovered that the blessing of Troll Stroll–its meandering path through low trees and over whoopty-doos–was, in fact, its autumnal downfall. And mine. While entering a quick downhill transition, my front tire (caked in frozen mud to the point that it functioned as smoothly as a pair of slicks), hit a pile of leaves. I lost all control and endoed into a tree. No big deal.

What exactly is an endo? An apocopation from the phrase end-over-end, an endo is a bicycling accident in which the rider is thrown forward over the handlebars. It rarely bodes well for the cyclist, and it can be equally hazardous to the bicycle under some circumstances. There are varying degrees of savvy which individual riders may apply to the artful execution of the endo, but it is almost always an unplanned and fortuitous occurrence.

This small accident in no way convinced me that the riding conditions were dangerous. I come from a long breed of complete klutzes. We’re perpetually covered in bruises. So as I lay on the side of the trail rubbing my knee which had hyper-extended due to a late pedal release, I was certain the fall was due to pilot error. It’s a good thing they don’t let me fly planes.

Pedals don’t always release, even with adequate knee torque. The frozen mud in my cleat might have been the culprit. Maybe.

So what’s any self-deprecating mountain biker to do after enduring a fairly serious crash? I invoked the words of my grandfather. Not the ones where he told me to poke the competition in the eyes. He used a disturbing hand gesture to indicate that one, too. No, I thought of when he told me, when you get knocked down, you gotta’ get back on the horse. So I jumped back on the bike and proceeded to pedal hard into the next downhill transition.

My father often cites Einstein’s saying that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The result was pretty much the same, only this time I took a bar end straight to the gut.

This random dude demonstrates the crucial endo tactic of getting his core the heck away from his handlebars to avoid bodily harm. He might have even tucked and rolled right out of this. Definitely. Totally ready for X Games.

As I assumed the fetal position on the side of the trail and tried to regain my breath, I realized that I had–for the first time all season–forgotten my cell phone on a bike ride. Over 3,000 miles of riding with a phone I never used, and now I was curled up in a ball in the Darling gully foreseeing an inevitable death from internal bleeding and exposure. Three minutes later, after realizing my symptoms were less severe than originally conceived and they did not deem me immobile, I began the journey of walking my bike back to town.

Hiking sounds like an awesome activity to take up until the snow flies. But then Viv told me she took a nasty fall that afternoon, injuring her wrist, while walking up the mountain. I bet she didn’t get to fly through the air like Superwoman on her way to self-destruction. Thus, the bike rolls on.


Jay Peak Hike Fest

Race days begin at 5:15 when I crawl out of bed already late and then scramble in darkened chaos to get ready.  The vans technically pull out at 6am, but the head coach and my boss always leaves early; even if you’re not exactly sure where you’re going, he will still leave without you.  When it’s cold outside, -10 like it frequently is before winter sunrises in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the vans can take a while to clean off and turn over and then a good 20 minutes to defrost, and the walk from my dorm to the parking lot is a few minutes as well.  Time all adds up on these mornings.

Sometimes, when you’re really lucky, Mother Nature pukes ice all over your van and leaves slabs like this on the windshield.

My van is the crappiest vehicle in the bunch. It’s been in and out of the shop all winter, and it no longer has a radio.  I am convinced that I was specifically assigned this van because I am my boss’s least favorite employee. It reminds me of my first car that slowly fell apart over three years of ownership.  That’s basically my van.  In addition to the radio going, I discover this morning that the cigarette lighters don’t work either, so that rules out my iPod as an alternative source of music.  In a frantic rush, I grab some portable speakers from one of the kids and plug another mp3 player into them for the hour plus drive to Jay Peak.

Cleaning snow off the vans is a community event.

The snow is abating and the moon is beginning to set as I drive up Route 91 towards Canada.  It’s a brilliant orange, and it peaks out from behind several mountains along the drive.  Everyone in my van is dead asleep within 10 minutes of driving except for Chris who’s riding shotgun.  Chris is a quiet, focused, intensely serious 13-year-old boy.  I catch him staring out the window at the moon for several minutes before I exclaim, “Would you look at that thing?  Isn’t it beautiful?” After some deep reflection he replies, “Yep.” That’s the most Chris will say to me all year.

The weather on the highway is not indicative of the weather at the mountain. Jay Peak is covered in a cloud, and as we walk towards the lodge, the rumors are already spreading. There’s ice on the lifts. They’re not running. We’re going to have to wait it out until the lift operations staff can de-ice them. It’s a good thing I’m almost as good at cards as I am at coaching ski racing.

I’m totally cheating.

The ice won’t melt. We play cards for an hour while we await word from the mountain. Then we play cards for another hour. We’re butting up against the edge of opportunity. If the lifts don’t open soon, there will not be enough time in the day to actually hold the race. We convene as a group of coaches to discuss options. Everyone is ready to call it a day, to pack it in, and to get a warm cup of coffee for the drive home. And then my boss proposes a brilliant idea: who needs lifts? Why not just hike? I was mentally already back in my living room watching re-runs of The Real World when I set out on foot to ascend the course.

Real ski races don’t need chairlifts.

Despite the cold and frozen mist falling from the sky, the hike wasn’t half bad. I had gotten into the nasty habit of eating too many breakfast sandwiches before parking my lazy ass on the side of the mountain all winter long, and it’s refreshing to start off the day with a more physical pursuit. The athletes who had to hike and race, however, were not necessarily embracing the experience as an opportunity to warm-up. I repeat the mantra that got me through a month-long NOLS course in the Wind River Wilderness of Wyoming: just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, you’ll be at the top.

Seriously happy hikers.

Results from the race prove to be less extraordinary than the experience itself. After hiking up the hill and sweating up a storm, the coaches had to stand out in the cold while athlete after athlete tackled a frozen, crusty slalom course with little tact or grace. Then we got to repeat the whole process for second run. Yet, for a few hours, it seemed like the suggestion to hike was worthwhile. After all, we had saved the race even if it didn’t bring out the best skiing.

What the Great Jay Peak Hike Fest of 2008 did bring out, however, was the weakened immune systems of athletes and coaches. For the next two weeks, viruses circled the campus crippling staff and athletes alike in a festering swarm of infection and illness leading everyone to conclude: we probably shoulda’ just played cards.

Getting Run Out of a Vermont Cult Town

Island Pond is a village of 850 residents in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont that most infamously serves as the home of the Twelve Tribes, a religious cult whose property was controversially raided in 1984 by the State Police and social workers who suspected child abuse. No evidence of abuse was discovered, and to this day the Twelve Tribes hold an eerie grip over many of the businesses in the area. None of this was reason enough to deter me from inviting a number of my coworkers to participate in a 5.5-mile charity run there in the fall of 2007.

One of my colleagues was originally from the town (though never a member of the cult), and the rest of us were athletes who could not turn down a fun run twenty-five minutes from home. I had recently prided myself on participating in as many community events as possible because those were the only times I was confronted with hard evidence that there were more people than cows inhabiting Northern Vermont.

Indeed, that thick gray line is the Canadian border

The designated event was the Pond-A-Thon Fun Run to benefit the Taini Mae Kinney Memorial Scholarship, a fund that enabled underpriviledged members of the Northeast Kingdom community to pursue higher education. We drove up in a school van and had six representatives participating in the run or bike. I was most excited for the event because I intended it as a bonding experience for my two new roommates, Amber and Christin, who were avid runners.

After warm-up but before the gun start, eager to take on the pond

The run itself was of little consequence. Christin and Amber completely buried my time, but they were kind enough to lap back on the course to cheer me on through the end. After all participants finished, the organizers invited us to survey the prize table before the start of the raffle. Everyone who completed the event was eligible for a prize, and a nearby picnic table displayed a hodgepodge of donated goods: homemade pies, bags of fresh picked corn, golf umbrellas, gift certificates, cherry tomatoes. Somewhere in the mix was a framed picture of a ballerina, and my colleagues and I were having a tough time deciding if the prize was merely the frame with a stock photo inside (meant to be replaced by your own), or if the picture itself was intended to hold some value. We joked that it was clearly the best prize on the table.

By the time my number was drawn in the raffle, everything edible had been claimed. My choice came down to a plant (which I would kill with utter certainty out of sheer neglect), an umbrella, or the ballerina. Although I had no use for it, I figured it would make for a good laugh, so I grabbed the picture frame and waved it over my head cheering, “I got the ballerina! I got the ballerina!” as I jogged back to my group of friends. They were all in hysterics. I teased that we were going to hang it on the wall in the office of the Director of Development back at the school.

Then a lovely older woman tapped me on the shoulder, and as I turned around, she held out a jug of maple syrup and asked if I was willing to trade prizes with her. She clearly wanted the ballerina very badly. I hesitated for a moment, because while maple syrup is akin to gold in Vermont, I much preferred the humor of the prize I had selected. In the time it took me to utter a response, she added, “Because that’s actually a picture of the woman who this race memorializes.”

Not a prize. Not a picture frame. Not a nameless ballerina, but the poor woman who had died tragically young in a car accident whose name was now attached to this charitable event. We made haste to the van and exited stage left as quickly as possible. I’m surprised people still go anywhere with me.