Peaks and ridge lines crest off into the forever and ever. Green summits and mountainsides look like an ocean frozen in motion. This is the sort of view that becomes mesmerizing. Beneath me the town of Ketchum looks so, so small and the little bit of single track I can make out looks good, really good.
Then I heard 'Five, four, three, two, one' followed by the break of dirt, the clunk of handfuls of gears being dropped, the punishing creak and rattle of a torqued drivetrain and a voice cheering, 'PEDAL, PEDAL PEDAL! GO ON! PEDAL!'
I turn away from my revelry, my immaculate view of endless trail potential, to find myself among the hordes of brightly clad mountain bikers—some in lycra, some not—anxiously warming up for their race runs. Some riders lean against lift towers and spin their legs backwards, some sit quietly, some sit nattering about minute moments of the race ahead, some pace up and down on their bicycles, others squeeze out a last minute nervous wee.
My name is called and I take my place at the ever shortening queue of racers sent into the bowels of the tape worm. Riders line up then disappear off the start ramp and into goodness knows what kind of solo hell where the illusory clock ticks louder than usual and a ride becomes a race. I turn to the guy behind me (the guy in front looks far too engrossed in his last minute preflight checks and prayers that I feel I shouldn't interrupt him) and ask him how long this stage might be.
“Probably around 30 minutes if you do well,” he replies. What? I thought maybe five or 10 minutes, max. “Are you sure?” I worriedly ask him.
“Yeah, 30 minutes is a fair guess. It's not that bad, just watch out for the climb.”
“There's a climb? How long?” I ask, flabbergasted. I thought we had taken the chairlift up the mountain so we could glide back down.
“About five minutes long,” he states, matter-of-factly, almost with a shrug as if to say: What did you expect?
It's too late to really run this information through the part of my brain that deeply cares about pain avoidance because the twitchy guy in front of me has been consumed by the beeps leading into the tape and my name has been called to the front of the line.
Shit! said my legs.
I arrived in Boise much later than planned and then due to amazing thunderstorms across the prairies while driving to the mountain enclave of Sun Valley I reached my destination much later than I would have hoped for. I had to flip a coin between getting my bike out the box and eating breakfast in order to get to the registration on time. Heads won, now let's see if I lose the contents of my stomach.
It was the success of the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., that spurred interest in winter sports in North America. W. Averell Harriman, a lifelong skier who had journeyed through Europe in pursuit of his passion, chose to develop a ski resort of his own, finally settling on the quiet rail spur of Ketchum, Idaho, as his location after hearing about the snowfall around this area that plagued the rail clearing operation to this former mining town. The initial resort opened in 1937 and boasted the world first chairlifts, a Swiss-style village resort and circular swimming pools. Sun Valley and Ketchum is a perfect little resort town full of perfect roads, perfect buildings, perfect golf courses and perfect lakes. Now, many years after the advent of fat tire bicycles it is the perfect place for rolling single track and the Bald Mountain chairlifts are open to mountain bikers wishing to access those trails.
Which is why I find myself, just moments after my countdown from the start ramp, with acid in my thighs, needles in my lungs and blood in my throat. The trails I'm racing on are perfectly IMBA spec – neither up nor down, requiring little braking and not so much pedaling, if only the thought of the ticking clock wasn't bothering me to spin my pedals like a maniac.
About 10 minutes into a blisteringly fast, contouring, rolling, line-of-sight trail, I stop pedaling. Why? I just can't anymore. I don't think my legs will turn anymore and if they did their puny effort would be wasted anyway. Beside me the shrubbery and forest is blurred. Ahead the trail doesn't move. I feel like I'm moving slowly but the tearing of rubber on dirt and the wind whirling through my ears tells me otherwise – I am moving uncomfortably fast and I'm scared. Scared enough to lightly touch my brake levers, enough to know they are there and still working, but even that gentle flick feels like I've dropped anchor and the fictional stopwatch in my head tick-tocks loud enough to frighten me into laying off the brakes.
So I pedal. I pedal more and more. I drop gears and pedal harder. I pedal when the trail goes uphill, I pedal through the furious pain and the inside voice that tells me to stop making my body suffer. I try to find flow, braking less for any turn, then hammering hard on the cranks to regain any lost momentum. The speed becomes my horrible friend. Without it I feel I feel like a loser, but pushing for it more makes me feel like I'm robbing myself of something else. I don't know what exactly—energy, calories, strength, air from my lungs, precious life force?
I loathed racing for that entire 30 minutes, give or take a handful of moments where I feel like a horizon blurring, corner spraying, speed machine. Crossing the line all I want to do is hate my bike, punch its guts out, get as many clothes off my body as is lawful in a public place and do anything but suffer like that again. Ever.
But then I am reminded there is another stage, just like the first that day and two more the next day.
“SHIT!” every molecule in my body screams.
It wasn't until the potato peeling-pump track contest that everything abundantly clear. Ride Sun Valley's foghorn and facilitator, Greg 'Chopper' Randolph, devised the dastardly "bonus stage," that each competitor must pump their way around Ketchum's awesome public pump track and then peel a potato (a true Idaho pursuit) to gain, or lose, precious seconds from their overall race time. After a day of sweaty, hate-fueled motoring on barely grade singletrack this is somehow a relief. If only because of the friendly jeering and cheering of the assembled competitors. The stages previous had been about isolated, solitary self-flagellation but this stage is about community and truly good times. Families gather around on the bleachers, racers sit together and giggle, passersby pause to figure out what on earth is going on. Chopper goads each rider on as they launch into the pump track and then friendly taunts boom from the PA system if a rider fails to peel their potato in adequate time.
Some riders struggle to force their momentum around the track but deftly skin the tuber, saving them precious time over the riders who whiz around the course but fumble the comedic task of disrobing the starchy nugget.
It's a lighthearted evening of entertainment that brings many of the racers together, evens out the scoreboard and makes a mockery of anyone taking it all too serious. Not that there appeared to be anyone being overly serious about the racing, everyone present appears to come from a glorious line of fun hogs.
Day two is much the same: scorching heat, dusty trails, a huge amount of elevation descended and lots of pedaling. Over the course of the weekend riders rack up more than 11,000 feet of downhill and even though most of it was gained by way of mechanized uplift, every racer I speak to, from pro category fiends to first-time competitors, is exhausted but extremely happy. The trails on Bald Mountain that we raced on, although not the most challenging or technical, did allow for the sort of all-inclusive fun that warms the heart and brings many different mountain bikers together—spandex warriors, baggy short downhillers, soul riders, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.
By the time the awards ceremony is ready to roll most riders have left, leaving only the top four or five from each category to have their moment of glory and receive their prize. They stand around in Flex-fit caps, riding shorts, long black sock or sandals and T-shirts with the logo of another race or event they previously participated in. This is the après-race attire of the foundation of racing. This race might not be the World Championships but to them it is. This is the motivation of the grassroots.
By the time the pro men’s podium is announced the group has disintegrated. No one cares even though it's a pretty stacked field of some of America's best mountain bike racers. It's not about them or anyone else, it’s about each individual's battle with the course, their goals met or challenges faced. It doesn't matter if it was an enduro race or a potato peeling race, these people all came to test themselves and compete against the fiendish voice inside their own head that whispers at you to not brake so hard into that corner, to keep pedaling when the tank feels empty and get back up to try it again.
Now that little devil has been satiated it's time to head out into that endless landscape which teased me all weekend and enjoy the singletrack as it unfurls to the horizon.
For more information about the race, the results and the rest of the fabulous events lined up for the Ride Sun Valley Bike Festival week go to http://www.ridesunvalley.com/events.php