The morning air was crisp and dry. Latimer barely had to pedal his mountain bike to maintain momentum. It was a gentle downhill, and since there was more down than up to each swell, it took little effort to keep rolling. The only thing that made his heart rate go up was the periodic sight of the Aspen trees in their finest Fall glory. The temperature was neither hot nor cold, so he was comfortable wearing only a long sleeve jersey and no jacket or vest. There wasn’t a cloud in the bluebird sky or at least one that he could see. And no matter which way he turned and rode, there was always a tailwind. Conditions had coalesced to create the perfect ride.
It wouldn’t be this way in the mountains much longer, he fretted. In a couple of months, it would be Thanksgiving, and the river would freeze. The snow would linger and drift across the trails. Instead of melting and making the trail surface tacky and quiet, it would begin to block the path. But for the time being, winter didn’t matter, and he soaked-in the moment, for all it was worth.
Then, he came to the bottom of the downhill. The trail turned just before Second Creek and then followed it downstream. The ground was wet and lush, and there was more vegetation than there had been above. The narrow creek bottom was virtually inundated with willows, small Aspens, and thorny Gooseberry bushes. The grade was almost flat, although he continued going downhill. But now, he had to work harder to keep moving. The open forest and long straightaways that he’d enjoyed above were a thing of the past as he began turning and twisting around the clumps of bushes and small trees.
After a short distance, the trail turned sharply to the right and crossed the creek. The creek was actually more of a mud bog than a running stream of water. But thankfully, someone had lined the crossing with flat rocks, which allowed him to avoid bogging down and keep moving forward. He continued following it downstream once across until it abruptly turned uphill and began climbing up the far side.
The first part of the climb was steep. The other riders struggled with riding it, and they all ended up stopping and essentially blocking the trail. But he picked his way between them and rode the whole thing. After a short distance, the grade began to lessen as he entered a meadow. At that point, while the climbing continued, it did so more gradually. Some 300 feet ahead, the trail passed through a small Aspen grove before entering black timber. He was pleased to see no visible technical obstacles up to that point. And so, he just put his nose to the grindstone and pedaled. Initially, his legs were full of life, and the fact that he’d effortlessly ridden the bottom part of the climb energized him.
The leader, Jeff, was stopped about a hundred feet beyond the steep climb waiting for everyone to catch up. Latimer rode on to where he had stopped and was doing his best to appear relaxed and confident. He was unaccustomed to being at the front and wanted to look the part. The guide, Jeff, acknowledged his arrival with a subtle nod. For that moment, it was just the two best riders in the group hanging out, making small talk, and waiting for the others to catch up. They talked about how nice the previous downhill was, and Jeff described the difficulties associated with leading a group without a sweeper/assistant. As the talking was coming to an end, the client reached down and nonchalantly took out his water bottle and had a sip, as if he wasn’t even thirsty. He was on a strength roll and didn’t want to do anything to cause Jeff to question his façade
Then, the others began to show up. Within a few minutes, the entire group of 10 was back together, ready to continue the ride. After giving everyone a few minutes to take a drink and reorganize, Jeff got up on his bike and resumed the climb with Latimer right behind. The 30-year-old Latimer had never been in such a position before. And it made him feel good that the others were likely thinking of him as one of the more solid and skilled riders in the group.
He felt everyone’s eyes watching how he rode, and he intended to do it right. Thankfully, the downhill had been fun and easy, and his legs were full of life. Even though no one could see his face, he maintained a broad smile and was careful to avoid breathing hard. Jeff seemed to effortlessly glide up the climb and slowly began to pull away. Latimer didn’t want a gap to develop between him and Jeff, so he pushed the pace as much as possible without making any breathing noise. Within a few seconds, he heard the rider behind him breathing hard but noted that he was also right on his back wheel. How could that be, he wondered? He’d just concluded that he was the strongest rider in the group, except for Jeff. He began to mash hard on the pedals to go faster while keeping his mouth mostly closed so as to look the part of “strong rider.” As he continued riding up the climb, he started to actually feel his heart-beat. And at the same time, he thought that he could also hear it and was hopeful that the others couldn’t. After all, he was setting the tone, and it wouldn’t be good to sound like a bass drum.
Then, the trail turned to the left, and he glanced back and saw the rest of the group close on his tail. His pedal mashing immediately increased from slow and rhythmic to fast and chaotic. Only a few minutes before, he’d realized that he couldn’t keep up with the leader, and now he had the whole group pushing him from behind. Initially, it’d been relaxing to watch Jeff peacefully ride up the climb. But now, he saw nothing to provide him comfort or confidence.
Up to this point, he’d been able to breathe with his mouth closed. But suddenly, he began to feel like a teapot coming to a boil as his body decided it was time to open up and suck in all the oxygen it could get. He was getting pushed from behind and getting no help from the front. He was going harder and faster than he’d ever gone before. And the trail just kept going up. Was there no top, he wondered? He took solace in the fact that at least the black timber was shady, and the sun wasn’t turning him into a sun-dried and heat exhausted obvious poser.
And then, it happened. His mouth opened up and let loose the mother of all involuntary exhales. But he was not yet ready to give in to the reality of his fitness level, and so to cover the sound of his breathing, he began to yodel. While he’d never yodeled before, he realized that he did it well. But using his mouth and voice in that way prevented him from inhaling and exhaling correctly, and he became dizzy from the lack of oxygen. The dizzier he got, the more his bike wandered along the trail, which only added to the distance he had to ride compared to everyone else. And so he mashed the pedals harder, which made his breathing even more difficult. All the while, he continued to yodel, which made him progressively dizzier and ultimately led to blurred vision. He was in a vicious cycle.
All he could think of was the word “pain,” but continued to be fully committed to maintaining his strong bike rider persona and setting a good example. He was intent on persevering but concluded that he now hated mountain biking. Then, just as things were getting most dire and before his full system failure sequence initiated, a brilliant stroke of genius filled his head. He simply pulled off the trail and immediately looked down at his rear wheel and began muttering about the non-existent technical bicycle problem that had suddenly developed. The others rode on past, offering assistance. He thanked them but declined their help and said he would “catch right up.”
He was saved. He watched as they rode on up the trail. After waiting for an imaginary realistic repair time, he crawled back up on his bike and began riding up the trail at a more accustomed and relaxed pace. The break from riding had lowered his heart and respiration rates. The dizziness and blurry vision were gone, and he rode slowly, but surely. Then, he looked ahead and saw that everyone was out of sight. Did they figure that since he was such a strong rider, he’d be able to catch up quickly, he wondered? He realized how alone he was out there and started thinking about bears and mountain lions.
He felt the sudden need to speed up and rejoin the group. He just wanted to be one of the group and no longer wanted the pressure that went along with being the strong rider he wasn’t. At first, he was content with his decision. But then he thought about it further and concluded that it would be even better to avoid riding with groups altogether. And so, he determined that he was now on his last group ride. Once this “hell ride” was over, things like this would never happen to him again, he resolved.
Then, the trail made a bend to the right and crossed a dry gully. His breathing began to get louder, but he rejoiced that he didn’t have to stifle it since he was alone. He coughed, slobbered, huffed, and puffed. The slight downhill into the gully was a momentary relief, but he had a sudden vision of a mountain lion and once again began to mash hard on the pedals to escape his invisible stalker. The increased effort caused the dizziness to return, and it was soon followed once again by blurry vision. He wanted to stop and rest, but the need to catch up to the group was paramount. At that point, he resolved that he’d never ride again once he got back to the van.
And then the forest opened up at a particularly despondent moment, and he saw a fogyish vision of a group up ahead, stopped and straddling their bikes. Is it real, he wondered? Is that the group, or is it a hallucination? He moved his head and looked from various angles, and it didn’t go away. They were real. It was the group, and he was saved. But suddenly, he felt the need to close his mouth and quit making loud breathing sounds. He relaxed his hands and arms and made a concerted effort to appear at ease and relaxed as he rode toward them. But avoiding breathing hard and closing his mouth, once again began to take its toll, and the teapot feeling returned. He tried to hold it off by visualizing a comfortable and relaxed mountain biker, but instead, the vision of an underground lava lake nearing eruption dominated his thoughts.
About 30 feet from the group, he glanced up and was horrified to see everyone looking at him. He did his best to appear comfortable and under control, but the pressure in his chest continued to build. And to make matters worse, he started feeling dizzy and wobbly once again. He was almost to the group and had their full attention when it finally happened.
With all the wobbliness, he lost control of the handlebars and ran into a bowling ball-sized rock. The slow-motion collision brought him to an abrupt stop and, at the same time, caused a lot of trapped air to explode from his mouth. Perhaps because he had been moving up the trail at less than 1 mph, the whole event seemed to be in slow motion. He would’ve screamed or yodeled while going down, but the air escaping from his mouth took up all the space where it would’ve otherwise come out.
He bounced from the ground right back up onto his feet. For whatever reason, he felt deep guilt for having touched the ground with his shoulder in that way. And besides, he wanted to prove that all was well. He noted a sort of chaotic frenzy coming from the group as people rushed toward him. He looked their way, smiled, and was assuring them that he was okay when his feet got tangled up, and he went down for a second time.
When he regained coherence, he was lying near his bike in the middle of the trail. The group was standing above, looking down at him, and Jeff was kneeling on the ground by his side.
“Don’t move. Stay still,” Jeff said while bracing his client’s head and looking into his eyes.
“What happened,” Latimer queried?
For the moment, the events of the previous few minutes were a blank for the mountain biker. But then, it all started coming back. The blissful ride down, the creek, the tough climb, keeping his mouth closed, the pain, trying to smile.
Jeff began asking him questions and everything came back into focus. He felt no pain and finally sat up and moved his head and arms around to stretch them out and check that everything was working right. When all appeared well, he took a drink of water and then stood up, mostly unassisted. He convinced everyone that he was no worse for the wear and ready to get back on his bike and go. One group member presented him with his bike, and various others offered consolation and encouragement as they returned to their own bikes.
He looked around and happily noted they were on the crest of the hill.
“Okay, it’s all downhill from here. There’s no hurry. Keep space between you and the others,” Jeff instructed.
The riders left one at a time. Eventually, it was his turn, and he got up on his bike and began rolling down the trail. He was glad to be with the group, even though he was at the back. He could breathe as loud as he wanted, but that wouldn’t matter for the time being because they were going downhill. He looked up and noted that the sky was still cloudless. There was just enough breeze at his back to keep him from sweating, the traction was perfect, and the recent snow kept the dust away. The trail made wide sweeping turns back and forth between the Aspens, and he leaned and wove his way down. The flow was magic. He once again loved mountain biking and began to eagerly anticipate the next day’s ride.