At Play In Harm's Way
Originally posted June 2003
WE TOOK our only real break, where we actually got off our bikes, at Doughi Springs, an oasis-like pool of cool, clear water where large, red-legged frogs lolled around on the sauvignon-colored bottom, and a yellow-stripped snake made for safety on the algae and lily pads along the edge. Dean also graciously called my attention to the poison oak that dotted the slopes around us. Once alerted, I saw the low, unobtrusive bush with glossy, red-tinged leaves all around me as I strolled through the long grass.
Back on our bikes again, the guys in the lead -- Sterling, Eric and Dean -- actually picked up the pace as we passed the three hour mark. We had dropped far enough now to reach the edge of the chaparral, where stately oaks and eucalyptus are scattered across rolling, golden grassland. Perhaps my eye stayed for a second to the beautiful scene before me, perhaps I was going little too fast trying to catch up with the leaders, but suddenly, without the slightest warning of any kind, I found myself in the middle of a full scale Red Alert.
Deep into the pocket of a high speed, sweeping left-hand turn, I steered just a hair too sharp to the left and the front tire washed out on me, meaning it stopped tracking and started to skid, at which point the rear end swung around I found myself going 20 mph in a sideways skid. The only thing you can do to regain control in a situation like this is to steer back the other way and try to straighten it out. So -- still skidding -- I steered toward the right -- but I over-corrected and the front end washed out again, throwing me into a skid the other way.
Think about this for a moment. Put yourself there. You're suddenly skidding sideways down a gravel road on your bike at 20 mph or more, totally out of control. The gravel is all golf ball-sized rock with sharp edges and there's a cliff on the right. Your last hope maneuver is to take your hands off the brakes and steer the other way -- the way you don't want to go -- toward the cliff. You go for it, but you over correct and instantly find yourself skidding the other way, still out of control and still headed for the edge. Now what?! What are your chances of coming through this in one piece?
Time's up. In fact, time's up so fast you really don't have time to think. All you can do is react, and my reaction was a very, very dangerous move. In the middle of an out of control, high speed skid, I came forward on the bike. Normally, this is the last thing you want to do because it increases the chance of getting thrown over the handlebars, which was in fact a serious risk at that moment. But I absolutely had to get the bike back under control -- everything else in the universe was secondary at that moment -- and throwing my weight forward gave the front tire more bite.
So I jerked forward over the bars and threw one leg out sideways, fully parallel with the blurring ground, like some sort of crazy catamaran on the crest of an imaginary Tsunami. Fortunately I didn't go over the bars, and as quickly as it began, the crisis was over. The bike straightened out under me again, I got both feet on the pedals, and in an instant I was gone around the corner and down the next traverse with all my skin improbably still attached.
"Did you get a shot of adrenaline from that?" yelled Edwin, who'd been riding behind me and seen the whole thing. "I bet you got a double shot on the rocks. I'd already given up on you before you lost it the second time." The whole thing was over in less time than it takes you to draw a single breath -- bam-bam, just like that, two instantaneous reflex moves which either hurled you tumbling across the sharp rock to deep lacerations and possibly broken bones, or a deep, sucking sigh on the wind as you hurtled on. "Do I get extra style points for having my leg straight out sideways?" I called back to Edwin.
He couldn't see it, but my eyes were wide and my attention was totally focused on this place, this time, this moment. The dusty blue eucalyptus trees, the red clay roofs of San Luis Obispo below, the distant glassy glitter of the sun on the Pacific beyond Bishop's Rock, all were as vivid as an acid vision, burned with exquisite clarity and detail into my consciousness, not with lysergic acid, but with the chemical force of a double-punch adrenaline rush.
The wind smelled sweetly of wild, wind-dried flowers, and unlike some of my species, I had strong recent evidence that I was alive.
-- Bruce Brown
P.S. Here's a late breaking development, five years after it was written and rejected by Outside Magazine, "At Play In Harm's Way" was mentioned first among "Best Mountain Bike Essays/Articles" on mtbr.com...
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