The Devil’s in the Downhill

The assignment was simple. Since mountain bike races have been gaining popularity around Bozeman in recent years, my boss made me go compete in one—despite the fact that I hadn’t been on a bike in roughly a decade and didn’t know IMBA from NAMBLA. So, in the name of gonzo journalism, I borrowed a friend’s bike and naively signed up for the Bohart Bash.

The day of the race came. When lined up and prepared for the gun to fire on the “first-timers” category, I noticed something strange. I leaned back, scanned my competition, and realized I was the only one not wearing spandex. For the first (and hopefully only) time in my life, not being clad in skin-tight undergarments made me look like an idiot.

After the starting shot rang though the air, the pack quickly raced uphill, leaving me in what I assumed was the last-place position. My hope was just slightly renewed, then crushed, when a suitably spandexed gentleman began to pass me on the left.

“Well, I guess I’m in last place now,” I huffed. He looked back at me and laughed.

“No, I’m just warming up for the next race,” the rider clarified. “You’ve been in last the whole time.” Great.

The gap had clearly widened by the time I reached the first corner-worker, as he mistook me for someone warming up. Between heaving breaths, I tried to explain that I was merely an untalented beginner.

“Oh, you’re racing! I’m sorry! I didn’t see your numbers. Here,”—CLANG CLANG CLANG—“lemme give ya some cowbell!” CLANG CLANG. “Whoo!” I thanked him and slowly pedaled away. This wasn’t going well.

The trail wound uphill through the trees, and sadly—despite aggressive downshifting—I had to dismount. “What a waste of 25 bucks,” I wheezed as I pushed my bike up the steep rocky section, exhausted. At every other point in my life, achieving this level of sweaty embarrassment didn’t cost me any money. I was a little annoyed. And even as a fairly competitive person, I considered quitting. Cowbell or not, it would take something massive to keep me from coasting back to the car and going home.

But then, when the trail flattened out and I entered the winding downhill section, it finally dawned on me why people go mountain biking: the uphill may be a bit of a slog, but when you finally start going downhill—it’s incredible.

I started to pick up speed as the trail angled downhill, riding the thin edge of disaster as trees whipped by, inches from my face. I tried to stifle my giddy excitement as I dared myself to loosen the death-grip on my brake levers. By the end, I was laughing as hard as I could, dodging branches and tree stumps with a clumsy artistry.

I was a little disheartened when another steep uphill section appeared, but this time I happily chugged up, knowing that my reward would be another near-death thrill ride down through the tight lodgepoles. I was hooked. I had already begun to mentally triage my climbing gear, deciding what I could sell to fund a mountain bike of my own.

Finally, an hour behind the first place rider, I finished. Despite my tremendous lack of skill, the crowd was still encouraging, cheering me on like the fat kid who inexplicably twists his ankle in gym class and has to get carried off the field. I vowed to return and place slightly better than dead last by half an hour on a five-mile course. And with three races coming up this summer—the Leverich Canyon Crank-Up, the Bangtail Ballbuster, and another round of the Bohart Bash—I’m already getting excited.