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THE RELUCTANT NOVICE / MOUNTAIN BIKING : Freewheeling : It's a spine-tingling trip to the summit, followed by a full-tilt rush back to the beginning.

April 01, 1993|KEN MCALPINE | This week's Reluctant Novice is free-lance writer Ken McAlpine.

The view is spectacular, as you would expect at 3,000 feet--a vast sweep of coastline, its ragged edge bordered by the shimmering immensity of a slate-gray Pacific Ocean. This loveliness would be more sweeping still if you weren't lying on your face in the dirt.

A small puff of dust still hangs in the air, the last tangible remains of your head-to-earth impact. You lie still, watching it dissolve into blue sky; there is appreciable serenity in the scene. Plus, if you move, you might slide off the cliff.

As with most events in your life, you came to rest here in a pile of loose scree through a combination of happenstance and wantonly blind ignorance. You fancy yourself an athlete and something of an adventurer, and have an unfortunate habit of running into people who really are. When friends suggest you go mountain biking, you ask yourself the same question every fool does before stumbling into a horrific endeavor. How hard can it be?

Very hard. Important here to distinguish between the act of riding a mountain bike and the discipline of mountain biking.

Riding a mountain bike is easily accomplished. Beefy, sturdy and luxuriously comfortable to ride, mountain bikes are ideal for such wilderness events as going to the store or taking a shortcut across your neighbor's new sod.

Negotiating a mountain on a mountain bike is a different matter. Mountains are daunting things that hump up and tear at the sky. Up close they are uglier still; pocked with rocks, roots and ruts, and edged with drop-offs that make a leap off the Golden Gate Bridge look like a carnival ride. Those are the groomed trails.

As your friend Mike S. puts it: "You've ridden a mountain bike, but, well, you'll see."

Your indoctrination begins at the head of the Romero Road trail, a popular ride among local mountain bikers who enjoy lung-popping climbs.

Two other friends join you. Like Mike S., Mike G. and Dave are both in their mid-thirties, both family men, both pillars of the community and both grinning like hyenas. As they pull on jerseys and helmets, they entertain you with tales of the trail. Like the time they ended up caught on a mountain ridge in the dark, buffeted by a winter storm. There was a novice along on that ride, too. He had struggled, but, fortunately, persevered. Had he faltered, his fate would have been sealed.

"We would have eaten him," leers Mike G.

As promised, the first part of the trail immediately assumes a violent upward pitch. Where there aren't ruts and broken rock, there are rock patches slicker than Michael Jordan's head. Your world becomes quite focused. You bump and grind over the uneven surface, the sounds of your labored breathing interrupted only by the scrabbling of your tires. Your rear wheel moves about as it frantically hunts for purchase.

Earlier, you were told not to overextend yourself; no shame in walking. At these speeds you might as well be. Just as you are about to totter over, the trail makes a short drop, allowing you enough speed to bang into the opposite bank of a small stream with a terrific jolt, shortening your arms by a cuff or two. Somehow, the bike bounds through, carrying your ringing head with it. You raise your eyes briefly. Your friends are gone. Up ahead, a shout drifts back.

"They did some trail maintenance. It looks like a superhighway up here."

Maybe in Somalia, after the shelling.

You continue to climb. Mountain bikes have many gears, which is wonderful, but through the entire climb you use just one. The trail, which continues to look like the aftermath of a Tinker Toy factory explosion, switchbacks up the side of the mountain. This affords views that are singularly impressive, if you could afford to tear your gaze from the rutted trail.

You leave your sightseeing to fate, admiring the scenery only when dusting yourself off after a fall. Because you are moving just slightly faster than a senior citizen cafeteria line, these biffs aren't painful. To biff, in mountain bike lingo, means to crash, as in "Whoaa dude, righteous biff!" This is not to be confused with a dab, which occurs when you put your foot to the ground to avoid a crash. A biff is like a dab, only you use your face.

Despite the ever-present threat of carnage, and the fact your heart is doing the rumba, there is a sense of relaxation as you climb. Folks who promote mountain biking will tell you that riders come from all walks of life, and illustrate this with photos of cheery families by a semi-trailer. These people don't come up here. Trails like this one are the domain of guys with nicknames like Slash.

Halfway up the mountain, you encounter two such fellows. They are standing by the trail's edge. You stop, partly to seem friendly, partly to avoid antagonizing the thuggish bulldog that has dashed over to snuffle your leg.

After climbing the narrow trail for over an hour, you have reached a sickening conclusion. Eventually, you will have to descend. You ask if the way up is also the way down.

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