My email back to Sam was jumbled and verbose. I rambled on about how i could not really justify the time and expense to drive all the way back up to Northern California after just getting back from the Sea Otter Classic. Weariness from being on the road and a sense of responsibility to stay home and focus on editing videos took over, causing me to almost miss a rare opportunity.
Sam Tickle works for the Semper Fi Fund, an organization that is making a huge difference. Here’s their mission:
Semper Fi Fund provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families. We deliver the resources they need during recovery and transition back to their communities, working to ensure no one is left behind.
I recommend perusing their very compelling website: www.semperfifund.com
The Semper Fi Fund gets a group of adaptive riders together every year for the TDS Enduro, a private, invite only, mountain bike enduro competition reserved for the best riders in the world, and Sam was emailing to extend an invitation to me. I would seriously be missing out if i did not go. I almost said no to Sam, but something pushed me to get my ass back out on the road. I believe it was something old … a deep-seeded need to roam … that spoke louder than the tired old man who has grown strong within me.
I left early on a Thursday so that i could scoot through LA before the madness that is the I-405. When the sun finally rose and i could see the armpit beyond the Grapevine, i rejoiced as the US’s second largest city fell behind me. For you non-Cali people, i will impart some local knowledge:
Locals don’t say Cali.
All highways and interstates are preceded by The.
The armpit is what we call the agricultural central valley of California. It probably has more cows than people and smells like it.
The Grapevine is the mountain pass north of LA, the gateway to/from Southern California.
Grass Valley nestles into the western side of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite. Its beautiful, and the town carries with it some interesting history. It was established during the gold rush in the mid 1800’s and was home to the two richest mines in California. A walk down Main Street, lined with historic buildings, feels a little like the old west.
By the time i was moved into the hotel room that would serve as my home for the next four days, there was no way i was going to meet the guys out for a drink, so i took my clothes off, showered, and got ready for one hell of a week.
The TDS Enduro was started by the Sanchez family. They began building trails and features for their son, Casey, who showed real promise as an up-and-coming mountain biker. Casey’s friends would come over and ride. More trails were built. One thing lead to another, and now their land is pretty much a full-blown bike park. The TDS Enduro began as a small handful of friends partying in the trees and has become a sort-of speak easy among mountain bikers, a secret to be kept and an honor to be a part of.
On the first day, Owner Ron Sanchez took us around to get a feel for things and see what could work. The best riders in the world stopped their practice to eat lunch, allowing us adaptive riders to explore traffic-free trails with our guides for an hour. We took to the dirt. Chris “Fez”mire, a good-looking young man, originally from Pennsylvania, who lost both his legs while in active duty in the Marine Corps. Fez rides the same bike my mountain-bike life started on in 2007. This thing is tough and can climb anything, but is completely rigid, and Fez impressed me with how hard he can push it. Peter Way studied Nursing at the University of Georgia and lost one of his legs as a Tactical Medical Officer in the military. Then there was me, a surfer boy from San Diego who was the only civilian in the group.
On the first run, I bent a steering rod on a wall ride and navigated the rest of the trails with my two front wheels pointed in opposite directions. I had driven a long way and was not gonna let anything stop me. By the end of the day, Ron and Sam had decided on four routes that would serve as four enduro stages for us. An enduro is raced in stages, and only the downhill is timed. You are not timed for the climbing. At the end of the event, whomever has the best time overall is the winner.
Its physics: When you brake, you loose steering capacity. Your wheels, which need to roll to go in the direction you are steering, are slowed down by braking. On Stage One, i was just not in my groove. The final stretch of the route is a wide open, high-speed road. I was not comfortable with the speed on the loose, dusty surface, so i was on the brakes. My steering was, therefore, compromised and i lost control, ending up off the trail and in the creek. Ron happened to be right there and helped me recover back to the trail quickly. Even with this significant setback, I still finished in second place, about ten seconds behind Peter.
I realized that i had trouble because i was not warmed up. My body was not “awake” for the quick firing of muscles that an intense activity like this requires. So i elected to forgo the shuttle ride and climb back to the top to get my arms pumping. Once there, i stretched, and when it was close to race time again, i “danced around” on my bike to the music … obliques, back extensors, small twitch fibers … all hailing to the movement. I was ready this time.
The crew backed me into the starting gate. The timing engineer counted down, “Five … four … three … two … ONE.” I released the brakes and let gravity take me, leaning left around a tree into a rock garden. The suspension took it. I could see iPhones snapping pictures in a blur as i passed. One berm. Two berms. I dared not touch the brakes. (A berm is a bank, which allows you to hold your momentum and gain speed through a turn.) I was going fast, my body feeling alive and activated. My peripheral caught my ride guide Jed’s red jersey off to the left, and i slammed on the brakes, almost running into the blue race tape that marked the trail. I missed the turn and quickly reversed by pushing my front wheels backwards in a cloud of dust. I redirected down the correct path and proceeded to follow Jed’s lead as fast, but as controlled and smooth as i could, using body-leverage to keep the wheels on the ground.
Its a dance, you know, the trail, the bike, your body. The sun pulses through the canopy of leaves above. The Earth flows underneath like a dirt river, every muscle part of a symphony. The exhale, the change of direction, nothing in your mind except what you feel. The information, not finding its usual hangups, goes directly to the source.
I made up an entire minute on Stage Two and elected to celebrate by pedaling back up again. At the top, i enjoyed a tasty beer with the guys and then promptly loaded my dusty bike on the back of the car. She required some serious attention, so my day was far from over. I gave her a high pressure shower at the local self car wash, which required a dance to an ATM and to two different gas stations to acquire the quarters that the machine demanded. Back at the hotel parking lot, she received a full lube job and a new steering rod. Ready to race again.
With my new-found dance warm-up strategy, I gained another minute on Stage Three, but when they called me to the starting gate for Stage Four, something did not feel right. My bike lurched, and something behind me made a grinding sound. Somehow, someway, my rear caliper came loose and bent the brake rotor. I was faced with a choice. I guess i could have raced with no rear brake. I was a full two minutes in the lead, after all! That is pretty much an eternity in the race world, so all i needed to do was finish without crashing. I steer with my rear brake a lot and, honestly, i am severely tired of being injured. So i elected to call it. Another DNF (Did Not Finish) in the books for me.
Eventhough i wasn’t racing, I really wanted to see Fez and Peter ride, so i had the guys shuttle me down to the main spectator spot where the crowd had amassed. When they came through, everyone was cheering their faces off, and the energy was palpable. I teared up. It was beautiful. What a perfect end to an amazing event!
It was not the end for us though. The next day, everyone left, but the Semper Fi crew got to free-ride. Now, I don’t send it often, but when i do, the conditions need to be right. Send it is a funny action sports phrase. It means “to send” yourself off a jump. It pretty much has evolved to encompass riding hard on anything. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a jump to be something you can “send”. For example, you could say, “Man, bro-brah! You sent it on that rock garden!” (Throw a hang-loose for good measure.)
If you’ve known me for a while, you might recall that i sent it big on a 100 ft ski jump in Mammoth in the Spring of 2006. This day felt very similar. The sun was out. People were having a great time. The vibe was good, and the Snowman Jump was calling. A snowman piñata hangs from a tree overhead on this jump. Able-bodied riders can whip their rear wheel around to slap it. That’s not possible for me, but, in any case, that’s how it got its name.
Its scary, rolling into a jump like that with enough speed to make for a major crash. The vibe was good though, and after a handful of practice attempts, i decided to let go of the brakes and send it. That’s what you have to tell yourself on the approach, “Don’t touch the brakes. Don’t touch the brakes.” I had enough time in the air to actually think. When you land a jump right, you don’t feel it. Its smooth, not jarring, and it takes letting go to feel it.
So, I left the TDS Enduro with a huge sense of accomplishment and some new friends. Thank God i answered Sam’s call.
Watch me send the Snowman Jump in the TDS Enduro episode from the UNP.