By Antonio Graceffo
When I was six years old, my Uncle Ira took me on my first roller coaster. The rickety little, metal car seemed to take forever to make its slow way up the steep hill that rose above Coney Island Amusement Park. When I thought we could go no higher, and when the city of Brooklyn lay impossibly far below us, like a child's toy, the break released, and we plummeted. The little car came tearing down the hill, sending our hearts to our throats. It was terrifying. I screamed. I cried. I prayed. When it was over, Uncle Ira asked me. "What did you think?" I was so shaken, that I could barely speak. "Let's do it again", I begged.
We like to be scared, terrified, and exhilarated. If you're an adrenalinejunkie, luckily, Thailand has just the activity for you, off road, down hill,mountain biking. One of the wonderful things about living in Thailand is thatthe country is so well developed, in terms of infrastructure. Pretty much anywhereyou want to go in Thailand there is a nice, paved road to take you there. So,I never took my lightweight racing bicycle "off road".
But for maniac Off Road mountain bike enthusiasts, like Aidan Schmer, of MountainBiking Chiangmai, going off road is more than just another option. It'sa way of life. "We do this every day", said Aiden, referring to thefour hour long off road bike tour he was planning to take me on. I was apprehensivewhen Aiden showed me the bike I would be riding. It seemed so high tech.
The bike had shock-absorbers on the front fork, a huge spring, to cushion the ride, under the saddle, settings for rigid or flexible riding, twenty-four speeds, with indexed gear shifters in the handle bars, and most importantly, breaks so powerful that they could stop the run-away inflation of the Brazilian economy.
"Does it also make cappuccino?" I asked. "Itcould," saidAiden. "But that feature costs extra".
From the way Aiden stressed that I shouldn't toss the bicycle over the side of the mountain when I got frustrated, I gleamed that these bikes were probably pretty expensive. But one of the advantages of going with a tour group is that they provide you with the bike. They also give you a helmet, eye-protection, and gloves. Additionally, tour companies find the best routes to ride on, and provide you with transportation.
For these off road guys, the only part of the mountain that interested them was the ride down. So, we drove all the way to the top of the mountain, and then had a class in bike handling. According to Aiden, the Master Yoda of bike riding, your body position and bike handling skills are the most important aspects of riding, to prevent injuries. The body position is actually a bit counter-intuitive, and may take some getting used to. Listen to the instructors, they know what they are talking about.
You'll need to keep your body low and your weight back. Grip the saddle with your thighs. The reason why people fall is because their front tire turns, hitting the downward sloping trail at some angle other than dead on. Hold the handlebars firmly, but don't lock your elbows, or become rigid. Always use both breaks at the same time. Shift easily before hitting a hill, not after hitting it. Aiden alerted us to changes in the terrain, informing us when to change gears. When you encounter a stone, or some other obstacle, it is important to speed up, unnecessary breaking seemed to be one of the major causes of falls. Look at the trail only a few meters ahead of you, not the person in front of you. Avoid deep sand or ruts. Always ride on the crown of a rut. Come to a complete stop by using the breaks not feet".
It was a lot to take in. And I began to drift off to sleep. But, I snapped instantly awake when Aiden said. "Now, when you fall..." "When? Don't you mean if?" I corrected. "WHEN you fall..." He repeated, making it clear that falling was an inevitable part of downhill riding. "Don't put your arms out, with your hands palms down, and try to break the fall that way. Instead, you want to tuck, and roll on your shoulder."
Not ten minutes into the ride, I went right over the handlebars. I got cut a little, on my right arm, but mostly my pride was hurt. Wearing a shirt prevented gravel from becoming imbedded in my skin. At that point I absolutely hated this failed suicide attempt, which these deranged persons had made into a sport. Around the next corner, there was a lookout, where I could see the city of Chiang Mai a thousand feet below. The view was breathtaking. I relaxed a little, and my body position got better. When my body position got better, I developed more control. More control meant, less worry. Less worry meant more fun.
Now I could begin to appreciate the natural beauty around me. It was strange to find myself in the jungle, but rolling on two wheels. I was able to hear the song of the tropical birds, and the cicadas, whose constant drone reminded me of Tibetan monks, adding a note of exoticism to our folly. Of course, the goal of all down hill riders is speed. The better your control, the faster you can go.
This was better than the roller coaster ride with my Uncle Ira, so many years ago. This wasn't a ride, in an amusement park. This was real life, and we were completely involved. The trip was unpredictable. Anything could happen. A stone or tree could jump out in front of you, and you had to react. It was much more like those race car games in an arcade. You had to stay alert, constantly shifting, changing, breaking and steering. It was exhausting.
But in a strange meditative way, the deep attention forced you to be present in the moment. The time spent coming down that hill was time lived and experienced, not time that slipped away, unnoticed. And just like that roller coaster ride with my Uncle Ira, it was over too soon. We reached the bottom, and pedaled home. "Can we go again?" I asked.
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