This past weekend had a high percentage of chore-catchup tasks. Rugs to steam clean, garage sections to clean out, rooms to be reordered and reclaimed from tides of inevitable detritus. All stuff we’ve needed to do for a while. At least we’re getting the spring cleanings done before we hit the honest fall.
I snuck in a breeze-buffeted road-n-trails ride on Saturday afternoon, and then an honest-to-goodness MTB ride on Sunday evening. The cool kids were out finishing up the SF Randonneurs 200K to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of RUSA, but even if I had the time to join them, I’m pretty sure I lack the reserves right now. Saturday’s ride had been no more than an hour and a half, and I definitely felt it. Adding another 9 or so hours to the effort would be a serious pipe dream.
But, I wasn’t really too worried about that - I’ve been in better riding shape before and may be able to approximate it in the future. Right now, it’s all about taking small bites and chewing thoroughly. Enjoy the ride - something that is seldom an issue for me on a bike.
And so, I found myself tiredly spinning along the road Sunday. Nudged along by a helpful tailwind, seeking the trails of China Camp. Knobbies buzzed on pavement and my brain notched into the pace of the ride. Reaching the entrance, I pedaled past what seemed to be more cars than expected for late in the day. It was a weekend, which gets my radar tuned a bit, and the extra vehicles pushed that up another notch. Easing onto the trails, I rolled past some hikers, said “hidy” and looped around behind the campground area.
Over at the primitive camping parking lot, a pretty good gaggle of folks had collected. There were bike stands and lines in the sand and little red-roped squiggles in the dirt, and I recalled that a skills clinic had been advertised for Sunday. It seemed as though it was winding down, as most people were off their bikes, chatting and enjoying the post-ride vibe.
I began climbing. Whatever else there is to say about singlespeeding, sometimes it’s just hard. Even the easy inclines bit into my legs and back, and I tried to find a cadence and some momentum. It wasn’t going well, but it was going. I paused at powerline point to gobble a clif bar - guess I’d forgotten to eat a proper lunch during my chores - and stretch a bit. While I wasn’t feeling great, it wasn’t gettting worse, and I rolled back onto the upper section of the climb.
The next bits pitch up a bit, and, as I should explain if you aren’t familiar with the trails, there are a couple of sections which are reasonably narrow. There’s really nowhere that two bikes couldn’t get by one another with a little bit of care. I’m working my way up, and have reached a section where the stakes area reasonably high. The downhill side of the trail drops steeply away - such that you would have a long time to consider things if you went that way. The uphill side is also steep. It feels like a wall as you ride past it. This section does have a reasonable line of sight, so that usually you can see other riders and avoid getting truly pinched.
I heard the clanking and chain slap of a full suspension rig before I could see it. The rider appeared, I put my tires as far right as I could and they breezed past with little room to spare. A little too fast for the conditions it seemed to me, but not entirely off the charts. If I hadn’t have been slightly winded from the climbing efforts, I might have mentioned it as they went by. It was a tad annoying, but I wasn’t going to get overly vexed.
Things changed an instant later. A second rider came into view and all the alarms went on at once. The rider didn’t seem to have any of the authority or control of the first one and were coming in hot. They’d hammered the brakes hard, and both tires skittered and locked on the loose rocks. I had a front-row seat of the failing of a braking system - the tires need be attached to earth to slow down. It was a clear “oh shit!” moment, and I plastered myself against the uphill wall to my right. Avoiding the first rider had sacrificed my momentum and all I could do was make myself as small as possible. Through their iridium-or-whatever lenses, I could see the whites of their eyes growing as large as saucepans. They had locked onto their target, and it was me. They are skidding and looking exactly where they are going to go. I remember clearly thinking, “This is Bad.”
Nothing to do but brace for impact.
Which I did. Full body flex and tension. Hands on the bars. Bent elbows. Pressed against the side of the mountain. Maybe those years of Pop Warner and High School football would pay off.
We hit. It starts as tire to tire and they glance off to my left. I see their bike lift into a sort of nose-wheelie and hear a solid “klock!” as our helmets hit. Our bars tangle a bit and they bounce back to two-wheeled mode. Silence. The dust settles a bit.
Before I go into the specifcs of what’s next, I’d like to say that this is not bad. I ride a fair amount on legal, narrow trails and periodically, there are user, um, “interactions”. In all my years of riding, I’ve had very few and I’d much rather it be between members of the same user group (hiker v. hiker, equestrian v. equestrian, cyclist v. cyclist) than any kind of cross-pollinization betwixt them. Most of the time, interactions are of the “Whoa! Dude!” variety - a sharp veer and maybe an arm bump. In fact, I’ve not had a tangle quite so intertwined as this one, which, though deeply annoying, seemed no one had been hurt and damage would be minimal.
It did not, however, prevent me from hissing, “What the heck* was that?”
*I must disclose that I actually used a word of Anglo-Saxon origin which ended in the same two letters.
I’d also like to skip forward in time slightly to analyze the group dynamics involved here. Only because I think I’ve seen this a great number of times while riding. Enough to feel that it’s ready to be a theory.
There were two more riders in this group who haven’t shown up yet. The lead rider was long gone. But, it was this second person who was not able to maintain control. In a group of four riders going downhill, inevitably the one with the skills ends up leading. Oh sure, there are times when they relinquish control out of kindness, but generally, they are the point person. The folks off the back are a little less sure of themselves, and once the lead riders go out of sight, they have found a pace that can comfortably hold. It’s that second person who is always the danger. They probably have the skill set of the riders in the rear, but some chase-response has kicked into the reptilian portion of their brain, and they are doing their damnedest to follow the wheel of the leader. They are insulated in a feeling of adrenalin and safety, hyped on the group energy and out of touch with the reality of their riding conditions. This is a dangerous rider. They’ve probably gotten themselves a notch or two past their skill set - and I actually do think you can become a better rider this way - but if things go south, they are well and truly screwed.
Which is pretty much where we are now. I’m panting - having been climbing pretty steadily in a big gear for the past four or five minutes. Still plastered against the wall - not quite pinned, but I’m not moving any more and can’t easily go anywhere.
This is when the other rider says, “Why didn’t you give me right-of-way?”
I have a moment of zen clarity. Of all the things they could have said, this was so far out of the realm of expected comments that I get a big bubble of thoughtlessness. It hovers for a second, then pops.
I look up and in a frighteningly calm and measured, but a bit hissish voice, reply, “Because uphill traffic always has right of way. Don’t you know that?”
Silence. No response. Guess they didn’t.
Which takes an annoying incident and makes it into an eggregious transgression.
Again, for those who don’t ride at China Camp, a bit of topographic background. There are many places where the trail is more or less level. After this climb, there’s a 4 or 5 mile runout which is basically contouring the hillside. The slope definitely favors eastbound traffic, but I wouldn’t suppose to push an uphill-right-of-way issue for most of its stretch. Same down on Shoreline trail, where the rolling curves mean that you have to be aware of your line of sight, make some noise and be ready for other trail users. In other words, you work it out.
I’m also aware of mountain biking situations when the drop-in is tricky enough that you don’t push it. I’m thinking about chutes for the testosterone-testing, and they are generally best avoided in the uphill direction, simply because the folks coming down it won’t be able to stop, even if they have appropriate bike-handling skills.
This current situation is neither of those. I’m clearly climbing. I have right of way. It’s always been that way, as the uphill rider has a harder time re-establishing momentum. There is adequate line of sight on the trail and enough surface to pass.
“…give me right of way”?
I’m plastered against the friggin’ hillside giving you as much trail as I can. Give you right of way…
They were riding in a manner which prevent them from controlling their speed within the event horizon. Worse yet, they made the common error of looking at that thing which they did not want to hit. You go where you look. Now they are pawing at my front brake which they believe is tangled in their cables. Since I can’t move my bike further to the right, I take a handful of stem and move their front wheel to my left. Magically, we are no longer intertwined.
I just want to get out of there.
The other rider moves a little downhill. I hop off my bike and begin pushing it. She calls out that there are two more riders coming. I retort that I hope they are riding with a little more control.
They are. They appear and see dust in the air and me pushing uphill, probably with those cartoon frazzled sweat drops and a tornado and “X’s” above my head. They ask what happened and I hear the other rider say, “We hit.”
Both riders ease past me and the grade lessens enough so I can hop back on and pedal once again. After a little bit, something seems wrong up front, and I find one of the brake pads got tweaked a bit. Easily fixed. The rest of the ride passes without incident. In fact, the rest of the ride is great. I’m reminded once again why the singlespeeded MB-1 is one of the truly great handling bikes. While riding, two points seem to distill themselves:
1 - Uphill traffic has right of way. However, it is safe to assume that newer riders may not know this.
2 - Ride in control with respect to your event horizon. This is constantly changing offroad, as trail conditions and line-of-sight both can suddenly shorten this variable. There is actually an appropriate cartoon by William Nealy in his book, The Mountain Bike Way of Knowledge where he shows a brain travelling a couple seconds in front of the rider, which the admonishment to always ride with your brain two seconds ahead of you. I’d scan it, but I can’t easily lay my hands upon that book this morning.
Anyway. No damage, and maybe the other rider learned something.