On a bright, sunny Easter Sunday, Bret Waldon is leading our pack through a maze of winding singletrack in picturesque Sedona. Waldon, who rode mountain bikes in college, makes quick work of the trail, bobbing under overhanging tree limbs and plunging down steep, red sandstone descents.
Waldon is followed by Mick Wolf, the owner of Payson’s only bike shop (you can guess where his skill level lies), Andrew Fiala, with a good amount of riding experience, Jannel Horney, Waldon’s girlfriend and new rider to the sport and finally way down the trail ... keep going ... myself.
I am clearly out-skilled here.
Although Horney does not have the skill level of Wolf or Waldon, she has a fancy new $1,700 Trek underfoot. I follow on a Trek as well ... a decade-old, scratched and dented bicycle. The custom front fork that once provided shock absorbency has now seized, providing the ride of a rigid frame bike.
You can’t pay for extra features like that, I think in the solitude of my slowness.
Even it hadn’t been for Wolf’s gentle prodding, I wouldn’t even be on this ride right now. I would probably be eating sushi and drinking sake in town.
Now I am the wobbling fool trying to catch my breath long enough to catch up.
I figure, there are three ways to go in the sport of mountain biking.
• Prepared: Having the necessary equipment (bike, helmet, repair supplies, food and water), skills (knowledge of braking, turning, jumping over rocks and roots, riding up and downhill and navigating a trail) and sufficient level of nerve.
• Unprepared: Having not much physical fitness, a cowardly lion’s nerve, a rusty bicycle and absolutely no repair supplies.
• Completely out of your mind: A fanatic with complete commitment to riding as fast and hard as possible.
Alas, I fall in the middle group while the rest of my riding group falls somewhere among the other two.
Now on my second dirt trail, I struggle to keep up with the rest of the pack.
As I dismount, to carry my bike over another patch of boulders, thoughts flash back to a YouTube video Wolf showed a week ago: A man slowly rides his bike over a white line, a thin layer of sediment found among the red rock monoliths all over Sedona. As the camera pans back, you see the man is riding high above Sedona, several hundred feet off the ground on the side of a cliff, his tires just barely sticking to the white lip.
I look up at Cathedral Rock in front of me, catching up with Horney. =
We exchange grimaces.
For us, it has only been 2/10 of a mile and at least 10 more miles lie ahead.
Thoughts of turning around and waiting at the coffee shop where we left our cars pass. Horney and I remount our bikes and pedal forward.
Five minutes later, we catch up with the boys who have bounded down the trail with such enthusiasm, they act like three, 5-year-old boys who just got their training wheels off for the first time.
As they recount jumping over this rock and winding through this section of the trail, I struggle to get water down.
How can they look around at the sights when I cannot take my eyes off the foot-wide trail for a second?
Waldon has a flat, so this gives me extra time to lie down in the red dirt.
Wolf, Horney and Waldon open up their bags filled with supplies, including tweezers, tape, rope, tubes and enough CO2 canisters to refill their tires.
I look back at my Camelback. It’s got a pouch of water, Power Bar and little more.
How could I have forgotten a tube? Oh, that’s right, I have no idea what I am doing.
This ride is quickly exposing all of my flaws. But I have little time to feel sorry for myself. With the tire fixed, the group pedals away.
A few more turns down the trail and the path opens up. For a few miles, Horney and I ride without dismounting every five seconds to walk around an obstruction the guys effortlessly hop over. This gives us time to talk about how she got into mountain biking.
A year ago, she explains, she met Waldon. Realizing his passion for pedaling, she took up the sport, quickly finding she loved riding almost as much as he did.
But why am I doing this, I wonder?
A few quick turns through a valley and the trail opens up onto a mesa. The rest of the group is already rounding another corner far ahead, leaving me alone in the sunshine. They stop and yell back to see if I am OK for the hundredth time and I shout back, “I am fine.”
Who cares why I am doing this, this place is beautiful.
Wolf has gotten me on the trail and it is time I start enjoying it.
Although I didn’t get there very gracefully, I have finally made it past the point where I want to stop. I keep going.
I pedal harder, ignoring the burning in my legs. At Cathedral Rock trailhead, the other riders wait — huge grins on their faces. There is one on mine too.
The ride is turning out fun for everyone.
Waldon, Wolf and Fiala get to egg each other on, pushing their skills further. Fiala pushes so hard, he flies over his handlebars after his back wheel catches on the wrong end of a boulder.
Unfazed, he laughs and gets back on.
And finally, I don’t care how silly I look on my bike or that I can’t keep up.
More of the afternoon slips by, our arms turning a crispy red, until we reach the lower parking lot near Bell Rock.
It’s been more than five hours of pure thrill.
I tell the others that if I had one week to live, this ride would be on the list of must-dos.