I’m riding along Buttermilk Trail, a stone’s throw from a beer-brown James River, inhaling air thick with the aroma of slow moving water. The sun, prevented all morning by the thick summer foliage from acquiring a clear shot, has finally found its perch directly above me. My brain, so far, has had the day off, as every decision has come from instinct alone; acquiring coffee, driving to Reedy Creek, picking which lines to ride amidst the roots, ruts, and bumps, attacking the zany topography of Forest Hill Park with both energy and strategy, and leaning into every curve of the trail with such commitment I could reach down and cut a second tire track through the dirt with my finger. I feel as indigenous to these parks as a squirrel to a tree.
Up ahead is a section that is infamously rider-hostile; full of abrupt, steep climbs, dark, inconveniently placed creek water, and rock gardens so jarring they make you feel like you’re reentering earth’s atmosphere. I’ve seen American Ninja Warrior courses more welcoming. Usually I skip it by cutting up to Riverside Drive, or by throwing my bike on my shoulder and taking the foot-detour, treading carefully up the hills and around the obstacles as if fearful of awakening some sleeping giant, but this morning has been one of those rare rides that creates more energy than it burns. I’m in no mood for detours today.
Reaching a small clearing, I rotate my pedals to a sturdy 9 and 3, stand, and turn a few quick circles to reset myself. I know I can’t ride it. Unlike the trail behind me, the one ahead can’t be conquered with mere focus or grit. It requires more than the ability to get yourself psyched up. It requires experience, more skill, more talent, a higher level of overall physical fitness than I currently have – and possibly some sort of jet pack. It’s a strip of earth traversable only by the serious full-timers – those riders for whom you happily get out of their way, whose bodies are as skeletal and strong as the bikes beneath them. I’d have a better chance of playing left tackle for the Washington Redskins (and possibly safer) than remaining above the saddle throughout this section of trail.
But I am getting psyched up. I am beginning to focus. Isn’t riding in places you didn’t think you could ride the whole point of mountain biking? I chew some water out of my Camelback’s mouthpiece. Each handle grip feels like the hilt of a sword, and with that thought… I charge.
A few short minutes later, much dirtier and smelling of creek water, I’m heading back the way I came, back to Reedy Creek and the comfort of my truck. The sound of my tires spinning across the ruler-flat single track is a soothing white noise, like a radio that’s lost its signal. I didn’t make it, but I’m happy I tried. My soul is wide awake, and so is the giant.