Family Mountain Bike Bonding: Downhill Racing on Cross-Country Elastomers, Circa 1995

I didn’t finish last, which for my fourteen-year-old ego was the same as winning. Instead, I came across the finish line someplace in the middle, with my dad waiting patiently in the village below. The year was around 1995 when I lined up for that first mountain bike race. It was the same summer I became enamored with political punk-rock and soon after stopped eating animals. Somehow each of those firsts has managed to follow me through adulthood.

The event consisted of a typical timed downhill run, followed later by a Fat Tire Criterium that spun through the gravel parking lot during the hotter afternoon. I reckoned that my sweet purple and pink Trek 9500 was the ideal tool for both of the events, and I wasn’t the only uninformed noobie who turned up on a cross-country bike. It was my first full-suspension whip, purchased with the cash I had earned while working at my parents’ twelve-aisle grocery store. The odd-looking frame, with its space-age carbon fiber swingarm and elastomer-damped suspension, came with the latest Shimano V-brakes and rapid fire “21-speeds” to choose between. Oh, and compulsory purple bar ends, of course. I shoved my skate shoes into the pedal cages and strapped them as tight as my growing hands could manage before pulling my sister’s Bike-brand volleyball kneepads up to a pair of cutoff jean shorts. “Full-sus” means it’s a real downhill bike, right?

A number of the other riders were wearing motorcycle helmets, hefty pants, and full-body padding. I remember thinking that they must crash a lot. Some also had very different bikes. The eventual winner was on a steel full suspension bike that he welded up himself. People said it weighed close to fifty pounds and had a motorcycle fork. People also said he was from Montana, which in my adolescent mind meant that he was likely a real cowboy who ate bricks for dinner and would beat me up if I crossed him. There’s a classy Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet floating behind this story someplace.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort was built on the land of the indigenous Kalispel people, within the vast Selkirk mountain range, about eleven miles outside Sandpoint, Idaho. The summer dirt-crew at that time was working to create one of the Idaho panhandle’s first legitimate bike parks, and this race was a piece of that greater effort. The trails consisted of a few moderately visible hiking paths ribboned across barren summer ski slopes, interlaced with faster “cat tracks” to crank up the pucker factor. There were no special racks on the chairlifts to bring your bike safely to the summit. Folks just hopped on the chair and the lift attendant put your bike on the next chair, tires on the seat, frame against the backrest.

Today the mountain is home to over forty miles of machine and hand-built singletrack, demonstrating the future they were working toward. The summer chair lifts can hold several bikes at a time without the risk of dropping or scratching them when the lift comes to a sudden halt. If you haven’t been, Northern Idaho is a quiet place of natural beauty, rife with wildlife, deep cold lakes, and heavily forested mountains. I was fortunate to call the panhandle home for my first nineteen years.

Those kneepads were not so effective, on or off.

Preparation for that first race looked a little different than what I would later come to call training. My dad drove myself and a couple of my much older coworkers to the top of a nearby mountain called Stone Jonny in his pickup truck, and we blasted down the roughly thirteen miles of logging roads that lead back to our house. Apart from those few laps, I had ridden roughly every inch of hiking trail around my grandparents’ house at Priest Lake. I now understand that our rural community didn’t have opportunities for kids to take lessons. We also couldn’t see what the pros were doing, beyond the few mountain bike rags at the grocery store newsstand. Our television only picked up one fuzzy channel, and Red Bull was neither an energy drink nor media outlet yet. We learned a lot by crashing, a little when we stayed upright, and likely more while riding dirt bikes.

It didn’t start off with the cool buzz of blue-smoker motocross bikes. Not quite. My folks lit my fire for speed long before I could sort out how to balance. My dad remembers the details better than I do. “From the get-go, he and his sister Becky were always ready for fun, especially if it involved adequate danger. At two and four [years old], he rode with his older sister for hours up and down our gravel driveway and around the barn on their little red gocart. At eight and six I took Becky to an orthodontist appointment in Sandpoint. The Honda dealer was next door! Maureen [their mom] was not ready for this. We came home with two Hondas just to try out. That began Brian’s love of two wheels. Well, Becky got into barrel racing [rodeo] and Brian started racing mountain bikes. I remember his first race, a downhill on Schweitzer Mountain. While I waited an extra forty-five minutes at the bottom, Brian was getting patched up somewhere en route. Scars always have a story.” I can still feel where my kneecap was sliced open from that crash, 25 years on. I washed my front tire in deep gravel during a practice run and somehow managed to ride the following race lap. Of course, the reminder-pains are more noticeable during the winter months.

Today the thought of rigid training regiments and strict diets has me less excited about racing than I once was. I prefer to pedal all day, to stop and photograph butterflies, and maybe race my friends to the trail’s end on the odd days when I ride with company. I appreciate the massive amount of support that my folks offered when I was a kid, and now it’s my turn to get kids excited about forest fun. Fortunately, my kid and her friends can watch hundreds of skills videos with professional riders on YouTube and go practice them on bikes that make my Trek 9500 look like the museum piece it is.

Unfortunately, the squishy bike was stolen, but here’s a recent shot of its (also purple) predecessor leaned against a blue spruce tree at my parents’ house. The water bottle no doubt has some dried Gatorade crust inside. That’s the Priest River flowing by in the background.

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