Mountain biking--it’s not a sport for the weak of heart or timid in spirit.
You have to ride up hills normally reserved for black-diamond ski runs in the winter. You have to rush through narrow trails where even walking would be difficult. You have to be careful to watch for logs, rocks, and other bumps on the trail lest you go flying off into the bush.
And if you do, you have to learn to get back on your bike again.
I was apprenticed to the ins and outs of the sport when I set off to Hill City, Mn. with Gary Edwards, Joel Morris, Isaac Morris, Nathan Shute, and Girshom Morris--a.k.a. “Team GT/Skates and Blades”--to watch them compete in the 13th-annual Sapling Snapper Mountain Bike Race at the Quadna Hill Resort on Sunday.
About 250 people enter the race each year. And even though Hill City is less than a three-hour drive from Fort Frances, the guys wanted to leave early Saturday to make sure they got a good campsite.
(Only fully-sponsored cyclists could afford to sleep in the motel, I was told. Pretty much everyone else at these races pitches a tent).
Everyone on the team had raced at the “Snapper” before except Girshom and Nathan, who are still fairly new to the sport. Both were fairly calm after pre-riding the trail Saturday afternoon but admitted that might not last through Sunday.
“I know I’m going to be nervous at the starting line, wicked butterflies,” Girshom said. “[But] I’m really excited about the race.”
“It looks faster and easier than last year,” Edwards interjected. “I hope to make top 10. I’ve been training a lot more this year.”
Joel Morris announced he was aiming for one of the top three spots while brother, Isaac, was hoping to better his DNF (did not finish) standing from a year ago when his bike broke down on the trail.
“It’s important for me to have fun,” he stressed. “If you worry about where you place, you won’t have fun.”
Sunday dawned clear and bright, free of the rain people were predicting the day before. Everybody wass up bright and early--except Joel and Girshom, that is.
Isaac said Joel wasn’t known for getting up early, having slept in longer at last year’s race than anyone else on the team.
“Do you remember last year when we took out all his tent poles in the morning [while he was asleep]?” he laughed.
“Do, and I’ll slash your tires,” came a tired warning from Joel’s tent. “I mean it!”
I sauntered up to the pancake and porridge breakfast put on by the lodge with Gary, Isaac, and Nathan, all the while acquainting myself with biking lingo.
“I hope I don’t biff out on the course . . . .”
“The single-track is pretty narrow.”
“The course is four miles long, right?”
“Not even. I had 3.8 miles on my odometer.”
“. . . you’ve got to max your oxygen. . . .”
About 45 minutes before the race, Nathan begins to feel a few jitters. “I’m nervous just that I’ll crash, or get run over,” he said.
Meanwhile, Joel is busy tuning up his bike, making sure it will be at peak performance for the race.
“On that first hill, I’ll only let 10-15 riders get ahead of me, then I’ll pick them off one by one on the trail,” he said, outlining his strategy.
“What’s your strategy for that first hill?” Joel asked Gary.
“Going up it,” he replied.
It isn’t long after that the local team made its way to the starting line. The race started on time, sending the first group of riders--the “experts”--up the hill shortly after noon.
Five minutes later, the “sport” racers headed up the long slope. Team GT/Skates and Blades are all in the “beginner” category so they get to go up the mountain last.
Joel applied his strategy even better than originally planned, letting less than 10 riders get ahead of him. Then they rounded the corner and vanished sight as they entered the “single-track” trails.
Then I waited for them to reappear.
Before any of the “beginner” riders reappeared, the race already saw its first casualty when one man walked his bike down the hill and handed in his number, settling for a DNF standing.
By the end of the first lap, about eight people had pulled out due to one mechanical failure or another. One guy appeared from the bush carrying his bike over his shoulder--the front tire and fork connected to the bicycle only by the brake cable.
But none of them belonged to Team GT/Skates and Blades, who all finish in the top 10 of their age group.
“The race was excellent,” said Joel, who finished second in his age group and third overall.
“Man, I’m getting a wicked head rush,” added Gary, who finished just three places behind.
But why do it? Even with the strong finish, the team faced difficulties and falls which would have left any normal biker lying in the road. Plus the aches and pains and muscle cramps afterwards seemed like too high a price to play.
Yet for these guys, they wouldn’t give up the sport for the world.
“It’s you verses the terrain; it’s skill and finesse,” Isaac said. “You get a high off it, really.”
“Why race? It’s the only place where you can hear the sound of 100 clipless pedals clipping in,” Gary said. “There’s no other sound like it in the world.”
Editor’s note: In case you’re wondering, it’s called the Sapling Snapper because when organizers first laid out the race 13 years ago, they used golf carts to make the trail and the wheels snapped quite a few roots of the young trees growing on the trail.