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Why I Ride: The Laws of Physics

By Michael Pierson

Sometimes things spin around inside my head like when I stir cream in my morning coffee, other times it has the definition of a dust devil and with about as much substance. Then there’s the ones that are a wall of screaming wind, chaotic turbulence, things ripped free from whatever held them down and then blown around like Kleenex or plastic grocery bags, a tornado or a hurricane, whimsy from the gods, true forces of nature. Mixing cream in your coffee is small and things become immediately obscure but nothing happens, nothing bad or good, just nothing. Tornados and hurricanes though, they bring definition, they force change and the places they visit are never the same. Even if buildings get rebuilt and roads repaired, the people who live through them, they look at life, look at things they have done and things they had wanted to do, differently than they did the day before. Sometimes a thought can be a hurricane.


As I said last time, most of my friendships have grown out of hanging with the people who ride on mountain bikes. They ride for their reasons. Some, in fact probably most, do it for the adrenaline rush they would get on a roller coaster if the roller coaster didn’t have a belt which secures you in a seat and the seat is attached to a chassis and the wheels on the chassis are held tightly on their axles by iron rails. But a bike doesn’t have those things so there’s nothing to stop the adrenaline, ever. I get a lot of that when my front wheel dips over the point of no return onto the lip of a technical trail. ‘Technical’ is of course just a euphemism for dangerous, insane, crazy. I love the rush but it’s just a small part of the package because I’m not insane or crazy. Maybe if I’d started doing this when I was in my 20’s the insanity would be so much a part of me that I wouldn’t know it and I’d probably be hanging around people just like me, insane and crazy, so they wouldn’t know it, either. But that’s just not the case.

So it’s late May as I’m writing this. I’m having my morning coffee when a thought pops up: it was about this time last year when I took my worst fall ever, one I don’t ever want to do again, at Upper Chutes in The Oaks. I was riding with Howard and a PE teacher from Kennedy High School, Tom Link. I’d met him while I was substitute teaching another gym class. We’d started talking during lunch. He said he mostly did Whiting Ranch but thought it would be fun to try Oaks. Whiting is maybe a step or two above newbie fun; its claim to fame is Mustard, a brutal uphill you would never voluntarily choose to pedal, but Whiting itself doesn’t have a lot of technical trails; in other words, it’s not Oaks. We did the Grasshopper downhill- about a kilometer- to Santiago Creek Trail and the Mountain Goat trailhead. I’d raised my seat for the grind up Goat to Barham Ridge and forgot to lower it again for the steep rock garden drop at the top of Chutes as it comes off Barham. I’d done that drop, well, not many but at least several times before. Now I’d remembered to unlock my front shocks at the top of Goat but forgot the seat; got about 10 meters down and could feel my rear wheel bouncing off the rocks and I knew I was in trouble because I couldn’t get my butt back off the seat and over that bouncing wheel. Basic physics and quantum mechanics took over from there and I went OTB onto the rocks and that ended my ride for the day. Howard and Tom saw the whole thing. They finished the ride down Chutes while I walked back to my truck and drove to the emergency room. Tom told me later that he would just stick with Whiting and be happy.

Hayden was holding his left arm. The four of us knew right away exactly what had happened, and almost exactly where.Michael Pierson

The next month Howard’s son Hayden went OTB in Laguna Beach, on a downhill at Nix he probably should have walked like the rest of us. But then, he’s in his 20’s. Bob, Howard, Steve, and I were about five minutes up the trail and were waiting for Brian and the rest of them so we didn’t see it happen. It was when they didn’t show we knew there was trouble so we rode back. Brian was leading the entourage single file and walking Hayden’s bike. Hayden was holding his left arm. The four of us knew right away exactly what had happened, and almost exactly where. We made a sling for Hayden out of a spare inner tube. Hayden and his dad walked about half a kilometer to a siding off of Laguna Canyon Road to wait while the rest of us pedaled post haste back to the parking lot; I ended up driving Hayden, along with Howard, to the emergency room. That ended that ride.

Then Bob got hurt that October on a night ride. Now Bob has a couple of axioms, credos more or less: everything is walkable, and don’t do anything so stupid on one Saturday that you can’t ride next. I guess that’s why I never understood why he did night rides. He does San Clemente Weed Patch, Arroyo and Rock-It, and even The Luge. They’re all technical; The Luge is not only technical but about half of it is singletrack on the edge of a cliff. I mean, there’s a good reason it’s called The Luge. He said they were fun and that even familiar trails took on an atmosphere of the unknown when you saw them as purest black and most brilliant white in the beams of your headlight. And besides, for people who are still working he said, night rides are the only option for riding in winter when the sun sets at 5:00. “Try it” he said, “I know you’ll get into it.” He’d been right about how much I would like mountain biking; he’s the one who got me started in the first place. So I bought a set of lights and did a Thursday after-work ride around Fullerton Loop and then the Full Moon Limestone Canyon ride put on Irvine Ranch Conservancy every month when, well, the moon is full. Took falls both times; neither serious but I took them just the same and on lines too easy to wipe out if there was some sunlight. Dave and Brian told me where they were riding that night but I forget exactly. I just know it was a place they rode a couple of times a month. They were almost done and were coming down a fire trail. They both told me that Bob hit a berm and went into a ditch. Bob can’t explain why he ended up OTB in the ditch but it ended his ride for the night. In fact, he hasn’t ridden since and probably won’t until around Thanksgiving.

We’d all gotten separated shoulders. Mine was bad, a second degree separation but I didn’t need surgery, got a little physical therapy, and rode the 44 miles to Huntington Beach and back on my road bike within a week; did Chutes a few days after that. I didn’t do the rock garden line off of Barham but still started at the top and took it all the way down to Irvine Park. A piece of the hair of the dog that bit me I guess you could say, but I still have a problem with that rock garden. And I went out and bought armor. Covers my shoulders in hard plastic. Just in case. Hayden, well, he didn’t have to have surgery but he almost lost his soccer scholarship at San Francisco State. What was worse, well, almost worse, was that he got hurt the day his summer vacation started so he was pretty much immobile until school started again in September. Their house has a pool, a Jacuzzi, and a great view of The Oaks but I’m sure that’s little consolation, of little comfort, under the circumstances. He’s fine now but hasn’t been on a mountain bike since.

At first Bob thought his shoulder was kind of like mine, a separation; more serious than either mine or Hayden’s but with some therapy and exercise he’d be riding in a month or two. What had happened, though, was that when he put his right arm out to brace his fall, he’d hit hard enough to make a hairline fracture. It hadn’t shown up on his X-rays because they’d only looked at his shoulder. When he kept complaining about the pain in his arm, they looked again and found the fracture. That took a couple of months. Then he had surgery on both the arm and joint; while they were poking around they found a few other little pieces and parts that weren’t supposed to be where they found them so they had to put them back. That was this January. Last week we talked. He’d texted me first with the good news that he’d ridden around the block so we talked about that. Here’s a guy that, for twenty or so years, could ride 10 or 15 kilometers at the drop of a hat and he was getting excited about riding in a loop for about a kilometer around his block. And I used the word ‘excited’ not like the team you bet on to win the World Series back in April at 250/1 just swept their opponent in four, but in a way that someone is excited to find out their cancer is in remission. When I sent out a ride list for last week to all the guys I ride with, I said I hoped that he’d be eating our dust soon. He said he’d rather be eating our dust that eating the shit he’s in right now. Not paraphrasing, either.

It doesn’t make it any less painful for him to know that, yes indeed, such a joke was played, that he was the butt, and that the immortal who dreamed up the Laws of Physics and what would happen to people who encounter them? Well he or she is somewhere in the cosmos laughing. Michael Pierson

I looked into my coffee cup and thought, when you’re in your twenties you know you’re going to live forever; immortality is yours because you are you and nothing can hurt you. There’s a certain schadenfreude to it all. Maybe it was a cruel joke from the likes of a Loki or something out of Pandora’s Box that has kept Hayden off his bike. Maybe he found out otherwise, I don’t know. Bob, on the other hand, is about my age so he knows all about the cruel jokes the Pucks and Pans of our archetypical theologies can play on us mere mortals. It doesn’t make it any less painful for him to know that, yes indeed, such a joke was played, that he was the butt, and that the immortal who dreamed up the Laws of Physics and what would happen to people who encounter them? Well he or she is somewhere in the cosmos laughing.

©2015 Michael Pierson


We would like to thank Michael Pierson for submitting another great story. You can hear Michael’s podcast with us HERE. Thank You Mike.


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