In Search of Dragons
I. The Dragon
In literature, dragons are usually depicted as winged fire-breathing monsters who must be conquered or tamed. Through trials of strength and daring, a noble hero must face his fears to vanquish the beast lurking in some dark cave deep in the forest. In the best stories, the dragon becomes an ally of the hero; together they battle against evil.
So, when I first set eyes on the Jamis Dragon I now ride, I knew it was the bike for me. For years I had been a cyclist, pedaling away in the Flatlands. But I wanted to be a conqueror. I wanted to vanquish something.
“I think I have something for you,” the guy at the local bike shop said, beckoning me to follow him. We walked, literally up a drawbridge, into a cavernous room filled with bikes. Evening light filtered through high windows, casting a golden glow on exposed timber beams, on brake levers and derailleurs and seat posts. “This one,” he said, “this one is for you.”
The bike was a deep metallic blue, chipped and scratched from what had come before. The wheels were enormous, wrapped in knobby studded tires. The pedals were huge flats. Nestled inside the downtube, against the blue paint, curled a small white dragon.
I counted out five hundred in twenties and led my dragon out the door.
Good rides can feel like heroic quests. Sometimes you control the dragon, bending its steel frame to your will over every rock and tree stump. Some days on the perfect flowy trail it even shows you its wings, launching you over the lip of a jump. You are a kid again, astride your imaginary dragon for a day of high adventure.
Some days it turns on you. Racing down some rocky trail, it exerts a will of its own and you find yourself struggling just to stay astride the beast. Some days it throws you to the ground and reminds you of the fire it carries, the hot friction of skin on rock.
II. The Village
It doesn’t matter which trail network you seek out in Vermont; each one has a village, and all the villages share the same balance of stoicism and generosity.
As I wait anxiously for the Thursday-night group ride to begin, I watch other riders tinker with their bikes, trading stories of last week’s ride. One guy makes looping figure eights through the dirt lot where we wait. I knew I was outclassed: three twenty-something mountain-bike guides from Killington, their mentor, one pro rider, and the local bike tech who days earlier had recounted his forty-plus-mile-per-hour crash into a tree, grinning like my sons on Christmas morning. The bike tech I have come to know catches me staring apprehensively into the mountains where we will ride. “You’ll be fine,” he assures me. He knows I have been contemplating this ride for some time now while I honed my skills alone on easier, flowier, wider trails.
As the new guy, I am offered shotgun in one of the pickups while others perch on the sides of the truck’s bed. It is at once a kindness and a nod to the fact that I am softer than the others; they offer me the extra comfort of the seat because they know what I am in for.
Early into the ride, I do well in keeping up with the pack, and it seems everyone has some word of encouragement. Later, when my legs fatigue and the trail gets more challenging, people take turns dropping back with me. They dismount with me when I can’t make it up the hill, and tell stories while we walk. There isn’t a moment of annoyance. They all seem content initiating another member into this strange little club of theirs.
This is the response I have encountered at Cady Hill in Stowe, at Kingdom Trails in East Burke, at Green Mountain Trails in Pittsfield. Everyone wants to share the joy of exploring Vermont’s wild places on a bike.
The ride goes well, until it doesn’t and I launch right over my handlebars.
When I stand up, the front of my leg looks like an overripe melon that has been dropped, the soft tissue like so much rotten fruit. For an instant I panic, but I force a deep breath and inspect the wounds more closely. With blood running down my leg and into my shoe, covering my forearm and my wrist, I can see it. Mountain biking is in my blood; I can feel it coursing through my veins. I grin, get back on my bike, and start pedaling. We still have a few miles to get back to the cars.
When the ride is over, I am invited to the back of the shop, where the shop’s owner has built his own clay pizza oven. A party is wrapping up, and he has made extra pizza for those of us doing the ride this evening. Dizzy from my fall and trying to hide my pronounced limp, I walk over for a slice covered in homegrown veggies.
Maybe it’s that the vegetables are grown just outside the shop, or maybe it is the conquest of riding away from my first crash, but the pizza redefines “best ever.”
III. The Homecoming
When I climb out of the car back at home, I leave my bike on the rack. Tonight I will skip the ritual of wiping down of the drivetrain. My wife takes one look at me and says three things in rapid succession: Oh my god. Are you okay? You are never doing that ride again.
I smile at her, the glint in my eye saying I will be at it again soon. I grab a beer from the fridge—some local IPA, a double I imagine given the circumstances—and a bag of ice, and I head out to the porch to sit gingerly on one of our plastic Adirondack chairs and watch the sun dip down behind Old Sixty Hill.
I cannot stop grinning. It is one of the best evenings of my summer. Bloodied and battered, I just want more.
IV. The Quest
Maybe the books I was reading to my sons at bedtime were responsible. Perhaps it was just a longing to show my boys the right way to live. Perhaps it was just the animal side of human nature. I came to mountain biking in middle age because it offered adventure and had the potential to be dangerous. I came to mountain biking in middle age because I longed for a heroic quest, but lived in suburban Jersey teaching high school English.
A close friend came to visit me recently. His marriage over, he was visiting for a chance to reconnect with the natural world, to get some fresh mountain air and clear his head. Naturally, I took him down to the local shop to rent a bike and brought him to my favorite trails.
It was just a weekend, but it was a respite. With rocks and roots to navigate, he temporarily forgot how his fairytale landscape had been turned to scorched earth. Lungs and legs burning, he remembered the fire he had inside himself.
We live in a world that tries to tame our wild spirits. We walk from one controlled climate to another, pop Vitamin D beneath fluorescent lights, and too often fall victim to the belief that easy is an ideal worthy of aspiration. I long for something more challenging, something more primal.
I came to riding through the flat straight roads of Jersey where I first became a cyclist. I evolved to riding mountain passes in my new home. Finally I found what I was looking for riding an old dragon along mountain trails.
It is in my blood now. I dream about it some nights, and find myself replaying my favorite trails in my head while my students write about the literature we study.
At bedtime, I tell my sons stories of adventure. I tell them of dragons. I whisper of the thrill that comes from flying.