Sunday, June 12, 2011

Get on the Snake

I have a bogeyman that haunts my cycling dreams... and that bogeyman's name is Snakeonia. I first heard about the Snake (as locals refer to it) 2 years ago from some teenage boys at the dirt jump park.

"Have you ridden the Snake yet?" they asked.
"No, what's the snake?" I responded.
"It's a trail just outside town. And it's burly! It's really steep with lots of granite to ride. And there are jumps too...BIG jumps."
"Oh, really?" I said, not entirely impressed.

I've learned not to take people too seriously in general when it comes to talking about trails or riding because many are prone to exaggerate. It seems like most are a fish story, where every time it gets retold the fish gets a little bigger until the story no longer resembles the fish. It wasn't until I heard the Snake come up a number of different times from several people that I started to take note.

Some respected local riders told me that the trail was nothing to laugh at, and if you went out to ride it, you had better take it seriously or you were going to get hurt. Even the people that didn't like the trail had nothing negative to say about it's legitimacy. One guy I met told me, "It's too hard. There is something coming at you every second, with no time to recover. If you screw up there's no saving it. You're going to get hurt and that's not what I call fun." So, by all accounts this trail was a high skill level ride... a steep, techy trail with little margin for error. In short, an honest to God big bike trail that you need at least 7 inches of travel for. "Wow." I thought, "Now I have to go see it. I may not be able to ride it, but I at least have to see it."

Once it became apparent that this trail was indeed a high skill level downhill trail, I did an internet search. At the time, there wasn't much video of the Snake out there, just a few pictures and a couple of hand-held videos. It's important to keep in mind that when viewing video, it is usually hard to tell much about the size of things. Everything tends to look considerably smaller and flatter than it actually is. With this in mind, I viewed the pictures and video with no small amount of amazement. It looked big in the in videos, did it really look bigger in person? I couldn't be sure. I knew from experience that that was typically the case, but I watched feeling that if it looked huge to me now, how big would it be close up? I couldn't be certain, but this was getting interesting. Scary as hell - yes - but interesting nonetheless.

Watching videos was enough to give me an idea of the personality of the trail, enough to say it looked like fun if you had the confidence and skill to ride it. It did have plenty of trees and did indeed look steep. How steep? This was hard to tell (because of the phenomenon I mentioned earlier) but I could tell you that there was very little pedaling and spurts of rapid acceleration as the riders made their way down the hill. The trail looked pretty flowey though, meaning that there was plenty of carrying speed and each feature seemed to blend into the next without the need for abrupt braking. Gravity and numerous small, properly-placed berms connected the features, making it possible to clear each drop or jump and yet control the speed so the rider did not ride off the mountain. At this point, I was thinking that this definitely was looking like my kind of trail. What can I tell you? I love jumps and berms!

In addition to the videos, I also found pictures. A picture of one jump in particular caught my eye. It looked to be a sizable step-down jump with a large stump sitting in the middle of the gap. Actually, from the picture's perspective, it looked like the stump was a good bit higher than the take-off. This almost certainly meant that the rider could not see the landing as he approaches the jump, and worse, it looked like you would be launching the take-off directly into the stump - with little chance of achieving the height to clear it. It is possible to clear the stump of course, there were enough shots of guys caught mid-air hanging over the stump, styling out tabletops and other tricks to prove it. But studying the picture of the jump without anyone on it, it looked potentially undo-able and definitely scary. 

Shortly after finding the scary stump picture, I found a second one. (By the way, there are now many pictures of this jump out there. If you find one you'll know it, because the location of the stump makes the jump unmistakable.) It was a complete action sequence of someone riding the jump. The image was a composite of several photographs taken in rapid succession, and layered on top of one another so you could see the action frame-by-frame. In the first still, he's pedaling in. In the second, he's setting up getting ready for the take-off. In the third, he safely cleared the stump. And in fourth still of the sequence, you could see that the attempt went terribly wrong.

The rider's body was compressed violently into the bike, as if all of his downward and forward momentum had come to a sudden, crumpling stop. His head was down, as were his shoulders. His elbows were pointed out and back, his knees were bent and his entire upper body was locked into this unnatural looking forward-weighted position on the bike. He had come up short reaching for the landing. He had full-on sprocket-cased the jump and had missed getting his rear wheel to the landing by 2 and a half feet or more. He had gone 20+ feet to land at the top of the landing, 8 feet down. And with the force of the poor guy coming up short, his fork (a dual crown downhill fork) had bent at least 3 inches forward from it's original position. In the fifth frame, the last of the sequence, the bike was tipped up on the front wheel with the rider fully over the bars, arms out bracing for impact with the ground. Here it was, right before my eyes - the visual proof of what was waiting for anyone who came up short and did not clear this jump. I can only imagine what was waiting for the guy at the bottom of the landing after casing this jump. Maybe it wasn't that bad, but that initial touchdown at the top had to be painful - both to the rider and the bike, and it gave you some idea how unforgiving this jump was if you were to come up short.

The idea of this thing just seemed like sheer bravado to me, jumping this huge gap by riding directly into a flat take-off in hopes of getting enough loft to skim over and clear the stump at a high rate of speed, and then touch down on a landing pad that could not be seen as you enter the jump. Wow! It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it.

In addition to the stump jump, there were other obstacles that looked equally daunting. There was the massive hip jump immediately after the stump gap. There was the 2 foot wide, cribbed-in, side-hill jump with a two foot wide run-in and run-out. The jump didn't look terribly big, but the smaller size was offset by the fact that there is little margin for error. The run-in and run-out were both very narrow and not hitting the jump right meant falling down a steep slope to your left and rolling into a tree. There was also the "road" gap which crosses over an old jeep road. Most road gaps are a step-down to a long steep landing with little chance of overshooting. This one was a 20+ foot gap to a short landing followed by and incline.You don't want to overshoot into an incline. It tends to be really painful. All of this adds up to a jump that requires just the right amount of speed. Too little and you go splat on the face of the lander, too much and you go splat on the face of the incline after the lander. Either of these possible outcomes would leave you with potentially serious injuries. The thought of being the first person to try this jump made me feel physically ill. If you see someone do the jumps, then you might be able to gauge the speed required to do it right and not get hurt. But if you are doing it for the first time, guessing and playing Russian Roulette with your body.

The topper for all of this were the rock rolls. These were slabs of granite that were near vertical (yes, even on video they look that steep) that the trail led up to and over. The idea here is that you roll up to the top edge of the granite, and as soon as your front wheel touches the rock, you let go of your brake and roll completely unable to check your speed in any way until you reach the bottom. At the bottom of the rock (where the dirt starts again) there is always a chopped out hole, where everyone who has done this before has hit their brakes. You cannot under any circumstances hit your brake here, even though this is the place where your fear of losing control has made your brakes seem irresistible.. Oh, no! This is the worst place of all to try to stop. If you DO touch the brake, your front wheel wheel will dive into the very bottom of the hole at the bottom of the granite slab at the point when you have developed the most kinetic energy. This will cause you to lose control, veer off course and slam into the tree just to the right or just to the left of the narrow path of safety that you are aiming for -the trail.

You can choose to ride around the rock rolls. There are routes around most all of them. You could stick to the jumps, impressive in their own right. But the trouble is, people don't go to the Snake to hit the jumps or ride the steeps. The Snake without the rock work isn't the trail that everyone talks about and few actually ride. If you want to claim that you conquered the Snake, you can't skip the parts that give the trail it's character. This is what facing your demons is all about. How much of the rock I will ride is in question, but what I can tell you is that I can't stop thinking about it.


More to come...


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