PHOENIX by Jeff Stone
Never Blame the Bike


The pistol fired, and I hammered my feet down. My mountain bike shot forward like a bullet.

Elbows and knees flew in every direction as we raced, the other riders and I jockeying to be first onto the narrow dirt single-track. This was Town Run Trail Park, after all, not some perfectly groomed thirty-foot-wide BMX track. The route was a single lane over eight twisting miles of Indiana hardwoods and dried creek beds. It was nearly impossible to pass anyone in the tangle of low branches and exposed tree roots coming up, so commanding the lead at the beginning was crucial.

It took me less than fifteen seconds to shake the pack and hit the trailhead first. Disappearing into the trees, I leaned into the initial turn, feeling the wind through the vents in my battered helmet. Tree limbs bounced off my cracked goggles and duct-taped face mask, and thorny vines tore at my shin guards. My gloved knuckles smacked against massive tree trunks as my bike rocked from side to side on my push to increase my lead.

I attacked the single-track like an animal.

Like a wolf.

Like a cheetah.

Predator, not prey.

Back in the pack, you must outrun whatever is closest at your heels. Out front, it’s you against the trail. You have to attack it, or it will attack you.

Thirty seconds into the race, I was so far ahead that the others couldn’t even see my shadow. I whipped around a bend and saw the trail’s first climb. I shifted to the smallest sprocket on my rear wheel cassette and hit the dirt slope like a salmon swimming upstream.

My back tire began to fishtail violently, and I leaned out over the handlebars to get better balance and more traction. It was hard work.

Most guys gave up at this point and simply jumped off their bike. They unclipped their feet from their quick-release pedals, shouldered their ride, and ran like a mountain goat. The trouble was, clipping back in at the top of the hill took time.

I didn’t have any time to lose, so I kept cranking. This was a race, after all. It didn’t matter that it was only a small-time event. Losing wasn’t an option.

I hate to lose.

I continued up the hill until I crested the rise; then I picked the cleanest line down the backside and hurled onward. As gravity sucked me down the rear slope, I stopped pedaling to conserve energy. I was going to need it. Ahead was the trail’s most dangerous section.

When I reached the end of the downhill run, I gently squeezed my index fingers over my brake levers, slowing. The trail had been dry so far, but the low ground looming before me harbored water overflowing from the White River mere yards away. Half an inch of turbid liquid floated atop several inches of muck. I flicked my right thumb, changing to an easier gear, and continued forward.

I motored into the rank sludge and immediately felt my hip flexor muscles begin to burn from the effort. The muck threatened to suck my tires right off the rims. Crud flew up in every direction as my rear wheel splattered a black line straight up my back, my front wheel slinging gelatinous clumps of earth up under my face mask and across the front of my goggles.

When I was halfway across the muck meadow, I heard a splash. I glanced over my shoulder, expecting to see a deer or maybe a raccoon.

It was neither. It was another rider.

I knew most of the dozen other racers, but I didn’t recognize this kid. He was a beast. His forearms were as thick as baseball bats, and the thighs bulging beneath his three-hundred-dollar skin suit looked as if they had been transplanted from an Olympic speed skater. I remembered seeing him at the starting line but had dismissed him as another aspiring muscle head wanting to race mountain bikes as a means of improving his cardio for other sports.

He was probably fifteen years old, the maximum age for this race bracket and two years older than I was. I’d assumed his expensive racing kit and full-suspension ultra-lightweight carbon bike had little to do with actual skill, and more to do with rich parents.

But I was wrong. Whoever was behind that mirrored face mask could ride.

I shook my head. I’d never been very good at riding through water, and I needed to focus. I didn’t want to risk taking a dip in the bacteria soup surrounding me now. I decided to keep my pace slow and steady while the other kid pushed recklessly forward, water rooster-tailing off his bike like a wake behind a speedboat.

Unfortunately, his strategy worked better than mine. By the time my tires found firm ground, he was on top of me.


The trail was slightly wider here, but it was littered with gnarled roots rising up out of the ground. This stretch was difficult to traverse solo, and potentially deadly if one rider tried to pass another.

The kid wanted to pass.

I wasn’t about to let him.

“Move it!” he snarled.

I held my ground.

He reached out and grabbed the back of my jersey, tugging violently. I had to hit my brakes to keep from getting pulled off my bike.

He let go and shot past me.

Crap. That wasn’t only illegal, it was incredibly dangerous. I flicked my thumb, changed gears, and began to hammer. My main strength is sprinting, and I caught him in seconds. The trail was still root-ridden, and it rattled my bones down to the marrow, but I didn’t care.

“On your left!” I shouted, knowing full well that he wouldn’t heed my request to pass on that side. He cut over to his left, and I made a move to pass him on the right.

He saw me coming and cut his wheel sharply back over to the right, slamming into me. I absorbed the impact instead of resisting it, like water flowing around a rock. I didn’t go down.

So the kid tried a different approach. He threw an elbow.

This blow caught me off guard. It struck me below the rib cage, nearly knocking the wind out of me. He cocked his arm for another swing, and I reacted without thinking. I stopped pedaling, twisted my left heel outward—freeing my shoe from its pedal clip—and kicked him in the thigh.


He went down like a house imploding. He turtled into a ball and bounced over the rough ground, shouting a string of obscenities. Fortunately, there were no trees near enough for him to collide with, despite all the roots, and he and his bike eventually skidded to a halt.

Amazingly, in the blink of an eye he righted his bike and began to climb back on, still swearing. He appeared to be fine.

I put the hammer down once more. I pulled well ahead and reached the end of the roots, grateful that the nerve-numbing section was over. However, as soon as I was on smoother ground, I noticed that my bike didn’t feel right. The front wheel seemed spongy.

Bike parts rattled loose over those roots all the time, but this was different. My front wheel began to wobble, and I tickled my brake levers to reduce my speed. The last thing I wanted was for the front wheel to—


My bike stopped, but my body kept moving forward. I instinctively twisted my heels outward, my shoes ripping free of the pedals as I sailed over the handlebars. With my arms outstretched like Superman, I face-planted into the dirt. My worn chinstrap snapped, and my masked helmet bounced down the trail.

I sat up and spat. Wiping my sweaty brow, I quickly checked myself over. My chin was a little sore, but otherwise, I was fine.

I looked back at my bike and frowned. The front wheel had tacoed, the rim folded almost completely in half. It took a special kind of problem for that to occur. I crawled over to my bike and checked the front spokes. Several were loose. I wiped a section of the rim clean and saw that a few of the spokes had come loose from the wheel when it folded in half, but others had fresh tool marks on the spoke nuts.

Someone had loosened them.

I heard the familiar hum of bike tires on dirt, and I glanced back up the trail to see the huge kid coming on like a locomotive. He shouted, “Get that rusted piece of junk off the trail!”

I hurried to my feet. Leaving a broken bike on the trail was dangerous for everyone, including me. That mountain of flesh might hit it and crash into me. I bent over, grabbing my bike with both hands, when the maniac roared like a lion, unclipped his foot, and unleashed a powerful kick at my face.

The reinforced toe of his mountain biking shoe caught me square on the jaw, and I blacked out.