The long and
long of It

Or the essential narrative of the first Tourist trip to Italy. How it transpired. What we learned. And What we wished we learned.  

No one wants to hear about things going right, about the world clicking, about smiles, about joy, about perfect trails and exquisite pizza, azure seas, and delicious wine. That’s not drama. Let history be my attorney, what famous tale or storied fable starts happy, and continues on merrily through to the end? We’ve been brought up on friction and drowned in adversity, we’ve been trained to revel in a woeful twist of fate. What then is a storyteller to do when struck with the calamity of good fortune? When we find ourselves not only living through but needing to spin a yarn that is light on trial and lacking in heartache. A story where the sun always shines, the trails are ideally dusty, and the scene is persistently idyllic.

I could attempt to fabricate some obstacle but you’d correctly guess that all my droning on about  flight scheduling and witching hour bike builds were grossly exaggerated. Dedicating my vitriol and your time to overwrought descriptions of zero-hour arrivals or teasing out a short missive titled “Missing practice in order to drive to some far afield town with the uncertain hope of completing a Kafka-esque medical examination,” is over sensationalizing the true emotional weight of these moments. The world has taught me that simply having a great time is not enough to make a story, this is then unfortunately a story simply about having a great time. We did run into a few hiccups on our journey to race day, a couple “half-cooked burritos” but nothing unreasonable. Yes, Dylan and I missed our chance to practice, but Georgia got out and assured us that “guys, it is all rideable.”  Did we drive to Savona so that Dylan could wear a belt-mounted EKG machine and assure the Italian medical community that he didn’t have a heart arrhythmia? Yep but the doctor was so nice and we watched Italian teens smoke cigs while we ate cheap and delicious pizza on the edge of a plaza picketed with Roman columns. During the race, we couldn’t find the assigned race day lunch stop so we made our own. The hot dogs were basic but the beers were delicious, and it's a safe bet that they didn’t have suds at the official stop. I mean we were in Italy, on the coast of Italy, and we were there to race mountain bikes, downhill on the coast of Italy. Not just any race, a first of its kind world championships, the Trophy of Nations.

Here’s how it works, there are three levels; the 100s, 200s, and 300s. The 100s are amateurs; that means you, me and pretty much everyone we know. The 200s are Industry level, riders who didn’t make the national team, team mechanics, and other industry fast folk. The 300s are composed of the top 3 riders from each participating nation, essentially Top Gun. At the 300 level, there are men’s and women’s teams competing in the u21 and elite categories, elite being a fancier way of saying over 21. In the 100s and 200s, you race as part of a three-person team and the teams can be mixed gender or not. Qualifying is limited to passing the medical exam, if you can prove that you won’t have a heart attack on the course and you can pay the entry fee then you can race, that’s it. The doc gives you the ok and you’re racing World Championship courses, all for 360 some odd quid, on the coast, in Italy. Yeah, you should go.

“Based on Italy, on ocean, on sunshine, on pasta, wine, pastries, olive trees...” 

Based on Italy, on ocean, on sunshine, on pasta, wine, pastries, olive trees and this first of its kind kinda deal plus our lack of truly killer instincts we weren’t really there to race as much as we were there for the experience, to take a survey if you like, insiders outsider style. We named our team Tourist, had necklaces and linen jersey’s made, and took a lot of pictures both moving and still. If we were committed to something, we were committed to the bit.

Admittedly we were a little lost on the rules, we thought that since we were racing as a team, then the timing stopped when the last person went through the timing gate. This inaccurate understanding leads us to take a very casual approach between the tape. We didn’t totally turn off our competitor brains–there was the start gate, time clocks and taped sections. Being life-long bike racers it's hard to stifle the Pavlovian response to such overt triggers. Lean into it the lizard brain? Sure. So we raced / didn’t race. We tried / didn’t try. It was a flexible thing, elastic, and our bright yellow jerseys, team necklaces, and brand new bikes meant we had a rep to protect; even if said rep was a self-inflicted, conjured out of a rapid-fire intra-team banter and arguably over-indulgent bouts of wine that had been kicked into hyperdrive during the very short time we had together. Keen readers are likely sensing that the groundwork is being laid for an excuse. Regardless, when the dust settled, considering it all, we did a pretty good job. What I mean is that when the dust settled we leaned our bikes against some overturned boats and swam in the Mediterranean.

The course was divine, as if Zeus on his pilgrimage from Olympus to his new career as Jupiter had let his eyes fall upon this breathtaking stretch of land and so struck with its beauty conjured lightning to carve The Gods’ paths on these hills. They wind their way through coastal pine forests and olive groves tracing soil that is a granular, hale-colored affair dotted with bleached shelves of formerly submerged rock. Throughout the day we covered a fair mix of trails; fast and flowing, awkward and interesting and then there's the famed stage seven, a 700-meter freefall fraught with sharp fins of rock spiking through depressions of popcorn gravel. The trail itself diving like a peregrine toward the ocean.

The trails alone would be enough to make this a desirable riding destination but the course only touches on a small portion of the offerings anchored in Finale Ligure. Above the town a range of mountains climb into the hazy blue, dominating the horizon from east to west they hug the coast in the robed embrace, the folds spilling into ridges and valleys as it tumbles to the sea. Throughout the day we came across ancient stone walls and the crumbling remains of long-abandoned fortifications line the track. Here’s a quaint church, there a braying donkey, an aging shrine to the Holy Mother winking from a forgotten garden, of course. What swooning advances, what concealed trysts, what forlorn musings echo along these paths? Even while fully gripped and skittering across the top of an awkward slab, the romantic nature of this place is impossible to disregard. Best to let the mind wander post race.

What swooning advances, what concealed trysts, what forlorn musings echo along these paths?” 

Even though we raced on Saturday, the day before the pros, the stages were lined with fans and spectators filling the hollows and crowding the trails with colorful shouts and outgoing enthusiasm. Blind racing is one thing but blind Touristing is quite another and since Dylan and I missed practice these trails nothing but Greek. While Georgia was able to get in a full practice, it turns out riding with the Specialized pro team meant riding fully pinned and definitely not at Tourist pace. Which meant her insights were anything but, “Guys, I think yes, this one is quite turn-y.” We were all on our own. Fortunately, we quickly surmised that the degree of difficulty in the oncoming terrain had a direct correlation to the amount of fans clustered nearby, best to just white knuckle and lay off the brakes. Thankfully the famed final stage was more a test of endurance than of daring; our bodies were fried from riding all day, the challenge was simple. Just. Hold. On. That final crucible completed an easy liaison that took us back to town, and my my what a liase. It's right along the beach, through rock tunnels, past pods of retired Italians fine tuning their hickory tans in the late afternoon sun. So this what Milton imagined before he imagined it lost. We capped the experience with a swim as the sun flushed peach and was slowly consumed by the bruised magentas and indigos of twilight. If I could tattoo a picture in my mind this would be it. As I write this I am beaming.

“If I could tattoo a picture in my mind this would be it. As I write this I am beaming.” 

With our race in the bag, we decided to take a v-casual approach to Sunday’s spectating. Stage seven would be our singular destination, this being the one with the rocky plunge and the gorgeous sea in the background. This being the one closest to town. The crowds surrounding the track had swelled since yesterday and we watched as the best in the world attacked the course, where we just managed to hang on they inspired, their movements physical alchemy, a visceral transcendence, here we witnessed verifiable moments of grace.

I thought about how these moments of grace are what I look for in art, music and literature; my steadfast conduits of the sublime. I had yet to have this experience with my own sport or specifically around the codified, formatted version of my sport. In contemporary culture mountain biking, especially gravity-oriented riding, still falls squarely under the auspices of “bro culture.” Not that it is doing much to shirky this title, it is a sport of privilege, one that requires excess money, ample free time and access to terrain. This privilege begets entitlement and entitlement should be limited to things like clean air and healthcare. Gravity mountain biking has a tendency to be insular and insulated, the culture is protected by the barriers to entry and so contained, it festers. Toxic masculinity runs rampant and energy drinks with the most base sexualized marketing schemes continue to be some of the sport’s biggest sponsors. But the actual physical experience of downhill mountain biking evokes the sublime. For me the bicycle is the ideal vehicle for experiencing the world and when pushed to create a synthetic version of flight you have the closest thing that this atheist is going to get to experiencing divine ecstasy. Like any good acolyte,e I want to prosthelytize this joy to the world, engage the community and inspire new believers.

The division between the personal and the social isn’t unique to mountain biking. It’s a pervasive issue that cuts across cultures, bound to the dichotomy of the haves and have nots. This is my thing here and now, so what to do? Make cheaper bikes, more trails, easier access? Yes, sure, but that feels more like a result of a solution rather than the solution itself. I suspect that the secret might be in how we approach our intrapersonal relationships and by extension our community. In taking the love and camaraderie that you have with your “bros” and radiating it outwards to those not yet in the family. I want everyone to have the chance to feel that flying sensation, to breathe hard and see stars, to pick themselves up off the ground, dust themselves off and try again. And I want to be there to support you too. Take action where you can and tie the action to what you love. Mountain biking and to a lesser extent road biking ;),  is a big part of my life. It is the thing that fixes my brain when anxiety comes knocking. Simply hauling ass through the woods steels me for another bout with the dread anxiety of neo-liberalism.

 “Simply hauling ass through the woods steels me for another bout with the dread anxiety of neo-liberalism.”

That was the impact of being here, feeling a sense of shared history and experience. I was surrounded by families stumbling over broken rocks and craggy brush to cheer for each helmeted rider. Enthusiasm rippled down the hillside in lockstep with each plummeting racer, it didn’t matter what nation they raced for, their gender, or their age, each rider was confronted by a deafening wall of sound, each rider was made part of the rapture. Camaraderie, community, we were one unit, completely enthralled.

(1) 13.8 Billion years ago:The big bang, kinda like the first Trophy of Nations but without the pizza and the castles. Also is it the first big bang? Or just one of many? How am I not myself? You get it. (2) 6-ish thousand years ago: A God does a thing and wow monkeys and dinosaurs live in harmony until someone decides to expand her consciousness. We call this Big Bang 2, The Fall. The plus? Here come the castles! (3) 100 plus-ish years ago: Pedal bicycles. Big Bang 3, Riding from the Ashes. Yes. If our wide-ranging endurance having species is going to go full cyborg than its hard to argue for a better mechanical symbiote than the bicycle. (4) 40 plus years ago: Wow 40 years! The “mountain bike” evolves. Seeing that hiking will quickly become obsolete reactionary forces move to outlaw these fun machines from most trails.(5) 10-ish years ago: Droppers are the new drug, front derailleurs die a slow death and things everywhere get more slack. (6) A year-ish ago: The Trophy of Nations is announced. It will take place in Finale Ligure. There will be pizza on stage. Also good trails, the ocean, castles, yadda, and yadda. (7) 8-ish months to BRD - (Before Race Day): Kyle writes an article about The Trophy of Nations for The Radavist. Most of the information checks out.   (8) 7.8 months BRD: Kyle get’s Dylan on the horn about putting a team together to race. Dylan says he’s going to look into it. (9) 7.7months - 4.1 months: Kyle does some mild harassment with the hope that unflagging enthusiasm will win Dylan over. (10) 4 months BRD: Three cheers for unflagging enthusiasm, alias the unrelenting positivity assault that grinds down any mental opposition. Think Bill Murray’s character from “What about Bob.” We have Team approval. Georgia is added to the gang. We’ll meet her the day before race day. Talk about trust.  (11) 2 months BRD: We pick a team name. Tourist. It's cool. We get necklaces made. (12) 3 days BRD: Georgia arrives in Finale Ligure to meet Kyle and team manager Lucy, who is also consigned to life with Kyle. (13) 2 days BRD: Georgia and Kyle take their medical exam in Finale. Kyle gets a thumbs up in regards to his health. Georgia reports no enthusiastic hand signals. Nearing midnight Dylan arrives in Finale. We needed micro spline drivers for our wheels or else the gears would throw a fit. This being a last minute add Dylan had to forestall his flight to the last possible moment. He had them in a suitcase handcuffed to his wrist. Somehow all three bikes made the three connecting flights to get spit out into the Genoa airport where... (14) 1 day BRD:. Georgia pre-rides the course with the Specialized World Enduro Team. Turns out they’re fast. Upon review Georgia doesn’t seem too terrified. Lucy, Dylan, and Kyle drive to Savona so that Dylan can pass his medical exam. We have time to kill so we eat focaccia pizza bread in the square and watch the teenagers smoke.  Later that day we build our bikes and make sure the brakes work. They do. (15) Race Day Stage 1:. We’re one of the last teams to race maybe there is one or two behind us meaning we had a very casual start. The stage starts in the thick of a damp fog but we’re quickly into clear air as the track drops, cutting back and forth in sharp decline. People are lining the course. They’re cheering. For us. Wow. At the end of the stage we run into a British group we met at the Finale medical check. They’re having a picnic but it looks like a yard sale. There is so much more riding to come. It's possible that they’re still racing. (16) Race Day Stage 2: Feels like an extension of Stage 1 but a little shorter and with a bit more rock, to be honest, this one is a bit of a blur. Likely from the wine. (17) Race Day Stage 3:.  This was a really awkward and tricky dude, all sorts of funky drops and changes, in this reporter's opinion it is the day’s most difficult stage. I distinctly remember doing more than one “oh shit, just send it” moves that worked in so much as I didn’t crash. (18) Race Day Stage 4: Rock. Stone. Hard Places! This little honey is what I would imagine it would feel like to compete in a jackhammer rodeo, “here we have wild unbroken jackhammers corralled from the range.” Like a Gary Larson cartoon. Can you see it? Walk with me here, people. If the reference is to abstruse let’s leave it at “it was hard to hang on.” But we do. We liase’d down a wonderful hill into town and lunch. (19) RACE DAY LUNCH: We didn’t read all the materials as such and we missed the lunch stop which was we found out later was on the beach. As a result we ordered grilled cheeses, hot dogs and beer at a little corner cafe joint. The beer was the right thing to do, not so much the hotdogs. Were we having a great time? Yes. Yes, we were.(20) Race Day Stage 5: Dylan and I rode this one while checking our brakes out. Part of it traces the bottom of a creek bed, it's a little greasy the traction insecure but at this point we’re getting the sense that our bikes are essentially DH bikes so we just point them downhill and they go. Truly wonderful machines. (21) Race Day Stage 6: This is the iconic course that plummets down to the beach with the castle view and all that. It’s steep and rocky but short and there are definitely a few lines to hit that help you keep your speed up. I managed to miss most of them but the crowd didn’t seem to notice. Maybe they were drunk on grappa? (22) Race Day Finish: We ride along the coast. At one point Dylan goes full ‘time trial’ and drops Kyle and Georgia. Our tires are so loud he doesn’t hear our calls for mercy. Eventually we make it back to town, enjoy some beers in the square, make our way to the beach and have a swim. Famous YouTube Dirt Jump personality Matt Jones shows up, Georgia knows him, she knows everyone and he needs a back protector for his race on Sunday. “Take mine.” Kyle (me) is happy to be rid of it, one less thing to bring back home. Now I have a famous back protector. (23) Race Day Post Race: For dinner we eat at a restaurant with a wine plant roof. We just out Italianed all of you. (24) Pro Race Day: Along with the rest of Italy we climbed up the side of the hill and watched the really really really fast pros rip down the hill. Very cool stuff. Georgia got really loaded at the after party, like 22-year old loaded. And even though she booted many many times through the course of the night she summoned her 22 year old brain and body plasticity to ride with us on...(25) Post Race Ride Day: We needed more pictures and we came all this way so we hired a local and he took us around to some more trails. One of which started at an old American Military base. If you were going to get stationed at a base this would be a good one. Also I don’t think you’d be asked to deal with too much Operation Gladio if you were stationed here (If this is in print punch Operation Gladio into your nearest internet machine and enjoy -- if this is on the web then please allow us to hyperlink you.)  3- (26) 5 months PRD (Post Race Day): It’s too dark in the Northern Hemisphere. This whole thing is getting made. Dylan is dealing with a few cold burritos, Georgia is trying to keep her dad from parting out her enduro and I (kyle) am hugging my happy lamp as the dark dreary Portland winter begins its assault. (27) 1 year PRD: Bernie Sanders is elected. America adopts Universal Healthcare and the Green New Deal. We tax all the obscenely rich folks and support all the underserved and underprivileged. Also this story goes on the net (28) 2 year PRD: Hikers and bikers come together in harmony and agree on a universal pact allowing mountain biking on a number of trails all the while agreeing on those that they should stay off of in order to sustain and grow wildlife and wild habitat areas. (29) 4 year PRD: Having decided the we’ve come to a place of global transcendence a bitch group of Aliens stop observing us and comes to earth as friends. They love mountain biking and pizza. But they love all the good shit. (30) 4.1- Infinity PRD: Things only get better. Like Pizza everyday, all the sleep you can handle but you never get tired, that kinda thing.