Written, ridden, and lived by Dale Cahill
“Dale, you are going down hill!” Not exactly the words I wanted to hear from my cardiologist as he went over the results of my annual stress test.
At age 35 I had had a stroke. I woke up one morning and couldn’t tie my shoes or speak a coherent word. I recovered from that. Two years later I had the first stent put in my heart. Ten years after that, at age 47, I had a heart attack and had two more stents put in. Between medication and exercise I had been able to keep the cardiologists at bay. Swimming was my exercise of choice. I swam a half- mile every day. I could do it rain or shine and up until now it had kept me in decent cardio shape but the results of my stress test were saying that it no longer seemed to be enough. At 52 it was time to find a new way to keep me in shape both physically and aerobically.
About two months before my next stress test, my wife Darcy, an avid cyclist, was considering upgrading her road bike. We found ourselves at a bike shop in Burlington, Vermont called The Old Spokes Home. Darcy found what she wanted, an Urban X hybrid, perfect for Vermont’s bumpy dirt roads and paved roadways. At the last minute I decided to pick one up too – a used Kona mountain bike for three hundred dollars so that I could ride with her.
Our first bike ride together was a flop. Darcy took off, loving the terrain and happy to feel the road beneath her tires. I instantly disliked it. The cars whizzing by, the paved open road ahead, none of it worked for me. I was also terribly out of breath by the time we topped the first small rise. When we got home, we both thought that buying the Kona had been a mistake.
That night over a cold beer with my old navy buddy Freddie, I told him about our miserable ride. He told me to bring the bike over to Stowe for a ride with him. He promised to stay off the roads. That first run with Freddie, an avid mountain biker, was everything that the first ride wasn’t. No cars and no pavement. We jumped on a trail in back of Freddie’s house and were soon winding through a pine forest, whipping down a fern covered hill and ended up resting at a picnic table next to a pond. We rode for an hour and it seemed like only ten minutes. Although I walked across some of the narrow wooden bridges and up some of the steeper terrain, I knew this was for me. Even my first wipe out, a dive off of a small bridge onto a rock ledge couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.
It took about three more rides for me to gain enough confidence in my biking skills to ask Freddie about his bike. While I jerked along behind him, he seemed to effortlessly whip over tree roots, logs, and other obstacles. Was it Freddie or was it his bike? It turns out it was both. Unlike me, a bargain bike shopper, with little riding experience, Freddie had bought his bike from a friend who built custom mountain bikes and he had been riding for over five years.
Freddie’s bike is a Santa Cruz Blur with full front and rear suspension and disc brakes., all features necessary on a good mountain bike.. When Freddy took me to the Stowe Town Loops for our next ride, we stopped to meet his friend Paul who owns Iride, a Mountain Bike Shop in the heart of Stowe , with his partner Ron. After introductions and some conversation about trail conditions, they suggested that I use one of their demo bikes on the ride, also a Santa Cruz Blur.
Riding the Blur on the Town Loop trails altered everything. I suddenly understood why Fred could negotiate obstacles so easily. I couldn’t even feel the rocks on the trail. When braking, I was in complete control. When I returned the bike to Paul at Iride that afternoon I had only one question for him. How much? That night Darcy and I talked it through and determined that my health was worth the price of the bike.
Over the next few weeks, the rides got easier and easier. While I’d gotten off the bike to walk the steep parts at least six times on the first ride, two weeks later I only had to walk twice. I could feel the change in my breathing, my balance and in my brain. I was stronger and more relaxed on my bike. I felt I was ready for some longer rides.
Paul and his girl friend Natalie suggested that we go to Burke Mountain to ride some of the more challenging Kingdom Trails. Burke Mountain is a kind of mountain biking Mecca. The area offers a network of trails as well as a chair lift to the top of the mountain for bikers who prefer a complete downhill experience. Paul and Natalie are well connected with the Burke mountain biking community and our first stop was at East Burke Sports where we hooked up with Dave and Adam, two biking enthusiasts. They let us know about trail conditions, checked out our bikes and made a plan to meet us for a lunch break run at noon.
We started out riding downhill on a trail called J-Bar . We then switched to cross country runs like Kitchel, Tap and Die, Side Winder, and (no joke) Coronary By-Pass. One trail led to another and before I knew it we were stopping for lunch. The cross-country trails pushed me both physically and mentally. I was glad that I had rode so much in Stowe with Freddie. Those conditioning rides gave me the strength and stamina to last until noon.
At the end of the day, we were sitting around my VW camper drinking cold beers and planning our next biking trip. That is when I first heard about Highland Mountain Bike Park in New Hampshire. As Dave, Paul, and Natalie swapped stories about Highlands’ steep single tracks and rugged terrain, momentum began to grow for a trip to New Hampshire. We decided to go the following morning.
In order to ride at Highland, I needed not only a more serious bike, but full body armor and a helmet. Adam lent me his body armor and a helmet and lent Freddie his Sinister, a full-blown downhill bike. We arrived at Highland and I rented a downhill bike for the day. We all bought lift tickets and then we were off. Downhill mountain biking is Paul’s first love and he proved to be an expert. He gave us excellent advice to keep us all in one piece.
We rode a variety of trails, green circles, blue squares and black diamonds, Paul and Natalie led us down each trail twice. They were in excellent shape. While riding up hill, requires a certain set of muscles and cardio health, down hill taxes a whole different part of the body. By the end of the day, every muscle in my body was sore including some that I didn’t even know I had. That day, like Paul, I fell in love with downhill mountain biking.
As the day of my stress test approached, I was confident that I had regained my previous level of cardio health. After my stress test was over, my cardiologist said I had the heartbeat of a fourteen year old.
“Yahoo!” I said, “I’m going downhill!”