Tour de Ranch

George W. Bush tears up his Crawford digs

Oct 12, 2004
Outside Magazine
George W. Bush

George W. Bush on his Trek mountain bike.

CRAWFORD, TX —On this day, on this topic, there can be no doubt: President George W. Bush—beloved by many, not so beloved by many—is a stout, fit leader.

Hunched over the handlebars of Mountain Bike One, shoulders bobbing, Bush captains a presidential peloton that includes four people very important to him: two Secret Service agents, ad guru Mark McKinnon (the guy responsible for all of the Bush campaign's TV commercials), and a cinematographer who, earlier this morning, took shots of the president for his 2004 campaign ads.

Also in the mule train is a newspaper reporter who's covered Bush for years and nagged his way onto the team. For the reporter, me, it's a humbling experience. Despite being a fairly serious road biker—I've pedaled about 1,800 miles in the seven months prior to my July ride with Bush—I quickly find that I'm no match for the heart-pounding, 170-beats-per-minute cardio assault the president unleashes. This becomes apparent on the first stretch of the 18.3-mile circuit, which Bush will cruise in one hour 19 minutes.

"Little different than a road bike," Bush says as we pedal side by side for the first 15 minutes, before he leaves me in the dust. I grunt. Before the ride, I told the president that there was no sense in trying to beat him. If he lost, there would be a recount, lawyers would get involved, and it would all be a big ol' mess. He laughed. I think.

Though Bush has been mountain biking for only four months when I ride with him, he's already settled on a consistent style: hammering. Mountain biking became the president's new activity of choice earlier this year, after "Trekman John Burke"—Bush's name for Trek CEO John Burke—sent him a Fuel 98 and told him to take it for a spin. Bush, who has a resting heart rate in the forties, has long been known for running hard and long, but a bum right knee put an end to that. He says the damage to his knee is "more structural," so it's not a candidate for quick, noninvasive repair. That's where the bike comes in.

"I got out here and I realized that with 45 minutes of exercise you can maintain a heart rate that is higher than if you were going to run, and after the ride your body feels fine," Bush says. "It's not all that difficult—the way I do it. I'm not one of these extreme bike-rider guys. I like the cardiovascular aspect. I like to be able to ride across the ranch."

Today's route includes some tricky climbs and descents on caliche roads but nothing especially dangerous. Two days ago, Bush did an endo while riding with Associated Press reporter Scott Lindlaw, an avid mountain biker who stayed close enough to the prez to offer some tips and note that he emits a "grr, grr, grr" sound when climbing.

Bush likes the fact that mountain biking is an activity that requires focus. Inattention leads to injury. "Generally, when you get tired and zone out—get your rider's high—you lose concentration," he says. "And when you lose concentration on rough roads, sometimes that front wheel goes one direction and the back goes the other. And that's happened several times."

Today, Bush assumes the responsibilities of a ride leader, passing along directions and warnings to the rest of his five-man group. "Heads up. Hard right," he yells just before we arrive at a sharp turn that separates the paved portion of the ride—which he cruised at more than 20 miles per hour—from the rocky trails of his ranch.

At ride's end, neck burned by the sun, Bush declares the event a success and seems ready to field questions. Did he conquer the climbs? "No, I didn't," he says. "The Mountain Goat Award goes to McKinnon."

"I drafted the president," says McKinnon, deftly reflecting the glory back on the boss.

Bush says that exercise—both the physical and mental side of it—is crucial for people in high-pressure lines of work like his. "When you ride a bike and get your heart rate up and you're out—after about 30 or 40 minutes, your mind tends to expand; it tends to relax. My worries tend to dissipate," he says. "That's not to say that shortly thereafter, when I walk inside the house and get a phone call that says something is going wrong or there is a difficult situation, I can't log back on to it. But it's important for people to get their minds off their worries at some point during the day. It makes you a more rounded person and helps you make better decisions. I think this is something where you've got to concentrate."

One follow-up: "Have there been any endos since you've been riding?"

"I parted involuntarily from my bike twice," Bush candidly admits, putting some presidentially positive spin on it all. "Both times, I wasn't focused. I wasn't concentrating like I should have. When you concentrate on making sure you don't fall off your bike, that's what your mind is on at the moment. That, in itself, is refreshing."

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