Destinations, May 1998
'I just saw Alison Sydor walk by," the first Dirt Camper I meet gushes. "You don't see that every day."
Yeah, well, you should see what the guy across the street is doing. He and his mountain bike have fused into a two-wheeled desert bighorn, maddened by the rut. He climbs boulder-to-boulder and then stops, both feet still on the pedals, and holds long poses. I had no idea, until just now, that such things were possible.
Eventually we'll stop our gee-whizzing. But for now, we 19 citizen mountain bikers are overwhelmed by the celebrity quotient at this annual pro-am Volvo/Cannondale Dirt Camp. Even before its affiliation with Cannondale, Dirt Camp was widely acknowledged as the premier mountain biking instruction program in the nation. But this camp in Patagonia, Arizona, adds the inestimable pizazz of the Volvo/Cannondale team riders. Although they're officially in training and spend most of their day off somewhere thrashing up hills, they do share our hotel, share our meals, and after they've completed their regular workouts, share our more-humane group rides. We eat breakfast with Tinker Juarez, swap hair-spiking tips with Missy Giove, and learn from the boulder hopper, pro trials rider Martyn Ashton, how better to wheelie. If we choose, we can even follow Ashton, lemming-style, in a dive-bike from the hotel roof into the swimming pool. (None of us do.)
In this milieu, bike-fan frenzy is unavoidable. But from the moment I see Ashton on the boulders, there's a certain countervailing dread. The feeling, part bad gym-class flashback, part naked-in-church nightmare, is an old friend. It means I'm about to try a new and difficult kind of outdoorsiness, in the company of those who are obsessive, adept, and expensively equipped. I know I'll be glad I did it. But first I must undergo physical abuse and savage embarrassment.
At least I'm suffering in beauty. Patagonia, a ranch town going artsy about 60 miles south of Tucson, sits on a grassy upland near freestanding mountains that lift the eyes to glory. And I couldn't ask for nicer people before whom to humiliate myself. Fanaticism rests gently on my fellow Dirt Campers — average age, 34; fat-tire experience, 4.5 years; dollars tied up in current bicycle, $2,540. They have nothing but encouragement for the group's only rank beginner. And Mr. Peptalk himself directs the program. Our first glimpse of camp founder Rod Kramer is a vivid pastiche of Bill Clinton's coif, David Letterman's incisors, and Phil Donahue's elaborately soothing manner.
Outside, the man is a maestro. He talks us through a set of ten elementary bike exercises, from ride-by pickups of water bottles to a track stand — or, in my case, a track wobble. We ride in pairs, trying to shoulder-shove each other off course, and then, more collegially, practice front and rear wheelies. This morning gymkhana is to mountain biking what barre exercises are to ballet, the chromatic scale to music, the route to wisdom and control.
Subsequent lessons are mostly on-the-roll. My position, at the hind end of the shortest and easiest rides, turns out to be privileged. Rod rides sweep and provides training bites. "Concentrate on breathing out," he tells me during a moment of uphill hell. Instant relief. "Make your wheels water," he says later. This means, I realize, let the bike flow downhill, through the channels of least resistence. I try. But even Rod's enouragement can't make up for my inadequacies of technique. "Looks like you're a little rattled," he says soothingly after a many-spilled descent. Rattled? Hell, I'm terrified. But I'll try again. And when I do, I'll be listening to you, Rod, on brain audio.
This particular, star-studded Dirt Camp is, I must admit, no place for beginners. The regular midsummer sessions, when the pros are off racing, accommodate a wider range of abilities. But at those I wouldn't have gotten to eat apple cobbler next to Missy Giove, who plops down one evening at our table, leaving us to boggle. Somebody eventually emerges from this reverie and tries a joke about my bike — a familiar target, since it's a rattletrap, suspensionless, 1990 Nishiki Alien. Giove goes wild: "Ohmigod. You've got to let me ride it." My steed turns out to be Missy's favorite warhorse, the bike on which she won her first Worlds. There are "ohmigods" beyond counting, and I bask in reflected glory. Missy thinks my bike is gnarly. I draw myself up, unmindful of bruises, and look at my fellow campers with ill-disguised hauteur. After four days of hard rides and this ego-stroking meal with Missy, I'm feeling a little gnarly, too.
Mike Steere, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, is a frequent contributor to Outside.