I struggled to see the trail. I was the last of five riders on a descent filled with tight turns, sketchy gravel, and darkness. Plus, there was dust—lots and lots of dust. My bright helmet-mounted light made it a very well-lit cloud of obfuscation.
Then there was the skunk, but that’s a bit later.
We were behind Lincoln Junior High in Bentonville, on a section Strava calls the Panther Prowl. It’s a short, not very steep downhill run, capped by a few steep runs into and out of ravines. I’m sure there’s some term for that. The pedal back to the top is easy, with a choice between a long, low trestle, or an alternate trail that’s a fun ride in itself. We were there to session the descent repeatedly and build cornering skills.
I wasn’t familiar with the trail, so seeing was a priority, but with the dry conditions it also was a luxury. It helped that Chuck suggested those who had been riding in the back take point next time to avoid the dust.
I knew Dave and his helmet light were right on me, because my shadow loomed ahead like a massive, evasive monster on the trail. It didn’t seem to know the trail any better than I did, and it was distracting me now that I had a clearer view.
Maybe I don’t trust my tires enough, but gravel makes me nervous and causes me to fear-brake before curves a lot. “Go up high on those curves to stay out of that gravel,” Dave said. I gave that a shot, but still slowed down a lot as the twists got tighter. I think my lack of experience with berms also made me hold back.
I’m accustomed to curves that are at best flat, and at worst, off camber. I’ve rarely ridden where one can properly lean and let the tires do their job. I have it in my head that leaning and going fast mean washing out.
I sometimes tell myself, “If only we had soil like the mountain bike trails in the Pacific Northwest, I could really shred.”
Then I snap back to reality and remind myself that we need some rain. Just a little moisture can help hold the dirt together, and that makes for more grip everywhere on the trail.
On a subsequent run, Dave took point, and I was in the back again. I blindly made my way down through the dust cloud. On the last big curve, Dave and his bike were down and he was yelling, “Skunk! Skunk!”
We all looked around, but didn’t see anything. More importantly, we didn’t smell anything. I’m sure five riders with bright lights were plenty to make it run away at its top speed.
If I had been fear-braking, I guess Dave had been skunk-braking.