The Dirt Dispatch: Lion taming, or embracing fear

With a mountain lion lurking in the brush, Spencer Powlison rekindles some old fears on Oregon’s wild trails

Cody and Mark had no good reason to stop here, this insignificant slice of trail on the Middle Fork of the Willamette River. No intersection, no mechanical, no gnarly drop-in. Yet there they stood, motionless, frozen.

“Mountain lion,” was all Cody had to say.

The woods don’t frighten me. After years of experience and many hard knocks, fear is an infrequent companion on my mountain bike rides, like a friend who’s now tied down with children, rarely joining my weekend excursions. But there it was again, dressed up as a man-sized cat with a four-foot tail, somewhere out in the foliage.

We stood on the trail for a moment. We were in a bad position, deep in one of the drainage’s dark folds, among masses of ferns, mossy trees, and endless hiding spots for apex predators. The fear felt a bit familiar, so we took a familiar approach: we pressed onward.

Of the hundreds of mountain bike races I’ve entered since my early teenage years, I’ve only led a few. On those fleeting, thrilling days, I remember looking over my shoulder with the pent up anxiety of competition and a good dose of fear — fear of being caught, of messing up, of losing. As we escaped the lion’s territory, I looked back up trail almost as often as I watched the wheel in front of me, afraid of getting caught, of messing up, of losing far more. It was eerily similar.

More recently, as I forgo training intervals for double jumps and steep descents, a different kind of fear has introduced itself to my time on two wheels. Those pieces of trail with puckering no-fall zones are exquisite, high-pressure ways to hone riding skills. As we descended this river trail in the Oregon wilds, beneath the watchful eye of a lion, it was clear that any crash, regardless of its severity, would be an invitation to disaster.

Our fun ride with good friends had become tense, anxiety ridden, and fearful. No talking, no drinking water. Ignore the beautiful scenery. Keep moving. Don’t stop. Race on.

Fortunately, there was no disaster. We stayed off the front. We kept it together. No bobbles, no flats, no mechanicals. I can’t say how close we really were to a climactic showdown with a mountain lion, but it doesn’t matter. We made it; we won.

Our summertime vacation to Oakridge could have gone badly, but more important than the “what-ifs” is the reminder that, as a sport, mountain biking is tailor-made to inspire fear. It would be glib to say that I enjoyed this opportunity to reacquaint myself with it. But one way or another, fear is always out there on the trail.

Fear can be borne out of your shortcomings as a rider, or it can be lovingly crafted by a diabolical trailbuilder. Everyone has a mountain lion lurking somewhere around the next corner. Over the years, I’ve encountered these (almost exclusively metaphorical) beasts and found ways to survive. I always enjoyed the challenge.

How to beat fear? Push through, keep going, ignoring the emotional component. That might not work for everyone. Perhaps avoid it all together, stay on the mellow singletrack and away from start lines.

Yet despite all efforts to avoid it, mountain biking will give you fear. It’s inevitable. That stirring, clenching promise is why I love it, and why it will always be challenging, inspiring, and wild.