Celebrating the 10th anniversary of one of Southern California’s coolest mountain bike races, I find myself rocketing down a trail sandwiched between an elite cyclist and a whippersnapper one-fifth my age.
But that’s not the problem. The problem is I can barely see through the dust, can barely breath and, yikes, now it gets interesting.
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My right pedal has just broken off.
But, gulp, no matter. For the sane — and, thankfully, nearly all of the 654 people on this evening’s Over the Hump race are very sane and very safe — the race isn’t just about testing one’s limits.
Instead, this annual series of 12 weekly races over the summer (you can enter as many or as few as you want) is about taking a break mid-week, the joy of the outdoors, staying healthy, and rediscovering that age becomes meaningless when pedal power is involved and freedom is always directly ahead.
Just before the races start — categories range from boys and girls age six all the way up to people in their 70s, as well as elite men and women — amateur racer Sergio Rangel offers to explain the many facets of what started out in 2009 as a simple bike race at Irvine Lake.
“When you are outdoors,” reports Rangel, a street-line painter for the County of Orange, “you leave everything behind and decompress.”
Then, smart man that he is, Rangel, a 40-year-old Anaheim resident with three years of racing under his saddle, dives into the philosophical.
“Look at life in general,” he suggests. “There is so much out there every day that people think they are used to everything. Yet some don’t realize how much they can do in the outdoors until they’re out there.”
While getting ready to cheer on his brother, Rangel points out that races like Over the Hump break down barriers, provide meaningful chance encounters and create long-term bonds.
“When you get together with a group of people from different walks of life who share the same thing,” Rangel says, “everybody comes together.”
Bicycle in back — pedals still intact — I pull into the giant parking area for Over the Hump near Irvine Lake in Orange County and marvel.
It’s a solid hour before race time and already hundreds of riders that reflect Southern California’s diversity take practice rides to warm up as well as to scope out the ever-changing course.
Six-year-olds pedal off on the short course, looking as determined as elite riders — but with Mom and Dad running behind. Guys with gray hair make last minute adjustments to their bikes. Teens square off, sorting out who has bragging rights for the most races.
Claire Timmermans may only be 13, but already she is a seasoned veteran with nearly a decade of dirt bike riding and three years racing Over the Hump. Still, she keeps winning in perspective.
“I love to be competitive and I try my best, but sometimes fun takes over and I end up talking,” Timmermans confesses. And sometimes, she adds, that is the best part of racing.
“If you go with the flow,” Timmermans explains, “you get to build bonds out there on the trail.”
Like a growing number of teens, the Orange freshman also races in National Interscholastic Cycling Association events, a nonprofit founded two decades ago and built on the idea of offering high school cycling events across the nation.
Jack Van der Reis, age 14, too, is both a NICA racer as well as a seasoned Over the Hump veteran and he and his dad, Dr. Will Van der Reis, embody one of the coolest things about Over the Hump: family.
“There’s nothing like Over the Hump,” says the 53-year-old surgeon. “I love going there with my son, catching up with friends, the warm environment.”
Echoing Rangel, Van der Reis adds, “You forget about everything else.”
What about the dangers of mountain bike racing?
Van der Reis notes he keeps his head on a swivel, always looking out for others. He also reports that mountain bike racing isn’t too much different than weekend warrior riding. Sure, injuries happen, but they’re usually not more than a collarbone fracture.
“It’s not riding,” Van der Reis acknowledges, “it’s racing.”
Pedal broken, dreams intact
With my not so trusty bicycle — the last time I rode Over the Hump was a decade ago and my seat post broke — I slip into the start corral with so-called “beginner” men age 50 and over.
But just as we were told back in the age of books to never judge one by its cover, it’s clear these guys are no beginners. Instead, they are steeped in the ways of mountain biking as well as the ways of racing.
Still, as we wait in the chute, the topic du jour concerns the inescapable vagaries of aging and, more specifically, colonoscopies. Yes, you heard right.
No one is shy when they are getting ready to pedal their booty off.
As we hit the start gate, however, age disappears and muscle, lungs and adrenaline take over.
I slam my pedals, rip over several four-foot bumps and blast up and around a corner. My plan is to stick with the dude in front and never let go.
That lasts, like, 10 seconds.
Another racer crashes through the brush and slides into the space between me and the dude. Another racer does the same.
The doctor was right. There is a difference between riding and racing, something I’ve forgotten. I give it my all, hammering past several riders, skidding on loose dirt down a steep switchback, pedaling hard over a ridge line.
Sixteen minutes and 22 second later, I’m on the second and last lap of my race. Bolstered by a cheer from Orange County Register photographer Kevin Sullivan, I pump like crazy.
Suddenly, my right leg tries to pedal and gets nothing but air. I hop off my bike searching for the pedal in weeds and dirt. Nothing.
As if in testimony to the code that this is a family race, several riders holler to be sure I’m OK. Just as I give up, I spot a piece of metal under my shoe.
It’s the pedal.
I slide what’s left of the pedal onto what’s left of its spindle and manage to cross the finish line. A few minutes later, there are fist bumps all around and my wife and I embrace.
Lindsay’s a veteran Over the Hump racer and although we weren’t technically together in the heat of battle, in the bubble of racing we’re all one.
I chat with nine-year-old Maggie Anderson of Orange, a hardcore dirt biker who has just completed her second Over the Hump race. On this day for Maggie, it was all about beating other girls. But for her brother it was a little different.
Zach Anderson, age 14, shares it was his first race and he paced himself, concerned he might weaken before the finish. Instead, the end came all too soon and he ended with too much fuel in his tank.
But Zach knows there will be a next time — and a next time. And he also knows something far more important.
“It was a learning experience.”