The risk. The re­ward. The chal­lenge.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - JA­SON WHA­LEY

I ’m on a mis­sion. It in­volves get­ting up a steep hill with no pave­ment and no for­give­ness.

To be suc­cess­ful, it will re­quire a bike, pa­tience and power. I only have one of those three.

Tack­ling roots, rocks, limbs and dirt is not on the agenda for the places I usu­ally ride, but rather than nav­i­gat­ing by street signs, I’ve been us­ing an odd-shaped boul­der or a downed tree to find the way home. And if there’s a crash, there’s less road rash. Dirt doesn’t peel off skin as ef­fi­ciently as pave­ment does.

Yes, I’m find­ing it’s a dif­fer­ent world on a moun­tain bike. The rid­ing is more about proper tech­nique than pure fit­ness, and it’s more of a cere­bral ex­pe­ri­ence.

There are more than 130 miles of trail in Cen­tral Texas, Austin Ridge Rid­ers Moun­tain Bike Club pres­i­dent Judi Ronkartz says, so liv­ing here pro­vides am­ple op­por­tu­nity for moun­tain bike junkies to get their fix. The Barton Creek Green­belt — the quin­tes­sen­tial trail sys­tem — is right in the heart of the city and a gold mine for ex­plo­ration and chal­lenges.

Upon first glance, it ap­pears to be a straight­for­ward trail that’s nearly eight miles long, and winds its way along the creek from Zilker Park to the Woods of West­lake sub­di­vi­sion, just off Loop 360. But there’s much more

‘It will throw any­thing and ev­ery­thing at you to cause fail­ure.’

out there to ride. Much more.

But you won’t find these trails on any map. You’ll have to dis­cover them for your­self or ask Green­belt vet­er­ans, who may or may not give up the lo­ca­tion of these gems.

One of Barton Creek’s best chal­lenges is eas­ily found. It sits proudly at the end of the main trail, ready to dole out pun­ish­ment when­ever pro­voked. Beat­ing the Hill of Life is my per­sonal goal. To make it up this slope with­out putting a foot down would sig­nify that my skills are truly im­prov­ing.

“We’ve been rid­ing that hill for over 20 years,” said Bi­cy­cle Sport Shop owner Hill Abell, who’s a mem­ber of the Moun­tain Bike Hall of Fame in Crested Butte, Colo. “It used to be eas­ier, but the city put in con­crete wa­ter bars that eroded over time and left ledges. It’s loose and steep, and it’s a tough chal­lenge.”

The climb gains more than 300 feet in less than half a mile. And while it might not sound ter­ri­bly daunt­ing, there’s more to the equa­tion. It’s lit­tered with loose rocks that make for dif­fi­cult trac­tion, and there are those con­crete ledges to hop up and over, each one sap­ping a rider’s mo­men­tum.

There also is no pro­tec­tion from the sun, as the canopy of trees that lines the rest of the trail dis­ap­pears. It’s bru­tal. And it can chomp down hard.

“I had a dis­as­trous ac­ci­dent there in 1988,” Abell said. “De­scend­ing was a big thing back then be­cause we didn’t have bikes with big knobby tires, so go­ing down­hill was much eas­ier. So I was fly­ing down the hill when one of my grips popped off. The han­dle­bars turned sharply, and it launched me into the ground. I messed up my arm pretty good and had to have surgery.”

Still not con­vinced it’s a beast? Abell says he trained for the Leadville 100 last year by rid­ing re­peats on the Hill of Life. The Leadville is a pun­ish­ing 100-mile moun­tain bike race in Colorado that in­cludes more than 12,000 feet of el­e­va­tion gain.

I cer­tainly do not have the skill or fit­ness re­quired to tackle such an event, but I can start small with Austin’s own lit­tle devil of a climb.

I’ve made four le­git­i­mate at­tempts up the Hill of Life in the short time I’ve been rid­ing dirt, and it re­vealed its fangs early on try No. 1. A cou­ple of min­utes into the climb, I de­cided I should stand on the ped­als to gain more power. Bad call. Loose rocks caused the rear wheel to spin out, and I went down chest-first on the han­dle­bar. There’s not a lot of cush­ion be­tween the ster­num and skin.

On my sec­ond at­tempt, I made it about half­way up be­fore a ledge stopped my mo­men­tum. I slowly came to a stop, and with no en­ergy left to un­clip from the pedal, I fell over on the bike and skid­ded a cou­ple of feet to a halt.

This de­feat was not a proud moment. I had to walk the bike down the hill in front of an au­di­ence of grin­ning hik­ers.

I put in some solid prepa­ra­tion for the third try. I fu­eled up with carbs, was well­rested and had prac­ticed proper tech­nique. A lit­tle more than half­way up, the bio­chem­i­cal stew of lac­tic acid burn­ing in my mus­cles was build­ing to a crescendo. I knew I was run­ning out of time. Then a bee flew into my mouth. Ride over. Noth­ing like burn­ing legs and a sting­ing in­sect on your tongue to squash all mo­ti­va­tion.

But if you think the Hill of Life’s ob­sta­cles are only an­chored to the trail, think again. It will throw any­thing and ev­ery­thing at you to cause fail­ure.

I planned my fourth at­tempt as a fit­ting end for this story last week, with the idea that I could an­nounce a tri­umphant suc­cess. It didn’t hap­pen. Even a light­weight hard­tail Stumpjumper with huge 29-inch wheels (the ul­ti­mate in moun­tain bike ef­fi­ciency) wasn’t enough to de­liver the prize.

I started off like a man pos­sessed, ped­al­ing with fury in my heart and fire in my legs. Ev­ery­thing was right. The bike felt tight, the wheels were grip­ping, and my weight was cen­tered on the tip of the sad­dle.

Then the Hill of Life awoke. It was not pleased to have an­other biker scur­ry­ing up its spine.

Rocks that had been of no con­cern be­came loose and testy. The con­crete ledges that were ne­go­tiable a few days be­fore chewed at my ped­als and held on tightly to my back wheel. Mo­men­tum turned to slow mo­tion, power melted away like the salty tears sting­ing my eyes, and my steed slowly, surely came to a stop. Hill of Life 4, Me 0. But this is why I ride, and one day there will be suc­cess.

Ri­cardo B. Brazz­iell photo

Above: Four times, Ja­son Wha­ley has tack­led the Hill of Life on the Barton Creek Green­belt. Four times the hill has proved not so easy to con­quer.

Ri­cardo B. Brazz­iell

The Hill of Life on the Barton Creek Green­belt will sap a rider’s strength and re­solve on the way up. But the trail’s loose rocks and ledges can prove chal­leng­ing on the way down, as well.

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