Monday morning and I’m in an engineering workshop – they call it the ‘shop floor’ – which is slick with decades of in-ground oil beneath my dirty pink ballet pumps. Just a couple of metres away a group of engineers (a sprocket of, perhaps?) peer, chin stroking and head scratching, around one centre-piece. A carbon crank arm sticking out of a vice. It belongs on my mountain bike. And when the young engineer brought the hammer down, teeth gritted, to close the vice on the pedal axle I thought he was going to smash the crank arm to smithereens; sweat beaded at my hair line, I wanted to shout out. Remain calm, Jo, these men are helping you. Trust them.
I might have met more people through mountain biking than I have through any other part of my life. Well, let me qualify that, discounting schools and work places, where you are thrown into contact with people and communication is a necessity. Yes, other than those, mountain biking has helped me to share more of myself (apologies to some!) than in any other situation or hobby.
Tomorrow afternoon I am flying across the Atlantic with three of those people. Of course, we are shipping our bikes over; an adventure in itself. Not least the discovery of how aluminium housings can fuse with steel inserts over time and how really, once fused, there is no sure way to separate the two, especially when you are dealing with a carbon crank arm (I’m still traumatised). No, once the bike is dismantled there is the minutiae of wrapping and packing each component, arranging it, padding it with clothes, sealing the box. That’s not to mention handing it over to the airline, we haven’t got there yet.
We have been invited to stay in San Dimas, California, by Darryl, an ageless (or aging) biker with a nattily trimmed grey beard, flint and mischief in his eyes and a penchant for liquorice-black coffee and red panties (these are mutually exclusive, I understand). We met him a year ago, or rather he burst in upon us, whooping and screaming and tearing around the slick trails, having joined our local club ride. Binning it into the undergrowth several times he would clamber back on and start screaming his fierce delight at speed and roots and steep places once more – ‘are we going to die?’ he panted, excitement mingling in the steam that rose from him. He once suggested, when our ride leader found himself lost and with no immediate plan for escape, ‘if we are lost, we can eat the girl.’ Just a gentle suggestion, it seems, so, more than once, I have fancied that Darryl might be a close relation of one well known cloven hoofed, fork toting dude, who I am sure would also enjoy red panties and the taste of girl flesh.
Darryl’s from the UK but spends months at a time in the states, living out of a motor home that he tows with a truck – when he says truck, I think he means something like a Ford Ranger on steroids. Big wheels, throaty exhaust, that type of thing. So, Phil and Richard are staying on the floor of the motor home. Whereas Dave and I, who are now barely talking with the stress of sharing luggage and packing my Canyon Spectral into a container that appeared to be the size of a chocolate box (I exaggerate, I think it originally held tonnes of Darryl’s fiendish coffee beans), are staying with an American couple. Strangers.
We have been getting to know each other over Messenger the last couple of months. And I might know all I need to about David, our host; his wife thinks he’s a dick – his words – and he is as dry as the red dusty trails they ride and sharp spines of the cacti that line them. ‘Oh, I’m an idiot,’ I typed, after realising I had had my new pedals sent to David’s home address, rather than the work one he suggested. ‘I never argue with women,’ flashed up on the thread shortly after. Retorts bloomed and died. Ouch. But I liked it. Anyone who is willing to put up two strangers for a week has got to have a sense of humour, just so happens his seems to be a wicked one. We have seven days to find out just how wicked.
Or perhaps it is the wonder of bikes that’s made him OK with putting us up. They do just seem to have that effect on people. They give a rare opportunity to share an infectious childish delight. Adults, playing with big, expensive toys – ‘wee, watch me go fast downhill!’ It’s the risk too, when you are going just a little too fast down that hill or you try a new jump or steep, that unites people. There’s nowhere to hide in that delight or the risk state, and don’t even get me started on discovery; you are really pressing your face up hard to the window glass of life and fogging it. And the big thing is you need to share it, people make the wheels really turn. From the shop floor to the wild west.
P.S. They got it off. The engineers. The pedal. And I was fascinated by how they mused over it, turned it over in their hands and minds. Drill it, I kept urging, impatient, wanting the uncertainty to end. But they wouldn’t. Just one more think. And after an hour, they handed it to me in pieces, crank arm, pedal, axle and fastenings.