Day 9: Playing at the Limit

Bonus: Read Rachel’s related post on today’s adventures.


From the moment we booked our stay at Killington, months ago, I’ve been anticipating riding its downhill mountain bike park.

For years, I’ve ridden my workhorse bike on pavement and casual trails, across a mix of flat terrain and ups and downs. But each of those locations had a flaw: to finish with a descent, you had to climb first. (Or even worse, the other way around.)

At the bike park there would be lifts. Rest going up. Race going down. All the fun dessert without having to earn it. Like chocolate for breakfast.


We rented full-face helmets and hard-shell armor for our knees, shins, and elbows – a first for both of us. Hardcore black-diamond types around us were kitted in even more encompassing full-body armor, suited for terrain and obstacles well beyond what novices like us could imagine encountering.

Twenty years ago I bought my full-suspension Gary Fisher mountain bike, and I imagined, after two decades of pedestrian use, it saying to me today, “Dude, finally!” It was made for the rocks and stumps and berms and drops and whatever else the mountain could bring. 

Me, on the other hand … we would have to see.

Playing at the Limit

At the limit is where joyous play is found, where we live most acutely, and where we learn. So I set out to find mine.

After the first few test rides alongside Rachel on green trails – themselves considerably faster and more challenging than any we ride back home – I aimed my bike down a blue trail. (Bike trails are coded like ski trails, from green through blue, to levels of black. Black is for no-kidding experts, definitely not us.)

Pictures like this can’t convey the drop, but that route on the right gave me butterflies each time I looked at it, and a roller-coaster adrenaline rush each time I rode it.

These trails are fast and twisty, slippery and sudden, bumpy and technical. For almost the entire day I was out of the saddle, working both brakes, and careening on the edge of control.

Riding at the limit with each incrementally faster trip down. Taking trickier lines. Catching more air.

Learning at the Edge

And learning – not from reason, for which all the in-the-moment peril left no space – but viscerally. Body lessons.

One easy lesson: trust the bike. Its primary job is to handle the immediate terrain, smoothing the endless stones and roots and ruts. Let it do that tactical job so that you can look up and be more strategic.

Other lessons: Keep the pedals level, use knees as extra suspension, look well ahead, and steer with your body weight. 

And a final lesson I was delighted to reinforce: Primal, childlike glee lives at this edge-of-capability, likely-too-fast, fear-defying freewheeling.

Riding Past the Limit

We spent all day on the mountain, from 10am when the lift opened, to its last circuit at 5pm, when we were the last bikers heading down from the top.

On that last run I dropped the bike hard and skidded fifteen feet on one elbow and knee. Without the armor I’d have had miserable road-rash souvenirs for weeks. With it, only a hefty bruise and a silent “thank you” to my earlier self for putting it on. But had I not spilled the bike I’d have wondered if I had been really testing myself, really skirting the edge, really pushing the boundaries of my skill and nerve.

I had been, and finding that limit made all the difference.

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