The finish line is nearing. “Ride smart,” the voice inside says. It’s a voice in the head, but also in the muscles. Take it easy here. Push it. Don’t over-ride this corner. Go-o-o…
One wrong move could send you slamming into the ground. You might walk away. You might not.
Why risk this? Why race at break-neck speeds, crag a cliff, or jump from an airplane? Isn’t there enough challenge in other, safer sports? No, say the athletes who brave some of Kentucky’s toughest venues. Ultimately, it’s the individualism that calls to them. The voice inside.
Cross-Country Mountain Biking
Participating in competitive sports never much interested Rob Kendall, but when he tried his first mountain bike race, “I had to get ahead of these guys.” Whatever it was–and he still isn’t sure what–the desire to win kicked in, and he has been racing ever since. He is Kentucky’s two-time mountain bike champion, an accolade earned from a five-month series of 10 to 12 races in Kentucky.
For Kendall, the start of every race is the most difficult part. You look at the other riders. Do I have the right tire pressure? Did I eat right? Did I train too much or too little this past week? The starting gun sounds. All this is forgotten as you speed handle-bar to handle-bar to be first as the trail narrows to a single track. You try to find your groove in the first mile or so, try to avoid the collisions that typically occur near the start. Ultimately, though, “You have to ride your race and ride the race you know.”
The goal is to win, but also to ride well and have fun, says Kendall, whose weekdays are spent as a lab technician with Zeon Chemicals. Early in his racing career, Kendall received a piece of advice from a friend: “If you didn’t win and you didn’t puke, you didn’t ride hard enough.”
One can also ride a mountain bike purely for enjoyment–as many Kentuckians do–and Kendall, 30, does this too sometimes, but competing in races demands focused, ongoing training. Kendall rides a road bike 300 to 350 miles a week. Training builds endurance and strength for races. In the winter, he does weight training, running, and hiking to stay in shape. All this work has paid off as he has moved up in the ranks of racers to semi-pro status–a distinction he regards as his best accomplishment so far.
Depending on the terrain, cross-country mountain bike races are usually 25 to 35 miles in length with speeds ranging from 9 mph up to 40 mph. The General Butler State Resort Park course, where Kendall first raced, is still his favorite. He likes the climb up the former ski course (which is a hiking trail now, except for four annual race dates). His forte is going uphill on the bike.
With just a helmet for protection, the mountain biker battles the terrain from fast turns to steep inclines. “You have to know your limitations (in regard to safety),” says Kendall, who has injured his back, broken his thumbs, and twice broken his collar bone.
It’s impossible to say how many people mountain-bike in Kentucky, but the number of Kentucky mountain bike competitions each year ranges from eight to 12. Most races attract 70 to 150 participants. Last year’s Xterra Off Road Triathlon consisted of triathletes from Kentucky and 17 other states, including Alaska and California.
In 1995 Bike Butler Inc. and General Butler State Resort Park hosted the National Collegiate Cycling Association championship for mountain biking–the first NCCA mountain bike championship east of the Rocky Mountains. Bike Butler has also held the only national championship for off-road wheelchair races and has initiated the international championship for Clydesdale racers who are 200 or more pounds in weight.
“Mountain biking attracts people who are not only thrill-seekers, but who also are self-sufficient,” says Richard Matthews, director and founder of Bike Butler. “Mountain bikers will go deep into the wilderness knowing that if they have an injury or a mechanical breakdown, they will have to deal with it themselves.”
Still, mountain bikers will lend a helping hand when needed. “Many a time I’ve seen mountain bikers stop their race to check on the well-being of a downed racer.”
When Shannon Stuart-Smith worked as a thoroughbred jockey/trainer, her climbing buddies commented on how dangerous riding horses must be. Her friends at the stables, on the other hand, would comment on how dangerous climbing was.
But it isn’t entirely the danger or what other people say that drives rock climbers.
“Why do I climb? Personal challenge,” says Stuart-Smith, the executive director of the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition and a lawyer, who climbs nearly every other day. “Climbing is about the personal challenge to excel…Meeting the challenge is the ego feed.”
The most difficult part of climbing, says Stuart-Smith, is overcoming fear–the very particular fear that each person sets out to overcome.
Climbing gyms and sites like Eastern Kentucky University’s Challenge Course and the Via Ferrata adventure park in Red River Gorge enable you to climb without the dire risks of traditional climbing.
Climbing’s reputation as a killer stems from its mountaineering roots where casualties were generally caused by cold weather, rock falls, and inexperience/lapse in skill. Records of the U.S. Forest Service going back to the 1960s show that no bona fide rock climber has died while climbing in the Red River Gorge area. “Climbing is only as risky as you make it,” says Stuart-Smith, 47, who started climbing seven years ago.
Forest Service Search and Rescue coordinator Don Fig believes climbers prepare themselves mentally for a climb. They think about falling. “As a general rule, climbers are safety-conscious.”
The Forest Service rarely has to rescue climbers because they tend to rescue themselves. “The injury rate in climbing is minimal,” points out Fig, who has worked for the Forest Service for 40 years.
Skin abrasions are the number-one injury, and in comparison to high-impact sports, climbing is relatively kind to the body, says Stuart-Smith. “The beauty (and secret) of climbing is walking up the rock.”
Still, consider the climber in the midst of 3,000 miles of sandstone in the Red River Gorge, some of it still unexplored. It’s a far cry from the neighborhood ball diamond. “The Gorge is one of the best rock climbing areas in the world, it really is, and that’s not just a home bias,” said Dave Hume, who several years ago was rated as one of the top climbers in this country by the American Sport Climbing Federation.
A senior majoring in physics at the University of Kentucky, Hume has given up climbing competitions to focus on school and to just enjoy climbing for the sake of climbing. Right now, he does more bouldering where it’s just “you and the rock.”
He enjoys “the intellectual process of figuring out a sequence of moves. You put yourself in unique body positions. You concentrate. It’s an intellectual challenge, like physics: discreet problems with elegant solutions.”
Heading to Colorado this summer to climb for a couple of weeks, Hume balks briefly when asked to describe the feeling of climbing. “It gets you in a meditative state and just involved in the process of climbing. You don’t think of anything else but climbing. You forget about yourself. You become one with the action.”
The split-second sensation of flying through the air at 32 miles an hour and zooming around curves begins with years of practice. Ask motorcycle racer Ben Riddle or four-wheel racer Jimmy Elza. They have risen in their respective sports because of it.
“You have to dedicate yourself,” says 20-year-old Elza, who this year is ranked 14th in the nation in the Grand National Motocross ATV Series. He turned pro in 2000 after winning the Grand National 250 Amateur the year before and now competes all over the country.
Training means not only getting out on the track but also physical conditioning, such as lifting weights and jogging, says former rider Jerry Hebel, who operates the Daniel Boone MX Park in London and oversees indoor races around the country in the winter.
Jimmy Elza, the youngest rider in the ATV pro class, is dubbed “Superfly” for the 20- to 25-foot-high jumps he does on his custom-made Honda 250 two stroke. His farthest jump was 141 feet in length, which nearly broke the 148-foot record. Jumps are his specialty.
For Elza, racing is 50 percent physical ability and 50 percent mental ability. The latter means making good decisions, being aware of the competition, and “the confidence thing.” At the starting line, it’s easy to worry about other riders or the sponsors who might be watching, but that won’t win the race. “The track is your biggest competition.”
There’s no room for emotion in a race, he says. Once the gate is ready to drop, you forget all your nervousness and focus on getting to the first turn first. “It’s just racing–you don’t think out there–you concentrate on the track in front of you.
“Nothing fits me like racing,” says Elza, a London, Kentucky, native who has always been a daredevil. “It’s me. It’s what I enjoy.”
Eighteen-year-old Ben Riddle of Campbellsville is the first Kentuckian to make a living as a factory pro rider, says Hebel. Having won five titles at the renowned Loretta Lynn National Amateur and Youth Motocross Championships in the late 1990s, Riddle turned pro in 2000. His year-end ranking in 2001 was 10th in the nation for ESX and 35th in 125 Motocross.
An estimated 2,000 Kentucky riders compete at the more than 15 motocross tracks across the state. The 30-acre Daniel Boone MX Park with a 1.3-mile track is the largest track in view of the rider turnout and the crowds that come, says Hebel, who opened the track in May 1992. Back then, there were just two motocross tracks. The increase in tracks is an indication of the growing popularity of the sport, he says.
While motocross is about the individual and the track, few riders compete alone. It takes family and friends on the sidelines, and resources, but that’s still no guarantee of a perfect ride.
Elza has broken an arm three times, had four surgeries on his left arm, and injured his back. This spring, Riddle lacerated his liver in a race. That meant six weeks or so off the track, and an agonizing wait to get back on his bike. Previously Riddle broke his back, his thumbs, and a leg in addition to twice fracturing his collar bone.
Why do you continue to race, we asked Riddle just days after his accident in Las Vegas. “It’s fun and I have a talent. I want to succeed. No matter how many bones I break, I’m going to keep racing.” He admits that winding up in a wheelchair would be the only thing to stop him from racing.
Elza raced for five years without injury, and is grateful for that, but is also philosophical about the injuries. Most racers have good years and bad years. “That’s part of the sport.”
The airplane finally reaches an altitude of 3,000 feet. The pilot opens the door. “In the door, out on the strut, and go,” the jumpmaster calls, and with that the first-time skydiver encounters the wind and the sight of the landscape below. A small speaker in the ear enables the instructor to guide the solo jumper.
Each year at the Greene County Sport Parachute Center in Bardstown, 600 to 700 people try skydiving for the first time. Only about 10 to 20 percent will do a second jump.
Fear reaches its highest point as you’re opening the parachute, then the chute opens and, “Everything goes to peacefulness,” says parachute center owner Kenn Heismann, with 4,400 jumps in his 35 years of jumping. “The scenery becomes a big picture.”
Opened 33 years ago, the sport parachute center allows you to jump solo, called static line jumping, or jump tandem, tethered to an instructor. To jump alone, you must first take a five- to seven-hour course at the center. The tandem jumper gets a 30-minute introduction and then exits the plane at 9,500 feet harnessed to the instructor. Part of the tandem experience is the 30-second freefall at 120 mph. “It’s a sensation rush” and then a gentle tug as the two-person canopy opens and all is peaceful, says Heismann.
For exhibition skydiver and instructor Dale Gumm, with more than 4,100 jumps to his credit, skydiving is like floating on a cushion of air or floating on water. “It’s a great sensation of freedom, exhilaration, and really a psycho-adrenaline rush. When you get down from a jump, you have a feeling of accomplishment and success.”
In 29 years of skydiving, Gumm has had only one injury, a broken ankle while doing an exhibition about 20 years ago. “I couldn’t wait to get back out,” says the leader/founder of the Aerial All Stars Skydiving Team. After the accident, he bought a bigger parachute. The larger square parachutes set you down very easy, he points out.
Gumm, a superintendent for the Department of Juvenile Justice in Kentucky, calls skydiving his therapy. “It’s the big rush…you have to be so focused. You don’t think about anything.”
The thinking for experienced skydivers must take place before the jump–the United States Parachute Association licensing, the safety checks, the yearly re-orientation after a winter break from jumping.
“In the door, out on the strut, and go…”
Fear is about to be conquered.
“Adventure sports are about taking responsibility for yourself; there are no lifeguards in adventure sports,” says rock climber Shannon Stuart-Smith. You should “Always get proper instruction. Don’t learn from a novice, or trust a stranger.”
Here are 10 general safety rules that apply for most any sport:
*Plan ahead: do you have light after dark, enough
clothes and food, have you checked the weather,
if you get lost do you have a map?
*Double-check all your equipment beforehand to
make sure it is in good working order.
*Go with a friend whenever possible.
*Always take a first-aid pack.
*Always take enough water.
*Always tell someone where you will be and when
to expect you back; outline trip details and leave
*Take a means of communication.
*Do stretches and other exercises prior to the sport.
*Follow all safety procedures for your sport.
*Take the proper equipment, and wear a helmet
CAN’T GET ENOUGH SPORTS?
Why are more people turning to individual sports? It’s a combination of factors, as well as a cultural shift, points out Charlie Everett, acting chairman of Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Leisure Studies. “In terms of pinning it to one cause, it is very difficult.”
Particularly in the 18-35 age group, there’s a proliferation of individual sports, many risky and extreme by traditional standards. The X-Games with risky stunts have played a significant role in inspiring people to try extreme sports. Another influence has been television commercials featuring skateboarders and mountain bikers. Are the commercials reflecting what people are actually doing in their free time, or are the commercials prompting people to want to take up these more individual sports? Both, says Everett.
Parks and recreation departments have responded. For instance, this past spring the Louisville Extreme Park opened for skateboarders, rollerbladers, and cyclists. Phase one included a 40,000-square-foot outdoor concrete skating surface with a wooden vent ramp. Phase two will include a 20,000-square-foot building with indoor skate areas, concessions, and restrooms. For more information go online to www. louky.org/skatepark, call Metro Parks at (502) 456-8100, or e-mail email@example.com.
Climbing gyms have opened throughout Kentucky too. It’s not unusual for a child to be invited to a birthday party held at a climbing gym. “It has become a popular part of the culture,” says Everett.
Ironically, traditional sports have still kept their appeal, although sports like tennis and skiing have seen slumps recently. Statistics don’t show an abandonment of traditional sports, says Everett. There is just a more varied selection of activities today.
EXTREME EVENTS IN KENTUCKY
You can vicariously experience these daring sports and the people who enjoy them at the following locations:
General Butler XTERRA Off Road Triathlon,
General Butler State Resort Park,
Appalachian Bike Tournament
Road Bike Marathon, with 3 courses from 15 to 90 miles,
Yatesville Lake State Park,
Louisville Extreme Park
Free, open daily to skateboarders,
rollerbladers, and cyclists.
Witherspoon and Clay Streets,
Pepsi AMA 4-Stroke National Pro
& AMA Pepsi Kentucky State MX Championship,
Kentucky’s Largest Motocross Race,
Daniel Boone MX Park,
September 28 & 29,
A festival to showcase and educate
everyone to the climbing of the
Red River Gorge area,
Thunder Over Louisville
Louisville, on the Ohio River banks
April 12, 2003,
Dale Gumm and his team
skydive onto a barge in the river.
Info on skydiving: www.USPA.org
EXTREME, a film on extreme
sports at IMAX Theatre
Louisville Science Center.
Now through October 4,
ESPN’s Ultimate X: The Movie,
Firstar IMAX Theatre
Newport on the Levee,
Now through September 26,
(859) 491-IMAX (4629)
Greene County Sport Parachute Center.
Located 4 miles west of Bardstown, off Hwy. 62
on Airport Road,