Friday, March 2, 2012 | 6 p.m.
Gnarly. The riders say this word with reverence, showing scars, bone spurs and joint separations from being chewed up and spit out by Bootleg Canyon. Named one of the world’s most epic rides by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Bootleg’s 36-mile system of singletrack was cut into the desert rock by local artist Brent Thomson. The cross-country trails offer flowing traverses, technical rock gardens and staggering views of Lake Mead, while the downhill runs are all hairpin turns, steep grades and dagger-sharp gravel. One second of hesitation or one centimeter of error is all it takes to send a body from adrenaline high to the hospital. That, the riders say, is why it’s so damn sweet when you make it down the hill in one piece.
On February 18 and 19, hundreds flocked to Bootleg for Reaper Madness, USA Cycling’s first 2012 qualifier for pro riders looking toward the Gravity Nationals and a chance for locals who love the sport to test their skills. But as race organizer Downhill Mike explained, it’s less about times and titles than “the stoke”—the simple joy of being in the elements, pushing muscle and machine to new heights of possibility.
‘I just go 100 percent’
A lot of kids have broken their wrists in bike wrecks. Very few have done it while elbowing their way around a racetrack for points on the national circuit. Jason Kullman is one of the few. At 15, he’s already broken nine bones as an expert BMX rider. In the cruiser category for his age group, he’s currently ranked fifth in the country.
Kullman grew up on a BMX bike, as his parents own local BMX track Ed Fountain Park. But it was only a matter of time before a friend introduced him to downhill. The first trail he tackled was Bootleg’s Snakeback. “It was fast, slippery and just crazy,” says Kullman, who was instantly hooked.
With less than two seasons of training and only one other downhill race under his belt, Kullman competed at Reaper Madness in the beginner class for men 15-18. Of the three in that group, he came in third with a time of 6:14, only four seconds behind the next guy despite crashing hard. It wasn’t his best day, but just finishing at Bootleg felt pretty good. “It’s sharp, rocky and it’s hard to get grip,” Kullman says. “Everywhere else, when it rains, it packs in. It can rain as much as it wants here—nothing will happen. ... It’s a lot faster and more technical.”
I ask if there’s some special gene that makes certain people fearless, allowing them to look at all of that gnarliness and bomb down it anyway.
“It’s just fun. That’s all I know,” Kullman says. “The first run, I’m kind of cautious, figuring everything out. Second run, I just go 100 percent down it and just see what I can do.”
‘That moment where you own it’
Ashlie Watters and Holly Priest should be sworn enemies. Watters is a 27-year-old blonde from Las Vegas. Priest is a 26-year-old brunette from Reno, but both are working toward doctorates at UNLV (public health and law, respectively), and they share an appreciation for the crazy tan lines and camaraderie of mountain biking.
At Reaper Madness, they were among just nine women racing super downhill, the bridge between downhill and cross-country. In addition to speed and control it requires endurance (aka peddling), which Priest has preferred since she took up mountain biking a couple years ago. Her then-boyfriend was gung ho for the sport, and she did her best to keep up using a borrowed hardtail and secondhand helmet. The relationship ended, and the riding almost did, too. Then Priest bought her own bike on Craigslist for $400, a Gary Fisher Sugar 3.
“It was still a crappy bike, but it was mine, and it had a little more suspension,” she says. “When I started riding by myself the sport became mine. Everyone goes through that moment where you own it.”
For Watters, the moment could not have been more inconvenient. She was knee-deep in her master’s thesis, stressed to her breaking point. That’s when she noticed her lab buddy, Priest’s new boyfriend Rick, was always sneaking off to ride. One conversation led to a trip to All Mountain Cyclery.
“I picked it up during one of the most stressful times of my life,” Watters says. “I didn’t have time to go ride my bike. I did not have time to learn anything or get interested in anything other than big pizzas and my computer. And it was the best thing for me. Life changing.”
Now, she and Priest ride together. They signed up for Reaper Madness together and competed against one another as the only contenders in the beginner class for their age group. Watters beat her goal time by almost two minutes with 12:39, and Priest came in at 14:44. Priest says she used to be faster, but a serious crash last summer left her face, and her psyche, scarred. She had to go to the ER for stitches and is still paying the bill.
“It was like starting from scratch again, relearning how to ride my bike,” Priest says. Watters, who’s been mauled by a tree and has skidded 15 feet on rocks after going Superman over her handlebars, says you just have to remember that pain is temporary.
“You got back up, you’re on the bike again,” Watters says. “Sometimes you just have to go balls to the wall and say screw it and go.”
Bigger than any fear, they agree, is the pleasure of being part of the bike community. Meeting for a ride and a beer is standard, and races are a chance to hang out with good people who celebrate each other’s victories, even when they’re going for the same prize. Priest recommends “pre-race cuddling” and yelling encouragements to yourself after a technical stretch. Watters says to touch the front brake at your own peril. They both swear by the powers of Diet Dr. Pepper, and of Bootleg to make an ordinary rider on its trails pretty badass in any other environment. “The more you do it the more fun it gets,” Watters says. “That’s my motivation.”
‘My helmet just went snap’
Gearing up for his super downhill run at Reaper Madness, Chaisson Sisson was quiet. Staring into the wind, green mohawk flying, he went over the plan in his head: Go fast.
He did go fast, too fast through a technical section. “I just hit this rock right on the side. My bike came over with me, because I was clipped in. My helmet just went snap,” he says.
Chaisson is sitting with his parents, Lance and Lynn, at a local Denny’s, eating a short stack of pancakes with enough butter to make a few dozen cookies. He just turned 9.
He tells me his heroes include a British family of World Cup riders, the Athertons, and motocross stunt god Travis Pastrana. Like Kullman, Chaisson also races BMX. He has been both ABA and NBL state champion for the past three years in cruiser and class categories and is currently the NBL Western Region Champion in both. But his mom says he seems way more “pumped” about mountain biking.
“I get to go as fast as I can, and I don’t have to have anybody cut me off in the corners,” Chaisson says. After his crash at Bootleg, he asked to go straight from the hospital back to the race just in case he could score a second run. He was riding out there the next day.
“I think he’s got more ability than he knows he has,” Lance said when his son was on the shuttle to the top of Bootleg. He also shared stories about Chaisson’s first bike (demanding, at 3 years old, that the training wheels be removed), his collection of lucky socks and rituals related to his fear of heights. Given that fear, it’s even more impressive that he rides at Bootleg.
“If you mess up, you fall off the mountain,” Lance says. “Everywhere else, it’s just on the side of a hill. And you fall and it’s soft, and your big obstacle’s a tree. We don’t have that here. You fall and it rips you open.”
Lucky for Chaisson he was wearing a quality helmet built by Kali Protectives when he went down. The company has been supporting him in a sort of grassroots sponsorship since he was 6, when he met founder Brad Waldron at Interbike. The former aerospace engineer and downhill rider saw something special in the boy, and he continues to throw his support behind Chaisson’s potential.
His parents delight in watching him come down a trail he’s never tried before, the mile-wide grin. As long as they see that grin they will buy the equipment and drive to the next race. Because they understand what their son, at such a young age, already knows. “It’s not always about going fast,” Chaisson says. “It’s just about having fun.”
This story first appeared in Sun sister publication Las Vegas Weekly.