"O.K.," said Zeppo.
Vermonters, I already knew, were not long on chitchat. Moon and Zeppo took off across Malc's sheep pasture. Malc was right behind them. I was last. In about 30 seconds we were riding through a blackberry patch.
I hunt through a lot of blackberry bushes in the fall. I wear reinforced trousers, a long-sleeved chamois shirt, a hunting vest and heavy boots when I do so, and still I return home torn to tatters. Hurtling pell-mell into a blackberry patch on a mountain bike in a T-shirt and shorts is a different experience entirely. You can actually hear your skin tearing—rrripp...rrripp—above the whir of the spokes. "Hey. Malc.... Hey, Malc! ...Aiiejeeminy owwwwww.... What in the heck!" I'm fairly sure I did not actually say "What in the heck."
"Should have worn something on those legs," Zeppo said when he finally stopped and got a look at me.
"Whatever." I said, panting. I probably hadn't lost more than a pint of blood, and I had more pressing concerns, like, how do I get away from these guys without losing face? They blithely tossed their bikes over a barbed-wire fence and jumped over it themselves. We were not on a road or a path of any sort. We were in the midst of a field of nettles.
"Ouch. Man. what is this stuff?" I said, scratching my bleeding legs.
Malc, too, was wearing shorts, but Vermonters are impervious to discomfort. "Let's get out of here." he said with a laugh.
Zeppo and Moon zoomed away. Malc explained that they were training for a big race, a sort of cross-country expedition on mountain bikes. Zeppo and Moon looked like those motocross demons you see on television, skidding around corners, flying through the air at the tops of rises and pedaling full speed through the dips. They jumped fallen logs without slowing, forded creeks and crashed through groves of young alders. They were out of sight in a jiffy, with Malc hot on their trail. I followed their tire marks as best I could. I was having a problem with one of my gears—the lowest one, the one you need for hills. It would skip a link every third turn. Pedal, pedal, thunk! Pedal, pedal, thunk! I was also having trouble jumping those logs. I would stand on the pedals, throw my weight back and pull up on the handlebars. The front tire would rise, oh, four inches, just about to the middle of the log. Crunkk! Impaled on the bar. I would teeter painfully before falling. After a few moments of therapeutic cursing. I would disentangle myself, lift the bike over the log and proceed.
The creeks were a problem, too. Fat, studded tires do not grip on slimy, moss-covered stones. So I waded a lot. When I did make it across on my trusty mountain bike, I would invariably encounter a bank on the far side that looked like a sliding chute for otters. I would make it halfway up, far enough to peek over the edge, and then I would hear the awful sound of my front tire being sucked in by the wet clay as I gracefully slid backward into the stream.
I had not seen the others for a long time. I thought perhaps I had lost them, but—worse luck—Malc was waiting for me in a clearing. "I'm having some problems with a gear." I said.