This post is inspired by, and is a tribute to, the short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.
My intention is not to make light of the sober subject matter of that excellent story, by the way. I hasten also to point out that what follows is a work of pure fiction, and although I am the head coach of a high school mountain bike team, all of the characters in this story are utterly fictitious and any resemblance of any of them to any other human, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The Things They Carried Biking
Head coach Eddie Cogburn carried the team roster, quasi-laminated with clear tape, in his pack. The team was small enough this season that he never had to worry about forgetting a rider’s name, and he even had the parents’ names down, but he needed the roster in case he had to make the dreaded phone call to a parent from the trail about a kid having had a serious crash. This hadn’t yet happened in his three years of coaching, but it always could. (“Inherent risk” was a term commonly used in the coach training.) Of course, he’d make this uncomfortable call only if he had cell coverage, which he had most but not all of the time. Like the other coaches, he carried a 6-ounce Motorola Talkabout walkie-talkie, with a range of theoretically 20 miles but only via line-of-sight, so it wasn’t totally reliable.
Coach Cogburn also carried a first aid kit, assembled from supplies he’d ordered online. The kit included Band-Aids, of course, and a couple dozen 4x4 gauze bandages, non-sterile, sealed up in a Ziploc. He could have bought sterile 4x4s but he didn’t kid himself you could achieve an operating room level of cleanliness out on the trail. His kit also had about ten feet of Surgilast GL-720 tubular dressing to hold 4x4s in place, and a pair of Surviveware 7.5” EMT trauma shears to cut whatever needed cutting: the Surgilast, a rider’s clothing, or strips of the brightly colored 3400CP Coflex bandages that Coach Cogburn couldn’t quite remember the purpose of. He also carried two 12-micron aluminized polyethylene mylar emergency blankets which weighed 2 ounces apiece; an 8-ounce bottle of Tecnu for poison oak exposure; Advil tablets (for coaches only); Benadryl tablets (for anyone who had a severe allergic reaction, as from a bee sting); and four pairs of disposable surgical gloves. The first aid kit, fully stocked, weighed 13 ounces and traveled in his pack which, with assorted other gear but without the bladder (which he’d ditched, preferring to drink from bottles), weighed 6 pounds 8 ounces.
The riders all carried water unless they forgot, which wasn’t entirely uncommon. Some riders carried Camelbaks which weighed 2 pounds empty and 8½ pounds with a full bladder, far more than a regular bottle which only weighed 3 ounces empty and 24 ounces full. Sophomore Jason Short swore by the Camelbak because he hated having to wipe mud off a bottle’s nipple before drinking. Junior Varsity rider Julie Mack had used a Camelbak until hers catastrophically clogged at the Conference Championships in 2016. Tucker Smith, also JV, used a Camelbak because—though he admitted this to no one—it satisfied his oral fixation. On the lonely backstretches of races he sometimes held the mouthpiece in his lips even when he wasn’t drinking.
The things they carried were determined either by necessity or by perceived necessity, though a lot of things they didn’t carry could also be considered a necessity. Sophomore rider Ryan Black didn’t carry a single thing, not even the first inkling of responsibility for his own comfort or the smooth operation of his bicycle. He didn’t have pockets to carry anything in either, favoring a loose cotton t-shirt over the standard-issue three-pocket Lycra jerseys. Jason Short carried a 27.5” inner tube (7½ ounces), a Park self-sticking patch kit, a Lezyne multi-tool (6 ounces), and even a Fox suspension shock pump (7 ounces), though the need to tune up his fork mid-ride was rare. Tucker Smith, who once famously bonked halfway through the second lap at China Camp, carried at least four Clif Shot Energy Gels at all times, which weighed about an ounce apiece. JV rider Joe Martin, who was rangy and lean and got cold easily, carried a pair of DeFeet wool arm warmers which weighed 3 ounces but came out of his pockets toward the end of virtually every ride. Varsity rider Kylie Norton, who also feared catching a chill, carried a 1-ounce polypropylene skull cap to line her helmet but she was not wearing it when she ran right over a giant, fresh, gooey cow pie while descending Conlon Trail in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park in mid-January. By necessity, all the riders carried cycling helmets—on their heads at all times or they were off the team. The helmets weighed anywhere from 9½ ounces for a Bontrager Velocis MIPS road helmet to 12 ounces for a basic Giro Fixture all-purpose hardhat.
Most of the riders carried cycling-specific sunglasses which weighed about an ounce, though many of these had lenses that were too dark for the shadier trails, especially in the early part of the season when the light was low. Kylie Norton wasn’t wearing sunglasses when she hit the cow pie and had a massive load of very fresh cow feces inexplicably thrown up right in her face, seemingly defying the laws of physics. It must not have been the direction of the tire that determined the trajectory, but the sheer impact of hitting the cow pie at high speed. When Head Coach Eddie Cogburn saw the devastating effect of the cow pie his first impulse was to grab his walkie-talkie and call in an air strike. But of course there was no enemy, no battle lines, no planes or choppers. It was just a cow pie, but what an incredibly oversized, and gooey, cow pie it was.
What they carried varied by ride and time of year. In the early winter when the rides hit right up against sunset, Team Captain Sidney Mason, a second year JV rider, carried a 2-ounce pair of North Face TKA 100 Microfleece gloves, too warm for the painful warm-up schlep up Thousand Oaks but a godsend when descending it again on the way home. Sometimes she accidentally brought her father’s almost identical but Size XL TKA 100 Microfleece gloves instead, but wore them anyway which was like having tentacles for fingers.
In addition to their water bottles, their clothing, and their tools the riders carried bike lights, front and rear, without which they weren’t allowed to ride. Coach Cogburn always carried extra lights, the cheap Malker LED blinky ones he bought in packs of four and which weighed an ounce apiece. Some rider always forgot his lights and Coach Cogburn decided it was better to let the kid do the ride than to teach him a lesson by sending him home. Cogburn also carried a spare walkie-talkie in his pack, for assistant coaches who dropped in once in a while. Cogburn’s pack was a Deuter Race EXP Air with a metal frame that kept the fabric off his back for greater ventilation and comfort. It was an excellent product but Coach Cogburn hadn’t selected it himself; he’d inherited it from his late father, and in using it he carried around a strange feeling of guilt about enjoying this surely expensive and almost brand new product that his father, being suddenly dead, had barely gotten to use.
Almost all of the riders carried smartphones. They weren’t technically allowed to use them during the rides, but what coach wouldn’t allow a kid to snap a photo of a breathtaking view? So the riders carried their phones but used them sparingly.
Several riders accumulated ride data on their phones, to post on Strava later. This data told them all kinds of useful things, but not how to ride, or why.
They carried their house keys, of course, and either padded fingerless cycling gloves, full-finger thermal gloves, or both. They carried the emotional baggage of being teenagers. They carried spare tubes, most of them, even those who wouldn’t know how to fix a flat. Freshman rider Lydia Lee carried a 6-ounce 26-inch inner tube because Coach Cogburn had given it to her, advising that she was the only rider still on 26-inch wheels, and she carried with her also the mild embarrassment of not being able to envision exactly how this weird rubber thing related to the bicycle.
Team Captain Sidney Mason carried a Lezyne Alloy Drive high volume pump, which weighed 4½ ounces with its mounting bracket and which she had never used. It was identical to the one she had lost during the CCCX Fort Ord race her sophomore year, which she and her dad went out on the course looking for, not realizing the course was already being torn down, so they got hopelessly lost in a mess of unlabeled single-track trails. By the time they got back to the pit zone (alas, without the pump), their team’s tents had been taken down, everything had been loaded in the trailer, and the rest of the team had left.
For Christmas, a few weeks before Kylie Norton rode over the cow pie, Joe Martin received a sheepskin saddle cover from his grandmother, and because he never even considered putting it on his bicycle, he carried the nagging guilt of knowing it must have cost a lot, being made of real 100% Australian Merino Sheepskin, as his grandmother proudly pointed out in her high-pitched, cracking voice.
Head Coach Cogburn carried a Light & Motion Urban 550 headlight which weighed 4 ounces and which in full power mode put out enough light to ride single-track at a moderate speed after dark, though they never did this. He carried the responsibility for his riders’ safety, and a small but nagging insecurity about whether, in this first year as head coach, he was doing a reasonable job and upholding the high standard set by those before him. He carried the vague sense that at least some riders saw him as merely a chaperone, unaware of his past success as a bike racer and coach. This apprehension on Coach Cogburn’s part wasn’t totally unfounded, as JV rider Morgan Gleeson carried with her a pronounced skepticism about Cogburn’s expertise, since he wasn’t on Strava and never used the term “efforts” (he’d surely said “effort” at some point, but never in the plural form that indicated training savvy). Earlier in the day on which Kylie Norton hit the fresh cow pie at high speed, Morgan Gleeson had also been burdened with the pressing fear that, on the steep section of Meadows just before the turnoff to Inspiration Point, she might actually hurl due to the entire chorizo pizza she’d unwisely eaten at lunch.
The riders carried food, when they remembered. Usually this was Clif bars or gels or Shot Blox, but Joe Martin carried chocolate Pop-Tarts toaster pastries which weighed 2 ounces apiece and came in a two pack, and were, he claimed, nutritionally similar to an energy bar. Tucker Smith favored Corn Nuts in 1½-ounce packages even though they weren’t particularly high-carb. For the most part the riders carried themselves with responsibility, with the restraint and adherence to trail etiquette that had been drilled into them a hundred times. But sometimes they got a little out of hand, let the adrenaline get the better of them, and failed to slow down enough for this or that hiker. Sometimes they slowed down plenty but nothing was good enough for the hiker. When this happened it was usually with old folks who sometimes yelled out angrily even if the riders slowed to less than a jogging pace and politely announced their presence. Sometimes the mere fact of their being on a bike, or their being young and healthy, seemed to incite a hiker. Most of the riders carried the inescapable knowledge that there are unhappy people in this world and being out in nature isn’t always enough to pacify them.
Team Captain Sidney Mason carried her keychain-sized YMCA membership card, even though she would never ride her $5,000 mountain bike to the Y or anywhere else where it could be stolen. She carried her Kryptonite key on the same keychain, which was similarly pointless. She carried also the weight of her outstanding college applications and the constant dread that she wouldn’t get in anywhere good and she’d end up at one of her safety schools. This was similar, though not identical, to the fear that her teammate Buck Hill carried, that—now that he’d made Varsity—he might never get to mount the podium again. This wasn’t terribly different, in terms of burden, to the burning crush that Joe Martin had on Kylie Norton but kept utterly secret from all his teammates, particularly Kylie, and which more than anything fed his seemingly hopeless desire to distinguish himself on the bike.
Assistant Coach Tim Roberts carried the usual spare tube, patch kit, and multi-tool, along with a first aid kit that Head Coach Eddie Cogburn had pressed on him and which he didn’t feel he could reasonably decline. He also carried a shock pump, because he’d paid for it, and he carried the nagging feeling that so much of this gear was pointless for him to be schlepping, with three other coaches on every ride. Moreover, he bristled under the burden of knowing his loaded pack was just slowing him down, all so these spry, sprightly, seemingly unbreakable kids could, if they so chose, ask to have their suspension forks dialed in mid-ride, while Tim was gasping for breath on every climb with nobody jumping to his aid.
Head Coach Eddie Cogburn always carried two extra-large water bottles, which weighed 28 ounces each when full. When Kylie Norton hit the cow pie, brought her bike to a shuddering stop, and stood there straddling it shrieking almost hysterically for several minutes as her teammates surrounded her, Coach Cogburn couldn’t decide right away if the unpleasant cold of her getting sprayed full in the face with his water bottle outweighed the disgust and disgrace of the poor girl having oozing, seemingly molten cow feces all over her face. Finally he decided to risk the cold and hosed off Kylie’s face while she clawed at it with her gloved hands, almost starting to gag. Ryan Black shook his head and said, over and over again, “I think this is a bad omen.” Joe Martin, who carried his secret crush on Kylie like a closely guarded treasure, said, “What are you talking about, omen?” and Ryan Black said, “You know, an omen, like a bad portent.” John Martin said that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard and inwardly vowed to crush Ryan Black utterly, no matter what it took, next time they climbed Seaview.
Coach Cogburn carried a variety of odds and ends. He had a couple of “boots,” sections cut from the sidewalls of old tires, to place between the inner tube and a large gash in a tire. He carried a valve core wrench, which had come in handy three times during the previous season alone. He carried quick-links for 10- and 11-speed chains. These items weighed essentially nothing. Coach Cogburn also carried a size large wind jacket at all times which weighed 7ounces, and a 4-ounce size medium wind vest that he could squeeze into but which would also fit any of the riders in a pinch because they tended to under-dress and forgot to carry extra clothing.
The riders carried on a constant repartee designed to pass the time and to seem like they weren’t actually suffering from the pace. They even joked about what had happened to Kylie. They didn’t really think this was funny but it was part of the bluster they needed to show, to hide their lump-in-throat fear, their cold knowledge that that could have been me. “Nothing like a good, fresh cow pie,” Buck Hill said. “You know, the crispy, crusty outer shell around the gooey liquid center.” Coach Roberts could have added, “Yeah, like Freshen-up gum,” but he didn’t want to join in coarsely joking about the tragedy, and besides, he know none of these kids had ever heard of Freshen-up and they’d just look at him with that classic nonplussed expression Roberts’ kids were always wearing.
Head Coach Eddie Cogburn carried with him the burden of knowing he could have prevented Kylie Norton’s calamity had he pointed out the cow pie. He’d been leading the descent, with Kylie (a crackerjack bike handler) not far behind. He couldn’t believe the size of the cow pie and though he saw it just in time, he only barely missed it and didn’t have a chance to drop a hand and wave it back and forth in the universal signal for “Look out, obstacle.” He’d been distracted, as it happened, by thoughts of his first aid kit. There he was, leading the whole group down the steep descent of Conlon, a time when he should have had his full attention focused on the trail ahead, but was puzzling over the purpose of the spool of Coflex bandage he was carrying. Why did it come in different colors? Was this just decorative, or did the color indicate functional differences, one spool to the next? And what was the Coflex for, anyway? The Surgilast stretch sock was used to hold the 4x4s in place, that was clear enough; but what was this stretchy Coflex supposed to do? Is it like an Ace bandage? Is to stabilize a splint—the 36” SAM splint that Coach Cogburn hadn’t yet procured? It was at the moment he contemplated this oversight that he heard Kylie Norton scream, and as he slammed on the brakes and pulled over to a stop he was surprised not to hear the telltale static-like sound of a rider hitting the dirt. It was just a scream that turned into a series of shrieks, then the yelling of other riders as they gathered around her.
From here on out, Coach Cogburn decided, he was going to keep his head in the game, concentrate on what was required of him in the moment, and stop worrying about what was or wasn’t in his pack; where his pack came from; whether he deserved to be using it; whether his riders respected him; and whether he was up to snuff as a coach. He’d be methodical and unemotional from now on. He’d buy that SAM splint, read up on Coflex, maybe email the Wilderness First Aid instructor about it , even watch a few instructional YouTube videos, and then he’d move on. He’d stop carrying on an internal dialogue during these rides. He’d keep his eyes far ahead on the trail and next time he came upon a grotesquely oversized, fresh and glistening cow pie, he’d bloody well point it out.
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