Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Riding Through War: A Tale of Two Soldiers

I met Big Mike and Mike-Mike while fixing a bad case of chain wedgie on the side of the F trail near Rodalben. This 29-miles of "alt schule" singletrack is the German equivalent of east coast gems such as Jim Thorpe or Slatyfork: mossy rocks, tangled roots, tight squeezes, long climbs and retina-compressing descents.

The Iraq war had just started, and I was assigned to cover the big Air Force base and U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl. Mountain biking was my escape from the brutal fruit of modern warfare: 20 year-old kids with missing eyes, feet and legs, still smiling regardless and eager to get back in the fight.

In my two weeks of exploring the area, I had only run into a few mountain bikers on the Landstuhl and Rodalben trails. There were a lot of U.S. military bases nearby, but at first glance, these boys didn't look military to me.

Big Mike had bushy brown hair that burst out of every opening in his helmet, while Mike-Mike's was Marilyn Manson black and straight, topped by a black wool skull cap. Both had thick beards that hadn't seen a trimmer in several months. But their accents were from the piney woods of North Carolina, and their speech patterns had the same cadence as a forward observer calling in an air strike.

"Looks like ya got some chain suck, brother," Big Mike said as they rolled up on their bikes. "Need a hand?"

I knew then that these boys were special ops, either Navy SEALS or Army Special Forces. They wore cutoff desert camo shorts and baggy sweaters, but had that lean, wiry look of men who carry rucksacks and rifles for a living, the thousand-yard stare of a sniper and the quick appraisal of a grunt walking point.

We sat and shared a smoke and I came right out and said it looked like they'd been eating some Afghan dust. They laughed and spit and said they were in the area because one of their Alpha Team members had taken some rocket-propelled grenade shrapel in his back and was being treated at the big Army hospital up the road in Landstuhl. They never let a friend come there alone.

These guys' names aren't Mike, but Special Ops never give out their real names. The nurses at Landstuhl call them all "Mike." If a plane from the OEF—Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan—comes in with special ops guys, the nurses will say, "We got a couple Mikes in this load."

Big Mike was big, like Dirt Rag's Maurice only with 8% body fat. Mike-Mike got his moniker because he rarely says anything, so they started calling him Motor Mouth in jest, then shortened it to Mike-Mike.

"We ride out here and sleep in the woods," Big Mike said. "After the moonscape we've been operating in, this is plush and green."

They had a hotel room but had set up camp in one of the many caves in the sandstone cliffs outside of Landstuhl. Sandstone is everywhere here, and in many different shapes, from hulking overhangs on the L4 trail to a seven-story high wall of Moab red rock just off the blue-yellow trail, to lichen- and moss-covered boulders on the damp north slopes.

Big Mike and Mike-Mike had both been treated for wounds at the hospital in the last two years and after treatment went right back to Bagram, Kandahar and all the other stony burgs. They made trips back with injured buddies and, because they love to ride, stashed bikes here with a friendly barmaid.

"She's something else," Big Mike said while Mike-Mike grinned and nodded. "We met her at a bar where she was throwing darts backwards between her legs and beating everyone in the house. We took her to Kuwait with us once, and she almost got arrested for wearing a miniskirt."

They rode some back in Afghanistan, but there the trail obstacles are more likely to be land mines or blast craters.

Mike-Mike perked up and told the story of how Big Mike was riding along a stony traverse when a loud BANG rang out and the big guy went flying over the handlebars.

"He popped up with his pistol in his hand, looking for bad guys," Mike-Mike said. "Dumb shit blew a tube and thought it was Osama bin Laden!"

Big Mike denied the incident ever happened, and then revealed that Mike-Mike wore the same pair of bike shorts under his wool caftan for a month because he had suffered from hemorroids and sitting on rocks had hurt his butt.

"Now look," Mike-Mike said, "When we ride or do anything back there, we wear local clothing and headgear. We ride singlespeed, 40-pound, rusted steel frame utility bikes that we scavenged from trash pits piece by piece."

Sometimes Big Mike and Mike-Mike rode the small horses favored by the Afghans in the northern part of that country; they played a rough game of polo with a dead goat for a ball.

"When we get back to (Fort) Bragg, we're gonna derby with a dead goat," laughed Big Mike. "That'll be a par-tee."

In Germany, they rode hardtails, a three-year-old GT Zaskar spray-painted flat black with a big White Brothers shock in front and a battered battleship-gray K2 dualie with a Girvin shock in front and some sort of coil rig in the back that Big Mike upgraded with parts from a blown-up Russian armored vehicle.

"It used to have a Smart Shock," Mike-Mike said, "Until Big Mike got pissed and gave it a lobotomy with his entrenching tool."

They've been riding the woods since they were teenagers, living mostly outdoors since indoors was a crappy trailer or a rundown farmhouse. They didn't know each other until they met at Fort Bragg, but grew up just 30 miles apart in northwest North Carolina, in the big mountains near the Virginia border.

Their love for mountain biking has kept their friendship going despite hard times in the field. They had been friends of Sgt. Gene Vance, a talented mountain bike rider and Special Forces member from Morgantown, West Virginia, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in May of 2001.

"Every ride on every trail is made in his memory," Big Mike said. "He gave it all for his country and we never forget our own. Never."

I ran into the pair several times during my stay in the area and they were always eager to talk bikes and hesitant to talk about the war in Iraq. "Too many friends there," Big Mike had said. A week later they went back to Afghanistan, the war that you're not seeing much of on TV, and slipped back into the mountains, searching for bin Laden and a little schweet singletrack.

Riding their trails in Germany:The Rhine-Pfalz area is southwest of Frankfurt, not far from the French border.

To ride the Landstuhl trails, take Autobahn A62 to Landstuhl, just past Kaiserslautern. The L-series of trails begins just inside Landstuhl.

Take the main street (Kaiserstrasse) and turn right at the Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant. You'll see some stone steps leading up the hill by a stone statue of Jakob Becker, the patron saint of these well-kept woods. All the L-trails (L1, L2, L3 and L4) wind around the area, including the beautiful Berg Nanstein castle on the hill above Landstuhl.

To ride the Rodalben trails, take the A62 toward Pirmasens. Exit at Rodalben. Go into the small town, park just past the first gas station, then backtrack about 200 yards and head up the trail with a wooden railing. Stay on the F trail.

As far as riding in Afghanistan, Big Mike and Mike-Mike say if you aren't packing heat and wearing Kevlar shorts, your sorry ass will belong to the Taliban. Go to Rodalben and Landstuhl and have a beer on them at the Street Café. And give Louise a kiss.

© 1998-2004 Dirt Rag Magazine


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RedRockChica said...

Good to see friends are still riding for Gene.