"Didn't recognise you there, mate. How are ya?"
"Aye, I used to be bald, but then I rubbed something at the top of my head and me hair grew back."
An 'Overheard at Red Bull Foxhunt' article alone would warrant over a thousand words. Embedded amidst swathes of gorse in the middle of the Mourne Mountains, a tight-knit community of lunatics dust themselves down after a frenetic descent from the misty peak of Slieve Martin. The calm after the storm.
At the steps of the media cabin sits mud-spattered world champion Gee Atherton, his right hand contemplatively stroking his chin, a coveted Red Bull athlete snapback dangling from his left. Just moments ago he was hoisted into the Rostrevor sky by a red hoard of his fellow competitors, alongside old adversary Colin Ross who became the first man to ride the track in less than six minutes as he edged Atherton to his third successive Foxhunt victory. Adrenaline rush now subsiding, Atherton - a legendary competitor - ponders his runner-up spot, conspicuously unperturbed by the six or seven kids who have ridden across the campsite to pull wheelies in his line of sight.
It's the first time all weekend I've seen 'Geeman' out in the open and not surrounded by kids looking for pictures; there's a time for such requests - namely any moment that doesn't immediately succeed his gravity-defying rampage down a perilous mountain trail. Credit to him - he's been more than happy to take pictures since his arrival on the eve of the event, and while you might think, 'Why would he not be - he's hardly Lionel Messi?', it's worth noting that on this terrain, at the foot of this mountain, he is Lionel Messi. Indeed, such is his legend in mountain biking circles, for every young fan who has requested a picture with the 31-year-old, there has equal part been a blissfully unaware child photographing their father stood next to Gee, thumbs up and ear-to-ear grinning.
Meanwhile, amidst the frenzied noise of chatter, back-patting and frantic Red Bull-slurping, sits course designer Stevie Davidson in blissful silence - face resting on his hands, mouth faintly curled at the edges, eyes alight. All the hallmarks of a man who's just been told his loved one has been marked safe following a natural disaster of some description. And with good reason; after a full month of countless track trials, painful errors and subsequent amendments, all 400 riders have resurfaced, and nobody has so much as displaced a single verterbra. Stevie - a master of his craft - has come through once more.
Not for my own want of trying, mind you. A day previously, I joined Stevie and Ethan Loughrey of Mountain Bike Northern Ireland for a media ride. It was my second attempt tackling what would in skiing terms be considered a mere red slope, having originally disproved the old 'it's just like riding a bike' adage the previous Tuesday when I patently forgot how to ride a bike.
Relative to the actual race course, the trail was a doddle, but to an eejit such as myself it remained precarious; between the dips and rises lay boulders, presumably designed to prevent riders falling into the autumnal abyss to each side. The beaten track was punctuated by various mini-ramps, where the path would drop suddenly on the other side of a rock, inviting you to either hit it running or face the reality of never having children. After some wily coaching from Dave Cronolly of Red Bull the previous Tuesday (take it standing, lean forward, and keep the pedals on an even keel), I felt more than capable of barreling through unscathed. On my second run with mountain sage Stevie, however, I inexplicably grew too confident.
Facing two of these small jumps in quick succession, and having built up a head of steam on a now-familiar trail, I saw my name in lights and went for glory. The coveted 'two rocks, one jump' manoeuvre that I'd heard mentioned in mountain biking folklore, or perhaps more accurately, had never heard mentioned before whatsoever.
It's not an exaggeration to suggest my ancestors would have felt my pain as my back wheel clipped the second rock, instantaneously catapulting me clean over the handlebars in what can only be described as the Superman position. It was mid-air for what I maintain was at least 18 seconds, but may have been more, before thudding face-first into the mulch and stones. I let out a guttural groan but was afraid to move my own face in case it was somehow broken. Peering through a mask of leaves and mud, I saw Stevie stopped up ahead, failing to stifle his laughter if he even tried to at all. It was impossible not to join him, which is when I realised my face was relatively intact. It was one of the funniest moments of my life, and Stevie was quick to remind me that he didn't design that part of the course.
Seeing the actual Foxhunt the following afternoon put my own bruised ego and body into context. Trackside near the finish line, over a hundred men, women and children waited in feverish anticipation to see who would be the first rider to emerge atop the vicious downslope. Sure enough, it was soon-to-be three-time champion Colin Ross, a local hero who rode past the hoards of fans and family members to a cacophony of cheers and bell-ringing. He was followed shortly afterwards by Gee Atherton, who - as 'The Fox' and world champion - had started almost 10 seconds behind the pack, and therefore had 398 riders to pass on his travels.
For the next 10 minutes or so, the rest of the racers began to surface, taking one final leap over a ramp beneath the Red Bull arch - the most spectacular 'Arrivals' entrance you could imagine. The noise, the colour, the sweat, the tears ("I made it!", one man wept) created a spectacle, but the camaraderie, congratulations and clinking of cans created the event.
There was much reminiscing and catching up with friends from Foxhunts past or acquaintances from different races - a collective exhalation of relief that most were still physically intact, content with their times as they queued to have them checked. Some were gasping having encountered the side-splitting Rob Warner, the World Cup commentator and former rider who bombed down the track seemingly only to make his flight back to England on time, while others simply gasped for air. There were more nods of acknowledgement than there were beads of sweat, between strangers who would soon become new pals, and course rivals for whom the respect, even during post-race interviews with MC Max Rantz McDonald, never wavered.
The sense of community staggered me, as did the physical endeavour of each rider - almost all of whom were amateurs seeking their weekend's fix of spine-tingling, adrenaline-coursing, downhill momentum. They got that and more, and they'll likely need to book that bit earlier for next year's Foxhunt.