Jason was straight out of central casting: lean and lethal, a cyborg out for a spin. But my favorite Secret Service agent was Bruno. With his bald head and the barbed wire tattoo around his right biceps, the 6'4" 240-pounder would have blended right in at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. In this particular group of bikers--a half-dozen journalists desperately vying to position themselves next to the leader of the free world--Bruno tended to stand out. A half hour or so into our two-hour mountain bike ride with President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch last Saturday, Bruno pedaled up beside me for a conversation about the Tour de France. When his jersey rode up over his sidearm, I kept my mouth shut.
It had been a morning of firsts. Not only had I never ridden with someone who was packing heat, I'd never biked with anyone wearing a mouth guard. But there was the President, popping his in just before we mounted up. It had no noticeable effect on his enunciation as he ticked off his reasons for converting to this sport a little more than two years ago.
An avid runner for decades, Bush had to stop pounding the pavement when, he says, "like a lot of baby boomers, my knees gave out." Since then he's become a passionate, if not always upright, mountain biker. He rides for the "sense of freedom" it gives him; because descending a steep, sinuous trail at 25 mph on a bicycle fills him with "a great sense of exhilaration."
In addition to being an adrenaline addict and aerobic animal--the 59-year-old chief executive works out six times a week, has a resting heart rate of 47 beats per minute (about 20 beats lower than normal, down in Lance Armstrong territory) and is in the 99th percentile of fitness for men his age--he is also a social animal. Biking, he says, allows him to "establish a camaraderie" with people he might not otherwise meet, people whose names he doesn't always retain. (He referred to me, alternately, as "California" and "Big Man," and I was fine with that.)
I had not been invited, obviously, merely to serve as a catch basin for the President's legendary bonhomie. While we whooped and yeehahed down limestone canyons, through grassy meadows and along rutted trails, hundreds of antiwar protesters had gathered a few miles from the gates of this 1,600-plus-acre compound. With an increasingly unpopular war and a possibly leaky deputy chief of staff, the Administration is eager for stories that will focus attention, instead, on the robust good health of the man said to be the most physically fit president in history.
Though our questions were supposed to be limited to cycling and fitness, Ken Herman of the Cox Newspapers, who would later refer to our bicycle seats as "weapons of ass destruction," stretched the rules, gingerly asking the President what the protesters might think of his going for a bike ride. While speaking respectfully of his detractors, Bush also asserted his right, essentially, to get some R and R. "It's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say," he remarked. "But I think it's also important for me to go on with my life."
That life includes four rides per week when he's at the ranch with Peloton One, the name given to Bush's riding group, one of whose rules is: Don't pass the President. Another rule, this one from the Secret Service: Don't crowd the President. That one was harder to follow. The ranch's narrow trails and roads ensured that only one of us could ride beside our host. This led to a logjam of huffing, middle-aged journos, all eager for face time with POTUS, who seemed blissfully unaware of our jockeying as he served as combination group leader--"Watch out for the hole!" "Hard left here, watch the gravel!"--and tour guide. After descending into a limestone canyon, he had us dismount, in order to lead us on foot to a stunning waterfall. As we unclipped from the pedals, a column of ATVs and SUVs piloted by unsmiling, armed men halted a discreet distance behind us.
"Sir," I inquired, "will our bikes be safe here?"
I took a spill not long after, toppling off my gleaming new Trek EX 8 while trying to clear a short, sharp ascent called Achilles Hill, so named because it is where Bush, too, once bit the dust. The serrated teeth of his big gear ring gashed his Achilles. The wound took three stitches, though at the time, Bush points out, he "taped [it] up and rode another 30 minutes."
About the falling: Bush has come off his bike two times that we know of, most recently last month in Scotland, where, during a break in the G8 conference, he took too much speed into a descent and biffed hard on wet asphalt, colliding with and slightly injuring a British policeman. The media has long made hay of presidential pratfalls. But the whole point of mountain biking is to push your limits. If you're not falling, you're not really trying. And Bush is trying. His passion for cycling--which comes at an opportune moment for the sport, just as his fellow Texan Armstrong fades from the scene--is matched only by his passion for his ranch. As he pointed out limestone cliffs and native pecans and fields he'd cleared of nefarious, water-sucking cedars, it occurred to me that the man does have an environmental conscience. I just don't always see it in his work.
But to hold such thoughts was to miss the point of our outing. As fellow fat-tire freaks, we didn't just share common ground during this ride. Thanks to recent heavy rains in the area, we wore it. On the final climb, a moderately steep pitch called Balkan Hill, so nicknamed because it is where Condoleezza Rice once delivered a lecture on the Balkans to the President and First Lady while they were taking a walk, Bush's breath grew more labored, but he kept up a tough pace. As we crested the hill, I asked him what his pulse was.
"Hundred seventy-four," he said--gasped, really--glancing at his watch, which measures his pulse and heart rate. "What's yours?"
I was at 172.
"Nice little climb, isn't it?"
"It is that, sir."
I never did get used to it, over the course of two hours. Here was the man who'd delivered the last four State of the Union addresses, whose voice came through the bullhorn at Ground Zero, describing his most recent tumble, inquiring as to the best gear to make it up Achilles Hill, asking me if I needed some water.
"Fantastic way to start a Saturday, isn't it?" he said, after we'd finished. We, the members of Peloton One, nodded our agreement, shook his hand, then climbed into the white van that would take us past the protesters, back to our lives. I concluded, bumping along in that van, that regardless of whether or not I had ever voted for the man, I'd ride with him any day.
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Marlin was convinced NASCAR made the call so Petty would win. --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 20
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF WONG