Mountain biking down Soldier Mountain near Fairfield on a quiet evening last fall, Rolf Hebenstreit ran into a cougar.
"All of a sudden, something came down in front of me and I ran into it," Hebenstreit recalled. "When the dust cleared, here this thing was—he was crouched down in front of me open-mouthed and panting. I watched the water drop off his tongue, and he had perfectly white teeth. He was just flawless, the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
It was also the most frightening encounter of his life.
With his heart racing and his sunglass-hidden eyes bulging with awe, Hebenstreit realized he was about to become dinner.
"Once I admired the animal for about 30 seconds I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm totally helpless,'" he said. "Then I got mad.
"I'm way too excited about life, I have too much to live for."
The standoff lasted about five minutes. "It felt like it could have been a half hour," Hebenstreit said.
Hebenstreit yelled and bounced his bike in the animal's face. Finally the mountain lion turned and made three long strides down the jeep trail before silently disappearing in the woods.
The next morning Hebenstreit, 53, peddled his way to the Knobby Tire Series cross-country mountain biking championship for his age division. He won by more than three minutes.
"I was so nervous, I didn't want that thing to get me," he laughed, referring to the big cat.
Hebenstreit, who lives in Bellevue's Slaughterhouse Canyon, is the top-ranked downhill mountain biker in the country for his age group. He's also ranked nationally in cross-country.
On Saturday he'll defend his title in the Knobby Tire cross-country championships at Tamarack Resort near Cascade.
Next weekend he'll try to maintain his top ranking in a Wild Rockies Series downhill event at Brundage Mountain Resort near McCall.
In September he'll hit the U.S. Mountain Bike National Championship at Mammoth, Ca. as well as the World Senior Games—basically the Olympics for athletes over 50—in Utah.
"I travel almost every weekend," he said, adding that his home on the road is an old camper. "There's such wonderful riding out there, it's just unbelievable. I also can't tell you how many beautiful sunsets and sunrises, lakes and rivers I've seen ... nature is a huge part of the experience."
Hebenstreit grew up in Seattle and moved to the Wood River Valley about 20 years ago. He works for Jytte Mau Designs in Bellevue, and rides his custom-made bike to work almost everyday.
While he didn't start riding competitively until about five years ago, cycling has always been a part of Hebenstreit's life.
When he was 16 years old, he rode from Canada to Mexico on a one-speed Schwinn, carrying and living out of a wooden frame Trapper Nelson backpack. It only took him a month, and he's repeated the journey 11 times since.
He's also the former Canadian freestyle skiing champion and record holder of the longest back flip on skis (200 feet).
Oh, he's also attained a superior level in Kung Fu, practices Siddha yoga every day, and plays the didgeridoo, an ancient, low-pitched wind instrument originally found in northern Australia that's made from tree limbs hollowed out by insects.
"He's a very unique individual, he's unlike anyone you've ever met," said longtime friend Steve Ollila. "He's incredibly upbeat, positive and optimistic and very full of energy. He's a treat to be around.
"And when he picks up a sport, he goes to the max with it."
Ollila's not kidding.
Ranked about 100th nationally in cross-country mountain biking earlier this summer, Hebenstreit has rapidly climbed to 15th place.
"If he keeps it up he'll be No. 1," Ollila said.
Last summer, Hebenstreit placed 19th out of a field of 50 cyclists in the 24 Hours of Moab, a demanding race in the desert of southern Utah. The average age of the racers is 28.
Hebenstreit approaches mountain biking like a science.
He closely monitors his vegetarian diet and sticks to a regimented training routine. During the racing season—May through October—he eats whole foods Monday through Wednesday before switching to a liquid diet for the rest of the week.
"I never get stomach cramps or leg cramps and I always have tons of energy," he said. "You are what you eat."
Before any downhill race he walks the course from top to bottom, looking for key sections and hazards.
It's a sound method for victory, but also for avoiding massive spills. With speeds topping 50 miles per hour, a fall in downhill mountain biking can grate skin like cheese and shatter bones.
"On the second day I ride (the course) all day long, and I figure out my tires and suspension," he said. "Then on the third day, race day, I know everything I need to know."
Hebenstreit's top national ranking in the downhill actually came about as somewhat of an accident.
Looking to increase his speed on the downhill sections of cross-country races—his light weight of 154 pounds doesn't lend to blazing speed—he began downhilling to compliment his training. It soon became a passion, propelled him into the best shape of his life, and has even changed the way he looks at the world.
"All of a sudden I see things differently," he said, adding that he can't look at commercial loading docks and flower gardens with sloping rock walls without seeing a launch pad.
"I'll fly over the rock wall and land and get the heck out of there," he laughed. "I miss the flowers of course."
The endurance from cross country has allowed Hebenstreit to train longer and harder than most downhill riders, who generally avoid hill climbs.
At the same time the vigor of downhill—"My heart rate is as high as it is when I'm riding uphill," he said—has increased his cross-country stamina.
But at 53, Hebenstreit admits he's a rare duck in the downhill culture—a fact his friends find humorous.
"They say I've gone to the darkside, and ask me, 'When are you going to get your first tattoo or pierced lip?'" he said. "But I absolutely love downhill, and I'm in the best shape of my life."
Then again, like most of us maybe Hebenstreit is just a little kid stuck in an aging body.
"I have more things to do on this planet," he said. "Us old guys, they don't have to bury us yet."