Nobody loves the referees, it has been suggested, except by their families and friends -- and that's assuming those officials stay away from working a game involving a favorite team of those loved ones. If so, Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner and operator Laurel Darren is a notable exception – and for one very good reason after one of the Phoenix mountain bike tours she guided recently.
Phoenix mountain bike tours a good call by ref
(TOP) Brent comes rolling down a hill during the Phoenix mountain bike tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. (COVER) Brent and Gabby (left to right) pose in front of a cactus with Laurel Darren, owner of the Wild Bunch and their guide on a memorable Phoenix adventure tour.
“We had an all-around great experience and I would highly recommend this tour to any new or experienced mountain bikers. Gabe was a fantastic teacher and chose trails that perfectly matched our skill level. He took us on intermediate trails that we otherwise would not have attempted, but we handed them well and it was a good challenge. He is clearly very experienced and would also be a good guide to experienced bikers new to the area. Laurel was very nice and communicative before and after our tour. The bikes were in great shape and rode smoothly. We left feeling excited and empowered to continue mountain biking as a hobby!” – Jack on Tripadvisor, Oct. 2020
I love living in Phoenix -- and chasing my passions as a small business owner here -- because it feels like the crossroads of the world.
On average, the sun shines more than 300 days per year in the Valley of the Sun – which allows so many fun outdoor activities and exciting events to happen here in Phoenix – which in turn attracts visitors from all over the country and world.
So, the added bonus of being the operator of a Phoenix adventure tour company – the Wild Bunch Desert Guides – is getting to meet-and-greet so many fascinating people as our guests.
One of the latest and greatest examples of that came during the holidays -- between Christmas and New Year’s – when the Phoenix area again hosted the annual Fiesta Bowl.
This big-time college football game has sometimes served as the national championship. This time, though, the Fiesta Bowl was the site of the national semifinal between Michigan and Texas Christian on New Year’s Eve.
The week of the game, I got a call from Florida asking if we had any availability on a specific morning for one of our 5-star rated guided Phoenix mountain bike tours.
The caller also wanted to take his girlfriend out to give mountain biking a try for the first time.
My other guides were booked, but I was sure I could make that work for them by taking their tour myself.
During the conversation to nail down details, I said, “So, are you coming out for the holidays?”
The caller replied: “I’m actually just heading there for the Fiesta Bowl.”
And I said, “Yeah, there's always a lot of people in town for the game. We’re seeing a lot of purple and yellow and blue all over the place for TCU or Michigan. Who are you rooting for?”
His reply: “I’m not a fan. I’m working the game. I’m the umpire on the officiating crew.”
A nervous laugh followed from me, and I said, “Are you sure you should be mountain biking before the game? I don’t want to have to be on ESPN’s SportsCenter having a discussion about how one of the Fiesta Bowl game officials got injured.”
Brent "catches" Gabby under the mistletoe for a holiday kiss during their Phoenix mountain bike adventure with the Wild Bunch.
Ref ‘fouls’ in love with Phoenix mountain bike tours
I won’t share his last name to protect his identity, but Brent played college football in the 1980s as a lineman at national power Alabama -- and he was good enough to be a late round NFL draft pick by the Miami Dolphins.
Brent also kicked around the league with my home state’s Chicago Bears and his home area’s Tampa Bay Bucs, but he said he never did much more than make it to a team’s training camp.
Brent is a big dude – 6-foot-5 and slimmed down to 260 from his playing weight, which he said was in the 300s in the NFL.
A medical equipment sales rep in his “real” job, Brent has been a Southeastern Conference (SEC) official on fall weekends since 2005.
So, even hovering around the age of 60, Brent is certainly athletic enough -- and I learned experienced enough behind the handlebars -- to manage any challenges thrown at him by the trails offered on our Phoenix mountain bike tours.
His girlfriend Gabby, though, was a rookie – so I explained the Wild Bunch Desert Guides look to fit the perfect trail to the mountain biker’s riding skills, fitness-level and wishes for their Phoenix adventure tours.
So, if Brent wanted something super challenging or incredibly easy? We could do either – but for Gabby’s sake, we would look for less challenging terrain since it was her first time. I didn’t tell him that also would help calm my nerves about having to explain any accidents for a last-minute change on the Fiesta Bowl’s officiating crew (ha).
However, an unusual amount of late-December rain led the City of Scottsdale to issue refrain orders – asking folks to remain off the wet trails.
In the interest of protecting those trails, my small mom-and-pop specialty shop decided to move any bookings to different trails that are better at taking the rain.
So, I ended putting Brent and Gabby on trails that had a little bit more challenge than I would have liked. But it turned out to be a mixture of what he wanted while she received a little more challenge than we would normally throw at her.
Brent and Gabby finish an uphill portion of the trail during their Phoenix mountain bike tour.
Umpire out on mountain bike tours Phoenix
The day of their adventure, as if I had any doubts about his legitimacy after doing a little Internet research, Brent and Gabby arrived in one of the official Fiesta Bowl vehicles.
They were both super nice and amazingly genuine. Really down to the earth people. It was a real honor and a pleasure to get to know them.
We had a couple of bouts of craziness to start because the terrain was a little bit on the muddy side, so we had to stop and make some adjustments on the bikes.
But once we got going on the trails and were able to move continuously, it was super fun.
Gabby was a rock star on the bike, and Brent clearly had some skills and background.
Gabby is a makeup artist by trade – but proved very athletic. You would have never guessed she was a rookie.
For me, riding alongside sports-minded people – and talking sports – always is a great thrill.
When we were chatting, Brent asked me, “What's your biggest accomplishment? What's your most epic moment?”
I told him I was a 3-sport athlete in high school who played for a state softball championship. I also played softball in college before getting into running marathons and Iron Man’s – and now I race mountain bikes.
I told Brent the Leadville 100, Ironman Louisville and the Boston Marathon are among the coolest events I have participated in.
Gabby said: “Hello, look at those calves! I bet you do pretty well in your races with those!”
But besides any shared athletic backgrounds, it was a really nice experience because I really enjoyed them as a couple.
You could tell they had a really good relationship. All the vibes were really good because there was a beautiful energy between both of them and it just created a really fun atmosphere.
It was raining the day before their ride, so it was a little muddy – and one of those rare days in the Valley of the Sun when it is gloomy out. But Brent and Gabby were a shining light -- the real silver lining in a cloudy day.
To be safe, we were two days ahead of the Fiesta Bowl when we headed out on one of the Wild Bunch’s Phoenix mountain bike tours – but I waited to talk about it until well after on Brent’s request.
I have been blessed to meet several industry leaders or famous people used to the spotlight. Some are cool with me talking about their experience – as witnessed by my friend who is now a Major League Baseball team president (read that blog here).
But any follow-up fanfare is completely up to them, with my small mom-and-pop shop protecting the privacy of our guests.
Whether you are a rock star or a janitor cleaning up after the show – you are the most important person to us when you are a guest of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
Everybody has a fascinating story to tell – and it’s up to them if they want to tell it to us on the trail.
Otherwise, we try and let our guests get away from the stresses of real life and just enjoy their company and outdoor activity.
But on that pre-Fiesta Bowl adventure, we talked a little more than the average tour -- and Gabby shot this funny video on the trail where I was yelling at Brent like coaches yell at officials.
So, the three of us had a blast together.
Brent and Gabby pause for a picture beneath one of the trademarks of the Old Southwest, a Saguaro Cactus, during their Phoenix mountain bike tour.
Official call on Phoenix mountain bike tours
I was unable to watch the Fiesta Bowl because I had other plans on New Year’s Eve.
But otherwise, I’d have watched the game just to watch Brent work.
I had no rooting interest in the game. I wear black and gold. I’m an Iowa Hawkeyes fan. So, too bad Michigan. Good for TCU for winning a super close game.
A lot of people here were rooting for TCU and the upset anyway. And there were a lot of people from Texas here. But I was rooting for the umpire after sharing one of our Phoenix mountain bike tours because it was SOOOOO awesome to get to know him.
Of the seven officials on the field for the Fiesta Bowl, Brent served as the umpire.
For those that don’t know, the umpire on football officiating crews is positioned in the offensive backfield -- 15 yards behind the tight end position on the left side, or opposite of the crew chief, the referee.
The umpire’s main job during action is watching the center, left guard and left tackle and the defenders who engage them. The umpire also maintains control by talking with the players, digs in the piles after fumbles to determine possession, and marks off the penalty yardage among other duties.
Otherwise, I tried to not ask too many questions about his job as a big-time college football official.
I knew enough -- Brent works every weekend during the football season, and this was his biggest game of the year. So, I definitely wanted to stay away from talking about the Fiesta Bowl and any pressure he felt to perform on the big stage under the bright lights of national television.
Instead, like all of our guests, I wanted to get him away from his job and routine for a little while. I wanted Brent to enjoy his experience – and I know he did.
I was pleasantly surprised that he reached out to me after the game, after they got home, and told me Gabby really enjoyed her first time on a mountain bike, too.
“She now wants me to buy her a mountain bike!” Brent told me.
As a guide, that is the biggest compliment you can ever receive -- and it is better hearing that than any gratuity you could ever get.
My heart smiles 500 times over knowing my time, energy, joy and passion of what I love to do came through and spoke to her so much that now she wants to get a mountain bike.
There's no better feeling than knowing you inspired somebody to go out and do something that you love.
It also was quite the honor to have somebody you can see working big TV games call my little old company and go out before a big national event like this.
But the best thing that happened? I got my wish with Brent avoiding any sort of crash to knock him out of action!
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