The bike was at angle in the air, pointing across instead of down the landing ramp. This was going to hurt. The front wheel ploughed into the dirt and I had a moment to be surprised – it actually landed on its wheels! – before I buckled over the bars. My head hit, then my left shoulder, while the bike settled in the dirt close by, pedals clattering my shin in one final assault.
I’ve seen those videos (or are they ‘edits’ these days?) – Ultimate Fail or Worst Mountain Bike Crashes (I’m making it up but the titles go something like that). After a period of air-time riders are tossed to the ground like sacks of spuds, or worse, into trees like sacks of spuds. I’ve watched them with transfixed horror, making ‘oooofff’ sounds as they hit terra firma, while being cocooned in ‘never me’ thoughts.
Only this time it was me (only not with quite so much air). I struggled to get up, ignoring cautions of ‘wait a minute,’ and ‘take your time.’ I wanted anything other than to be prone on the floor, helpless. While tazer shots fired across my body, I was struggling to take hold of myself. I was angry; I should not have got that wrong. I felt guilt; I should not have done it in the first place. I whipped my helmet off, head still vibrating from the impact, and began to walk; I needed to move as pain blossomed in my right shin and left shoulder. Then I remembered the bike; was it OK?
Waiting to be checked out in A&E the following day, still troubled by the guilt as much as the pain, I began to really think about injury in mountain biking. I started to count those I knew who had suffered fractures through mountain biking in the last 12 months? One, two – four. I wrote the number down. No – it was more than that, I scribbled out four and wrote five. No – there was Richard’s wrist, that was about this time last year. I scribbled out five. In the end I had the number eight and simply stopped thinking. What about the people I didn’t know? Every week I read about injuries to mountain bikers on Facebook. Was this just the social media effect skewing the stats or had I become involved in a pretty dangerous sport?
That was Monday. On Wednesday I was pedaling my XC bike, following a friend who is recovering from injury to his right leg. ‘It’s not mountain biking that’s dangerous,’ he said, remarkably quick for a man whose right leg is held together with metal, ’it’s the desire to progress. That’s where a lot of the risk comes from.’ I know he’s right. So many times this year I had paced around obstacles, eyeing them up, telling my body to just get on the bike and do it. ‘It’s not the obstacle that’s the problem,’ he went on, ‘it’s the not wanting to hear the voices if I walk away. The ones that tell me I should have done it.’ I could understand that, I hear voices, and they definitely give me a hard time for not facing up to a challenge. But as I continued pedaling I realised my voices say other things.
I fall off my bike a fair bit. A silly loss of balance while clipped in, a bad line on a new obstacle, an unexpected rut (see above), a stick that whips my front wheel away as I nip through wooded single-track sending me skidding into a tree. This is the nature of the hobby. But I have had a handful of falls that really stand out. They have been preceded by a voice that goes something like this: ‘I’ll show them I’m a good mountain biker.’ The voice ignites a hot feeling in my chest – a concoction of pride and adrenaline – and speed follows. I’ve landed on my face, cutting my chin open on rocks, hurtled off a wall ride onto my right hand side and, most recently, fired an unfamiliar bike off the face of a small table top, piling into the earth beside the landing ramp. Er, you sure showed them, Jo.
The more I think about it, the more I recognise that voice out on the trails. It is a frequent companion. The amateur psychologist in me knows it flows from a desire for approval that can never be satisfied.
As I progress further into mountain biking, working to develop skill and technique, which ultimately takes me to more techy terrain, I have to rely more and more on my judgement. It’s fine for a coach to tell me to hit that jump or nail that descent but I have to be able to trust my own assessment out on the trail, or else what is that training really for? That voice is dangerous because it compromises my judgement. And sheepishly, I must accept that the voice and my deep-rooted need for approval was, at least in part, the cause of my crash on the jump.
I’ve heard it said before, ‘mountain biking has changed my life.’ I agree and I might even say it has brought me to life. I can see my genuine determination and strength. It is often a challenge and with persistence I have proved to myself time and again, I can do it. But inevitably, there have been crashes because these are the attempts before I get it right and simply the fall-out of a sport that involves uncertainty. I accept this and the possibility I could get hurt. Above all else the sport teaches me and I know I have a huge amount to learn. This particular lesson is not about falling off but the importance of being able to trust myself and the judgments I make. It’s about being able to listen to the voice I know is inside me that makes sound judgement and cares nothing for what other people think.