Acceptable Risks and the Inevitability of Pain

October 21, 2015

By Ian Bailey

Internet comment sections fascinate me. The speed at which they degenerate into outright hostility, off-subject vitriol and blatant trolling reveal many of mankind’s most deplorable traits. Thankfully, comments relating to Singletrack articles tend to be a different breed with lively, friendly debate (usually) the order of the day and I’m able to read them without the depressive feeling that accompanies YouTube or the bemused head shaking at other bike forums.

No, I reckon I can ride it out…

Tucking into the conversations that surrounded my first Singletrack article added a whole new layer of interest. I must admit I delighted in the mildly heated exchanges that caused numerous Facebook shares. Whilst the article didn’t deliberately court controversy it clearly divided opinion and achieved my goal of getting people thinking about biking technique.

One comment in particular caught my attention. In response to my stating that mountain biking has so far cost me seventeen broken bones someone asked whether I should be seeking coaching myself rather than imparting my knowledge to others?

It’s a perfectly valid point on the face of it.  Who am I to attempt to teach when I’ve clearly made an above average selection of painful errors myself over the years? It set me thinking about what defines acceptable risk and why do I continue to love a sport that causes me so much anguish?

I must admit that I consider seventeen broken bones including most limbs, numerous digits, a few ribs and a repeated assault on one wrist actually not to be too bad a return on almost thirty years of fun. This seems especially true when over a third of those can be attributed to one Alpine smash caused by an unseen drainage ditch rather than outright rider error. Far from being ashamed at my apparent ineptitude I’ve always worn my injuries like a badge of honour, each one deepening my affiliation and validating my efforts.

However, with age and responsibility comes the inevitable question of whether I can justify the risk that accompanies the sport.  I’m a fully paid up member of the ‘unable to get out of a chair without an involuntary groaning noise’ club and the breaks, strains and pulls are definitely healing at a more ponderous pace than in the past. Furthermore, if I can’t ride I can’t work and with the joy of a mortgage to pay and hungry mouths to feed there’s definitely an added pressure to keep on the sensible side of the ragged edge.

In recent years the growth rate of the injury list has slowed as I’ve developed an innate ability to ride at 80% of my potential velocity, virtually eliminating crashes. The appearance of Enduro racing has even allowed me to rekindle my competitive instincts without necessitating the eyeballs out, total commitment purity of DH in order to be near the upper end of the results sheet. The question I’m left with though is whether a more sensible approach has diminished my enjoyment of the sport I love so much?

I’ve had to really ponder this one hard. I can’t say that I like crashing, at least not the frantic body and bike checks that accompany a big smash as you attempt to rapidly tally up the costs of the latest mistake, both physical and financial. As I’ve veered towards middle age I’ve developed a morbid habit of estimating what percentage of my likely overall remaining biking life has been wiped out by the symptoms of the latest injury.

The flip side of this though is that rush of endorphins and relief that accompany a close shave. Those most gratifying moments where you stare hard into the huge crash abyss and through your own abilities or sheer luck drag yourself back. Those are the ones that leave me laughing manically with the wide eyed look of someone who knows how close they came to a biggie and still can’t quite comprehend how they avoided it. My developed conservatism has definitely robbed me of some of these life-affirming experiences but at the same time has allowed me to maintain ride time, the battle of quality versus quantity.

Oooh look – a leaf

A couple of years ago I decided, just for a weekend to ride at 100% again. I blew out corners, tore over steep roots and had three big crashes on the first day with no serious ill-effects. That evening I was like my teenage self again, absolutely itching to get out at first light to leave my mates scrabbling behind me in the dust. By the Sunday night I was nursing a rapidly swelling thumb joint that turned out to be soft tissue damage which left me unable to grip the bars for four months. That Saturday evening buzz stayed long in the memory but still failed to overcome the frustration and worry that accompanied the long-term injury.

As a bike coach I’m constantly asking people to stretch their limits and to re-frame what they consider their capabilities are, in order to improve and enhance their enjoyment. Obviously they’re also employing me to help them make judgements; to dynamically risk assess on their behalf and help them avoid the plethora of injuries that have accompanied my own development. In many ways I feel that seventeen breakages have definitely been worthwhile, if only to assist others in limiting their own A+E time.

However, no matter how experienced and careful you are, you still can’t entirely eradicate risk. I was recently contacted by a worried parent who felt that their son needed some coaching in order to remove the danger of crashing and injury which they feared may hinder his academic studies. I felt obliged to point out that whilst I could definitely help him improve technique wise and subsequently crash less, I’d also almost certainly also increase the speed at which he could ride. The end result being that the likely outcome of his still inevitable but more occasional smashes would be much more serious. I never received a reply.

Mountain biking is dangerous. Not as dangerous as some other pastimes where the consequence of error is almost certain death, but in biking the likelihood of error is certain. There are simply too many variables involved to always maintain control and so crashing, and sometimes injury is a constant probability. I’ve learned to accept and embrace that fact and I realise that even with my watered down pace I’ll still be lying in the dirt again at some point, hoping that the pain will dissipate quickly leaving just scrapes rather than breakages.

If you’re yet to experience the split second terror of an over the bars journey or that adrenaline shot moment when control is lost, don’t let your fear hinder your development or enjoyment. Embrace the inevitability and increase the smiles. I hope I won’t be sat next to you in a packed waiting room anytime soon – but the not knowing… well that’s the buzz isn’t it?

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