by Alex Leigh
June 13, 2015
“Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” I’ve always loved that quote from Hal Holbrook. Just my kind of thing – bit poncy, terribly pretentious and massively open to interpretation.
Mine is that it is the fear of the unknown which prevents man (or woman) from plunging into the dark. However, considering this through the prism of mountain biking, my opinion has moved on somewhat. Rider stares into a gap jump, there’s nothing staring back but pain, suffering and hospital food; rider finds their commitment. And that’s what keeps them out of the abyss. That, and the aforementioned long-term stay in a medical establishment.
Gaps – as proper riders smugly explain – are just tabletops with the middle dug out. Well yes of course they bloody are. This is not helpful at all. When I find myself surprised at clearing a small tabletop, it’s because 90% of the time my landing barely has the downslope in view. Which is fine, because a lack of commitment does not equal a lack of teeth.
Watching those who are apparently unafflicted by gravity, sailing over these long barrows at great speed is obviously annoying – but us earth-bound misfits still get to play on the same obstacles if supervised by a proper adult. Ride up, ignore implored advice on speed, gain about an inch of air, flop heavily on top. Yeah, it’s not great, but no-one is losing a limb.
Gap jumps though. That’s like giving the special kids a box of matches and access to a gas cylinder. Injuries are inevitable, and it’s unlikely to be concluded with a small plaster and a stern note to the parents.
I never cleared a gap before my 40th birthday. Not done many since and even those have never been pretty. Terrifying, yes. Flooded with post jump relief? Absolutely. Style? Repetition? Technique? No, no and thrice no. In the hinterland of my teenage years, I vaguely recollect the almost suicidal consequences of ‘coming up a bit short’ that young men bursting with testosterone would whisper during moments of inappropriate candour. Those were days when preservation of dignity, peer approval and webs of deceit were pretty much my life parameters. Thankfully we’ve moved on and now when something looks too hard, too scary, too damn committing, I’ll push the bike away and deal with the little death of knowing you can do something but finding sensible reasons not too. Jeez, might as well retrain as an accountant.
Last week, my mate Adam was leading a tour of linked woods I thought were pretty much mapped out in my head. Not so. We took in ten fantastic trails, of which I’d ridden exactly one before. And that was the one where enterprising young gentlemen had fabricated something from earth and logs clearly designed to launch a moonshot. It was beautifully built. Take off firm and wide. Landing perfectly sculptured to collect a mountain bike from the vertical plane. No issue with that at all. But the material to create this masterpiece had been scooped from where the middle of the jump should have been. I wandered up to the lip, looked down and had a full on ‘abyss‘ experience. Down there is not a happy place. There may be dragons in the past, there may be body parts in the future. You can look into there if you like but you really don’t want to be in there under any circumstances. Those circumstances have a tiny probability of actually happening because the gap is only six feet, while the take off and landing add a couple more. A mountain bike is half of that – hit this at any speed and you are free and clear with an involuntary whoop.
Logic is marvellous at a time like this. It is nestled in the cerebral dictionary next to an entry marked ‘just ride off the fucker’. I’m 47 years old and it’s the scariest thing I’ve seen since I inadvertently opened my 14 year old daughter’s wardrobe. Wandering back to Adam, I heard someone say ‘Yeah I’m up for that‘. It came as a surprise to us both to find that man was me. Adam gave me no chance to change my mind, flicking his bike onto the trail and asking if I was ready. I felt – on balance – that I probably was not, but nodded anyway in what I felt was a manly manner.
“A bloke here got this wrong last week. Bust loads of ribs and punctured a lung…” Ads felt this was the ideal time to share this happy anecdote with me. I wasn’t feeling quite as manly as I had been two seconds before.
Two pedal strokes and we were off. There is no chicken run, no way out once you’re into the trail. Brake here and you’re a second from smashing your collarbone with some local scenery. I didn’t brake. I didn’t think much either, just watched Adam boost for low earth orbit then it was me in the air – a little lower – finding time to stare into the abyss. It didn’t look much better from up here.
It’s not a big gap. I may have mentioned that. Still there was definitely a bit of ground rush as the bike kissed the landing ramp, before accelerating away. A bit more than nothing, and quite a lot less than I’d built it up to be. Knowing you can ride something is a bit different from thinking through the consequences if today is the day you cannot. Had that been a tabletop, I’d have dropped from a small height onto the flat top. Frustrated, irritated and relieved. Following Adam, it was over in two heartbeats. And that’s an organ banging at about 180 beats per minute. Commitment was never in doubt. The next ten heartbeats nearly had the bugger exiting my chest cavity. Legal highs spiked by adrenaline. Beyond the euphoric hit, frontal lobes praised me for being something others are not. Doing the shitting-yourself wobbly walk back to the bike – and yet somehow still getting it done.
A gap like this might be nothing for the boys and girls who fling themselves over such things with tweaked abandon. That’s not the point here. If there is one it is this: sometimes there is something looking back from the abyss. It’s a fragmented glass mirroring someone braver than you.
Take a look. You might surprise yourself.