Singletrack Magazine Issue 114: Grand Finale

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Taking a holiday from being a mountain bike guide, Ian Bailey goes mountain biking in Italy and lets another guide take the strain. He also lets his sense of self-preservation have some time off too.

Words Ian Bailey Photography Ian and friends

Right this second I’m sitting in the pristine kitchen of a brand new, stunningly situated apartment, directly overlooking the church spires and jagged roofs of Finalborgo, old town Finale Ligure. The heavily vegetated hillsides of the surrounding valleys masking a plethora of some of the finest mountain biking in the world. My beloved Stanton Sherpa is lying on the lawn adjacent to the swimming pool where I dropped it an hour ago. I won’t be needing it again this week.

The upper-left side of my body has been rendered almost totally inoperable. I’m unable to lift, or even hold the weight of my arm. A searing pain is emanating from a deep gouge in my elbow that I fear to view, but know I’ll soon need to address. Somewhere out there my friends are still tearing up the trails – a touch slower and more reserved than this morning, wisdom generated at my expense. I’m the fall guy and through pain and self-pity I want to curl up and cry, but instead I write, to encapsulate my feelings as adrenaline and painkillers subside, to maybe help others avoid my idiotic mishap. This is a tale of simple statistics and I’m one of the victims. Take these words at face value because they’re as raw as the pain I’m experiencing right now as I angrily one-finger type, the implications of my stupidity becoming ever more apparent.

I’d planned on writing an article anyway, a glowing account of the obvious joys of holidays with friends, incredible biking, Italian cuisine and hospitality, and that wonderful combination of circumstances that make riding trips so memorable. I even sat down this morning and began to write as the excitement mounted at the prospect of an uplift-assisted guided tour of the best trails in one of the greatest riding areas in the world. The article will still come, but the ending is seriously abrupt.

By 11am Saturday morning we’d landed – sunshine dominating the Nice skyline, strong coffee and baguettes already consumed. Our driver Giovanni combined a total disregard for road safety with possible chronic lack of vision and the first crash of the holiday seemed inevitable on four wheels. However, destination reached intact, the holiday proper was ready to commence.

Change of inclination.

By day three there was a change of tack from the big ups and big downs of the previous days. I pride myself on freakish fitness and have been quoted as claiming ‘I am the uplift’, but it’s good to let the over-revved and clutch-weary minivans take the strain once in a while. Today was going to be an all-day gravity fest. Hours of smashing dusty berms, chasing tails and firming up pecking orders. 

As with all big smashes, everything happened in an instant. Vague awareness of bars snapped to 90° and my shoulder and chest slamming hard into solid ground. Pain and shock are instantaneous as I skid to a halt and rapidly take stock, immediately aware that this is a bad one, knowing that you don’t just walk away from crashing at that speed. Instinctively I shout, ‘rider down’ to alert Brian as he bursts out of the corner, just having time to brake hard before hitting my bike as it bridges the full width of the trail. I crawl to the trailside and lie on the sun-dried leaves, spitting gritty dirt from between crunchy teeth. 

Some pains subside while others sharpen and the familiar nausea of significant injury threatens to eject my morning cereal. Deep breaths and nodded answers to concerned questions; we’ve all seen this before and everyone knows I need time to formulate correct answers, adrenaline masking the inevitable burning. Eventually I rise and send the others on before tentatively remounting and riding the last steep drops to a more suitable stopping point.

In the clearing, Matti, our guide, takes over, he’s the one on the clock so the lads let him do his job. The gash on my elbow is concerning, but it’s soon wrapped and patched. I have a severe pain in my left arm and ribs feel tight, but there’s little point in delay so I groggily push on, hope of improvement far outweighing expectation, and totally dashed as I manual off the first drop and feel a white-hot shock of pain tear up my bicep. I’m off and walking, karmically close to the spot where I smugly burned off yesterday’s downhillers. At that point agony overrides soul-searching, but I’m already dimly aware that there will be many repercussions.

Eddie kindly props me up as we walk the last few hundred metres to the waiting van, head faint and legs like Bambi. We pile in, an unscheduled drop-off explained as another victim requires an early bath. Matti looks gutted for me as we shake hands, demonstrating the true empathy essential in our line of work as fellow guides. I wave to the boys and commence a funereal stroll back through the beauty of the walled town, past the world’s best ice cream shop and hundreds of smiling tourists. Everything for me is cast under a cloud of worries about hospitals, missed work, races I might not compete in, and the abrupt and untimely end to the main reason for my holiday. 

And so I sit here in silence. The slow tapping of finger on keyboard and dark thoughts my only companions. I feel lonely, stupid and pissed off, old enough to understand where fault lies but not mature enough to pre-empt and avoid this error. I was caught in the moment, driven by animalistic desires of enjoyment, skirting the extremely fine line between pleasure and pain, and ultimately landing the wrong side. I’ll take a shower, check for further damage and then sit down and work out how to salvage the best from my remaining holiday as well as how to limit monetary loss from cancelled guiding work. 

Take my experience however you see fit. You can heed the warning and back off as you ride, guaranteeing you’ll milk the last minutes from your rare riding holidays, or you can play the odds, stretching the limits to breaking point, knowing full well that it may end in tears. I’m in no position to lecture; I’ve done this before over 20 years ago, memories of staring out of a Chamonix hospital window unable to move my crumpled body. With age comes experience, but sense comes from a different source.


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