The human body is an amazing thing. Not least because of its capability for learning from experiences, especially painful ones.
For example, if you touch something hot, you’ll likely say “!*!#?” (ouch), nurse your scalded hand and learn pretty quickly not to touch the hot thing again, because that would be stupid right?
So what happens when you injure yourself during an activity you love….such as mountain biking, causing a huge, long-lasting ouch…..? Well, when you recover enough to get back in the saddle, biological alarm bells go off.
Not just alarm bells in fact but fantastic, tsunami warning klaxons, searchlights, whistles and fierce dogs, all conveying the same chemical message which floods through your body. NOOOOOO STOP!!!
Now, I can completely understand the need for this inbuilt survival mechanism when you’re a caveperson back in prehistoric times. It worked perfectly to tell you not to eat the red berries, stand in the campfire or tease that sabre tooth tiger with a pointy stick. Fair enough. In present times however, this little bit of leftover biology is causing me a few problems.
It’s been 9 months, give or take, since I crashed off of my mountain bike injuring lots of bits and pieces. Nine months of pain, frustration and healing. I’m still not fully functioning, although it’s at least enough to be riding a bike again, at least physically.
It’s the head stuff I’m having problems with.
Funnily enough being on the road bike is fine, being on the town bike is fine but the mountain bike……hmmm
It would be fair to say that mountain biking has always scared me quite a lot. I would estimate that of every ride 25% is spent enjoying scenery and flat bits, whilst 70+% is spent being terrified and a tiny 5% is pure adrenalin. Unfortunately, it’s that annoying 5% which keeps me hooked despite the gashes, bruises and broken bones.
Being new to the sport a year or so back the learning curve has been a vertical one. Like anything I do however, I threw myself into it wholeheartedly and to the extreme; trawling the country for bike parks and trail centres, even flying to other countries to try new mountain challenges.
I did of course spend most of that time being absolutely petrified but that 5% kick always make me forget the rest.
My confidence was inflated as my skills and technique improved, unfortunately however this increase was not directly proportionate. In my head I was my hero Danny MacAskill doing crazy, wild jumps and cool flips. In reality…… I was happy to make it to the bottom of a trail without too much blood or bruising.
In fact I’ve never fallen off a bike so much before, thousands of floor-free miles came and went, until I started mountain biking. In my head I think I was always waiting for that big crash, the one I didn’t just jump back on the bike after, so when it came, it felt both inevitable and, weirdly, a relief.
For many months afterwards, whilst I was healing, I was unsure if I would ever go mountain bike again. The bikes waited patiently however and, as I healed, I found myself looking forward to riding again. As much as I love road cycling, it doesn’t give you the same kick as a set of springy suspension bouncing down a rocky hillside does or launching over a jump or drop off. It just doesn’t have that 5% factor.
And then the day finally came for testing it out. Climbing back on my mountain bike after so much time off, broken-but-healing wrist strapped up and sore, every stone and rut making me wince as we bounce along.
We do little more than stick to fire trails and muddy paths and my confidence creeps back, although my fitness doesn’t! As the ride progresses I’m relaxing a little although still using my brakes way more than necessary. As we come to a small quarry full of jumps and hills, slick with wet clay, I ride in slow circles as the others explore a little. When we decide to leave I find myself at the top of a modest hill, nothing huge but the steepest so far, especially from the top of a bike.
The others roll past and down nonchalantly but I’m suddenly paralyzed. Sat at the top I see not a slope but the potential for injury. My wrist throbs as if in confirmation. I imagine all the things that could go wrong, back-end slipping away, unseen potholes, braking too much and going over the handlebars….
My heart is pounding and I can hear the blood pulsing in my ears. My body is seething with adrenalin and fear and disgust. I sit there, lost in these emotions and an internal battle rages.
“Don’t be stupid” I chastise myself, “this is tiny, nothing compared to before”.
“But what if it goes wrong, what if I fall off and hurt myself again.”
“Everyone’s waiting; it’ll be embarrassing to chicken out of such a simple thing”….
Round and round goes the argument, thump, thump, thump goes my heart until…
I violently beat back the voice of reason and push off down the hill.
Skidding and sliding, brakes clamped on I make it to the bottom in one piece. I’m angry with myself for being such a wimp and I’m shaking I’m so scared. I can’t talk either because if I open my mouth I’ll cry, from fear, from relief, from frustration.
Learning one thing from my past experiences, I know it’s time to head home now and nod gratefully in agreement at the suggestion.
Looking back a few days later I can be kinder to myself. I’m pleased I’ve faced my initial fears and gotten back on the mountain bike. The first ride was always going to be the hardest.
A handful of weeks later still and I’ve been out a few more times. The love for mountain biking is fortunately (or not) still there, the fun factor, as well the adrenalin and the fear. I know my riding isn’t great at the moment, it’s hesitant and cautious. I also know that in biking terms this isn’t brilliant and I have quite a way to go to regain the skills I had let alone to progress.
Mountain biking is a sport that requires a good dose of confidence as well as counter-intuitive behaviour – i.e. push down when you want to jump up over things or don’t brake going downhill – it can also demand the mental equivalent of walking past the safety barrier to stare over the cliff edge. Great view but with risk!
So you have to train your body to act against your instincts, doubly so when it’s caused you to put yourself painfully out of action for so long. It’s a strange concept, fighting biology, tricking, cajoling and bullying your body out of doing all it can to protect you in order to do something which, 70% of the time, scares the pants off of you. Us humans are a funny lot.
Being back on two wheels again is amazing. Being back on the mountain bike I’ve realised that I’m not ready to stop riding either. As the physical and mental wounds heal I know that elusive 5% will keep me coming back for more. For now though, I’m going at it gently, nursing and being kind to my inner chicken, after all it’s there for a reason!