All of us believe there’s certain light conditions*, camera angles, heroic stances, etc which firmly represent our ‘best side’. That’s my knee in July 2006 after an impromptu slice and dice involving Chiltern Flint, over-confidence and stupidity. It’s not the my best side, it’s not even my best knee. Some seven years later a neat scar scribes a line between something that aches in damp conditions and a few mm from leaving hospital in a wheelchair.
Sobering stuff. But not terribly statistically significant. Since 2002, a conservative calculation suggests more than a thousand rides in all sorts of dangerous places have been completed without major injury**. Crashes aplenty, occasional hospitalisation and many, many morning afters where the the memory of the crash is vivid except for the bit where you’ve clearly been hit by an articulated lorry. Because falling off your bike can’t possibly hurt that much.
Transitory for the most part although a body inventory counterweight suggests lasting damage has been done. A shoulder that creaks, clicks but fails to properly articulate after a hand out/hard stop in Swinley forest many years ago. And an ankle that’s a funny if not amusing shape having been reforged on a spiky anvil of rock. A wobbly nose remodelled on a not-so-handy tree stump, a thumb tattooed by a bar end and full of broken bits, and a little finger that fails the tea drinking Debretts test on the grounds of extreme crookedness.
All of which tediously triggers the ‘price of entry‘ defence. A means tested ends justification argument that is espoused by wheelchair bound protagonists and the rest of us siding with Dylan Thomas and his raging against the dying of the light. And behind that lies a dirty secret; it isn’t that the price we pay for throwing ourselves in pointy geography is more than compensated by the ‘if you have to ask, you’ll never understand’ reward. Because that’s just pub talk hiding the rather less heroic mindset that it’ll never happen to me.
I am too skilled/too careful/to calculated/too clever to make that kind of catastrophic mistake. The line between endorphins and endings is well known to be. The difference between a little bit brave and quite a lot stupid needs no explanation. I’ve paid my dues and earned my stripes. I’ll back off a long time before I fall off. Crashing fits with my risk envelope but serious injury doesn’t.
Which is a paragraph of delusion, Embracing and accepting risk is the difference between living and being alive. Mountain biking is a sport of many variables of which we are in control of very few. You can hurt yourself by trying too hard or not trying hard enough. By committing or not committing. By being brave or considering cowardice. By peer pressure or testing yourself. There’s no ‘risk management’ strategy here: a situation where braking may send you over the bars is perfectly balanced by riding an obstacle at full speed which may end better, worse or the same.
We make our choices but we barely influence the outcomes. I smashed my knee up on a familiar trail in perfect conditions at middling speeds. 99 times out of a 100, it’d been nothing more than a few grazes and some piss taking. The next three days were spent with a ‘stupid stupid stupid’ mantra racing around my head while my body was static in a hospital bed. But with the benefit of hindsight that entirely misses the point; 99 times out of 100 I had somehow got away with it already.
Looking at that picture socially network’d to my inbox earlier today, it’s flooded memory banks with long forgotten anxieties. Physically it took a while to recover, mentally it probably never will. At least I can turn left now, which wasn’t the case for the next two years when I nearly tossed the whole thing in as being too damn hard and nowhere near as much fun as before the accident.
Seven years later tho, I’m still riding mountain bikes two or three times a week. I worry less about losing a summer through a nasty crash and more about how many summers are left. I strap my knee pads on and make cowardly choices when faced with danger. Occasionally tho I’ll surprise myself with an act of bravery conquering some obstacle that even in, what’s laughably known as, my prime would have given me pause for thought.
Now that thought is something pretentious like ‘if not now when?‘. And that’s probably the only question that has any relevance in this extended navel gazing. An inch either way and my mountain biking future would have been limited to observing as a limping voyeur. And that feels pretty terminal for a man whose life is far too defined by wondering when he can next ride a bike.
Thanks Andy. You reminded me of the futility of trying to work this stuff out. Tomorrow I’ll pedal my bike, take some inappropriate risks and lie to myself about the possible consequences. That feels like a pretty sound way of running your life
* although in many cases, this is of course ‘pitch black‘
** Unless my liver is included in the ‘book of damage’. In which case, I’d suggest the knee got off lightly.