Tuesday, August 03, 2010

I take crashing way too personally

My friend Dave Nice from Hurricane, Utah, is in town for a summer vacation to the "cool" temps of the "north" (to which I laugh and mop pools of sweat from my arms before applying more SPF 50.) I returned to Missoula on Sunday, still sleep deprived and a bit addled from the weekend, but rallied for a scorching mid-afternoon ride on the Lolo Loop.

I like this loop because it allows me to hide my secret shame — that my very most favorite thing to do on a mountain bike is climb long dirt roads into pleasantly tired legs and huge views. I can spin up the dirt track for hours, happy and content, and my friends have no idea I'm enjoying myself so much because they think we are just putting in the obligatory elevation gain in order to rip rocky singletrack down the long descent. Then, after 3,000 or 3,500 vertical feet, Dave Nice can launch into his crazy fixie finessing of rugged rock gardens, I can creep gingerly around hairpin switchbacks and step around rock ledges when no one is looking. In the end, we both ride away happy.

I have not yet developed the mountain bike pride. I didn't even learn the meaning of the word "dab" until earlier this summer, when a friend in Anchorage mentioned my usage of this most useful move whilst ascending a small, nearly vertical wall at Mooseberry Mesa. "Are you kidding?" I replied. "If I couldn't dab, I wouldn't even bother. " The way I saw it, I at least had tried and rode halfway up the hill, and I wouldn't have tried at all if taking my feet off the pedals was absolutely forbidden. Same goes with hike-a-bike. Who cares? I have walked behind people as they pedal for many hundreds of yards. They're absolutely dying and I'm breathing easy, and we're both moving the same speed, 3 miles per hour. As I said, I lack the mountain bike pride. I love wheels for their advantages, but I shrink away from their difficulties. I while I have gleaned enormous personal satisfaction from "cleaning" a "gnarly" move, at least 95 percent of the time, I am too timid to try. So my mountain bike technical skills have been extremely slow to develop.

(Photo stolen from Dave C.)

Since I do, honestly, enjoy mountain biking immensely, even downhill singletrack, I often wonder what my problem is. And then, eventually, I mess up even when I am well within my comfort zone, and I tumble over my bike and bash myself on things, and I lay in the dirt with all the rage of a hundred bully punches coursing through my veins, and then I realize, I remember — I hate crashing.

Even when I am not really all that hurt, as I usually am not. But yesterday, while riding with Dave Nice, Dave C., and my co-worker Casey, I was blissfully pedaling down a fairly mellow, off-camber trail along a side slope when my right pedal bashed flat smack into a boulder. The exact mechanics of the crash elude me, but my left pedal somehow took a big bite out of my shin before I tumbled sideways a few feet down the slope. (And while I do deserve criticism for continually using platform pedals whilst trying to develop my technical skills, I really do believe that if I had been riding clipless and hit the boulder with the same force, instead of bashing my shin on the pedal and tipping over into the brush, I would have taken a full header over the rocks.)

Either way, I was not badly injured, or even too hurt to jump right back on the bike and continue riding; but I was bleeding, and my shin ached with a deep-set bruise from bashing against a large metal object at high speed. It hurt with every single pedal stroke, and with every hurt, the doubt bit in. "You're terrible at this. Why do you bother? Mountain biking sucks. You really should take up trail running." That inner grumbling seems to color the entire rest of the ride, until even if the rest of it is perfectly fun, on a beautiful evening, with great riding partners, I can't quite pedal away the grump.

As we pedaled home last night, I admitted to Dave Nice what a big baby I really was. "I feel like one of those little kids whose friend just pulled her hair, so she gathers up all of her toys and storms home."

"Crashing is just part of riding," Dave said nonchalantly.

"I know," I sighed. "I know."

The question is, how do I embrace it?


  1. Coming from someone that has broken 4 fingers and/or hand bones while trail running and had hand surgery as a result, I wouldn't say that trail running will solve your crashing fears.... you will crash, just maybe while moving at a slower speed.

  2. I guess it's like, for me, coming to the decision that falling is part of skiing. But falling in snow is different than falling on rocks or bushes off a bike. I'm not sure really how you embrace the prospect of pain and injury except to learn to mitigate it.

  3. Amy, it's funny that you mention that because I absolutely would crash fairly frequently if I took up trail running. I somehow manage to be even more clumsy on my feet than I am on wheels.

  4. Easy to embrace, plenty of ibuprofen and painkillers is the answer.

  5. I don't know about the 'embracing' thing...the ticket is DON'T CRASH! Sure it's easy to say, but you don't get to choose. Crashing sucks. No two ways about it. Though I have to tell you that you SHOULD step up to cleats and get rid of the platforms. And this will inevitably involve some clipped-in crashes. But over time as you get comfy w/ them, being cleated in helps you NOT to crash more than the opposite (my thoughts). When I come unclipped is when danger is on the horizon...and the uncomfy feeling like I have my seatbelt undone or something. Once I click in it's all ahhhh...I'm ready now! (if you do go w/ cleats, PRACTICE unclipping in a lawn or park or something!)

  6. This is exactly why I'm not a mountain biker! In the times I have ridden, I spend my time feeling anxious about the if's and the when's of crashing. And, this doesn't come from my own crashing experience, but from seeing the ouchies that friends have acquired.

    I think running for me is more innate since I've been doing it for half my life. I know how to keep the
    rubber side down, and I know when my chances of biting it are bigger (When I'm hungry, tired, and/or when a rock-strewn trail grades down.).

    Maybe that, then, is the answer, time? More time on the pedals, more practice until you reach the point of innate-ness, until you feel in turn with the earth and your pedal strokes and all that? Maybe not... :)

    Happy not crashing!

  7. My girlfriend went on a woman's group ride at Crested Butte Fat Tire Week some 24 years ago. On this instructional-type practice ride, their protocol was if you dabbed on a "challenging" section (a relative term), you turned around and tried it again....and again....and again, until you got it right. 24 years later, at age 60, she still does that when she dabs a section she thinks she should have cleaned.

  8. i do have do concur with those above. I trail run as much as I mountain bike, and I crash 3x more often running than biking. Often within the first 3 minutes of hitting the trail. (literally hitting the trail I suppose). I do think the transition to clipless pedals will payoff big returns in the long run for you, and I think some riding time where you emphasize skills over destination would help. Or, to each their own. I rarely ride my mountain bike on anything but tight singletrack, and tend to eschew trails that are wider than my arms reach or are benign enough for the crossbike. Your current biking needs might night require clipless, but the proficency it sounds like you desire might be improved with some the ideas above.

    great blog, by the way :)

  9. Like you, I tend to crash not doing anything super hard or technical. And then I wonder what happened. Thankfully it doesn't happen often.

    For me, crashing is a reminder to always be paying attention - mountain biking is a dangerous sport. Also, it reminds me to be think about all the stuff I can/do ride without crashing.

    Generally I'm riding with friends that will laugh/make fun of you when you crash (after they make sure you are okay). I kind of like that - it reminds me not to take it all so seriously.

  10. Matt said what I was going to say: Don't crash, use clipless.

    I never embrace the crash! I avoid crashing whenever possible because it does terrible things to my mountain bike confidence. Crashing sucks, but I do it less now than I used to. Clipless really does help.

  11. I crashed on my first singletrack venture and dislocated my thumb enough that it had to be pinned back into place. 4 weeks off my bike sucked. I want to get back out there, but not til I have an actual mtn bike. And now that I've hurt myself badly enough to need medical attention, I'm a little gun-shy.

  12. Ouch - glad you didn't get hurt worse!

  13. Your friend Dave rides a fixed gear with drop handlebars and no brakes?


  14. I'm with you, Jill. I revel in the long climbs and secluded dirt roads. My technical skills are way behind my aerobic ability...I just don't like the idea of crashing, even though it happens pretty often, so I tend to avoid the stuff that makes me crash. Because of this, most of my rides these days are made up of dirt roads and "easier" singletrack with hills that challenge me...because I love hills. I feel as much (if not more) satisfaction clearing a long hill than I do on a rock garden. So I say, embrace the kind of riding that makes you happiest. :)

  15. I don't think the key is "embracing" crashes, but shrugging them off. They will happen, just like other "bad" things in life. But fixating on them won't help… just like in the rest of life. Even the most technically astute, clipped in pros crash sometimes.

    You're good at recovering from bumps in the road in life, or at least it seems so from your blog. So you have all the skills it takes to conquer this, too.

  16. You scared us with the title of this blog entry! We'll have non of that stuff this week. Thank-you. My husband will lose his marbles.

    Leslie Out

  17. I agree most with Carrie above..."embrace the kind of riding that makes you happiest"...I too love the challenge and accomplishment of a long climb...on mountain OR road bike. And I too can hike-a-bike along side someone grinding up in granny gear with no inferiority complex. Crashing? I avoid it, and try to feel good about what I can ride...So Jill...once again, looks like I sure picked the right TR Partner! See you Friday!

  18. I'm a long time mountain biker, since 1984 (yikes). I've watched the trend go from platform pedals, to clips and and toe straps, to clipless, and now back to platform pedals (for some folks). Ride with what makes you the most comfortable.

    I ride clipless and can't imagine riding platform pedals beyond a casual pace. However, I ride with people who run platform pedals, and they're plenty fast and fly through technical sections.

    There's no reason to "embrace" crashing. Crashing sucks for everyone. There is a difference between crashing and falling however - depending on speed. You will fall occasionally, no doubt about it. You do want to keep the crashing down to the very occasional event.

    There's nothing wrong with digging the dirt road climbs, they're fun in a sick way. Work your skill level up in the technical terrain. Practice a section a few times if needed. Follow faster riders and see how they flow. Ask them questions. Practice slow speed skills in the yard or neighborhood - hop on/off curbs, ride up and down stairs, ride as slow as possible without dabbing. Try to wheelie a bit, hop the rear wheel, etc. Then when you hit the trails, it feels a bit more natural.

    Even if you never become the technical terrain rider, but still enjoy the climbs and crawling down the descents, or walking your bike through sections - who cares?

    It's all about having fun. And if that's cool for you, enjoy yourself out there.

  19. I crash the most when I'm trying not to crash!

    And when there's a wet log and I'm not paying full attention... but I crash the least when I let my bike work underneath of me and flow with it - now that's the fun part of riding!

  20. <"Crashing is just part of riding," Dave said nonchalantly.

    "I know," I sighed. "I know."

    The question is, how do I embrace it?>

    This is the question I have been asking myself for a while now and having not yet found the answer is one of the reasons I don't get out on my mountain bike very often. I hate letting fear be the deciding factor of my actions though. One of the reasons I love your blog is because reading about your experiences inspires me to get out and try things, regardless of my fears. So thanks to you for continuing to conquer your own distaste of falling and inspiring me to try and do the same :)

  21. I think I got a little bit pushy yesterday, sorry Jill...after having the night to ponder it, I think Dan-O said it. You ride what type of terrain and what type of pedals that you like. I personally can't imagine NOT having cleats...and I only tolerate dirt roads if they are required to get me TO (and fm) singletrack. There is surely a HUGE contingent of mt bikers riding platform pedals that would crush me into tiny particles (look at the entire trials/north-shore and pretty much all the extreme riders...almost all on platforms). I'm a X-country type rider...if I can't go up it, I prob don't want to go down it. I also revel in the climbs, but in the technical singletrack, oodles of tight hairy switchback types. I love technical stuff...and as was discussed in the comments, I routinely go back if I 'dab' a section that I SHOULD clean. I grade my rides by how many dabs. There are rides I can go zero on, and rides that I probalby will never zero..but still try. It's all about the ride. Do it your way...you would crush me on an all day ride most likely, it would be the hare and the tortise. I might fly like a wildman for the first 3 or 4 hours, but eventually 10 hours later you'd surely pass me as I cried like a baby in the dirt. I'm a pretty decent rider but have been AMAZED over the last few years reading about your rides...and I bow to you. Ride on Jill..and don't EVER embrace the crashes...embracing them means you accept them. I do NOT accept crashes. Crashing means you did something wrong (or something broke, which usually means you did something wrong). Learn from your crashes and try not to repeat it.

  22. I'm not sure if anyone embraces crashing. I for one do not like crashing because at 52 years of age I find that I no longer bounce.

    It seems like the younger folks crash and hop right back on and just go with the flow. A couple of years ago on some harmless nicely flowing single track I clipped a tree, crashed hard and fractured three ribs.
    Sorry, but no fun. Especially when you know you have to finish the ride.

    Don't be hard on yourself. It's ok to not like crashing. Also, scars are cool :)

  23. Crashing has nothing to do with using platform pedals vs clipless pedals.

    It is hard to 'read' what your skills are but I suggest you find someone that has the best riding skills (not necessarily the best fitness). Ride with them and by that I mean, really ride with them. Go through different bits of trail. Have them explain how they look at it and ride it.

    There is so much subtly to riding well that you can't just grab it overnight. But it will come. You just need to keep doing it, and progressively your skills will improve.

    It may happen gradually enough that you don't even know what all changed...just that you don't crash as much anymore.

  24. Jill, I'm not a mt biker (I'm a roadie and sometimes a trail rider) and I've never heard the term "dab" (other than "a little dab'll do ya"). What is it?

  25. Ride a road bike or even a cross bike and stay off the rocks. Cross bikers love to get off and run a little bit.

  26. awwww. Did you fall down and go boom? Your friend Dave had it exactly right - it's just part of riding. No need to analyze, embrace, or even think about it really. Just pick yourself up and move on. I've broken my collarbone, ribs, arm, dislocated fingers, and had various other accidents biking, skiing, climbing, living - one thing I've learned is no one really cares or even notices much, despite initial expressions of concern and sympathy. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you are embarrassed at your possible lack of riding skills that may (or may not) have caused you to crash. They mostly just want to know when you can come out and play with them again.

  27. Howdy,
    Let me first say that I completely understand your frustration and fear over crashing. Completely. Most of us have experienced the same. I've experienced it doubly through the trials and triumphs of my girlfriend, Jennifer, as she took up mountain biking and clip-in pedals five years ago. That said, with this comment, I'm opting to commiserate less and "tell it like it is" more.
    I do subscribe to the "ride what is comfortable" approach when it comes to the pedals you choose. HOWEVER, it is a fact that platform pedals are at least twice as large as clip-in pedals. It is entirely possible that you would not have hit the rock and crashed had you been using standard clip-in pedals. This weekend, I experienced first-hand how rocky the trails can be in Montana, and even for this experienced trail rider, it was difficult avoiding the rocks. I imagine it would have been nearly impossible had I been using platform pedals.
    The second half of my lecture will address the notion that one is more likely to crash the more one masters and rides technical obstacles. If a person really really hates crashing, then that person ought to get together with some experienced friends and work on a few key moves/skills repetitively. If a person stagnates at, say, 50% of a singletrack mastery, then every time that person is on singletrack, there is a much larger chance of crashing than if that person were to simply progress to about 80% mastery of the common, most difficult obstacles on the trail. And of course the biggest shame is the fact that fear of crashing occupies the mind of the person who chooses to believe they're not capable of progressing, whereas the person who has progressed (even just a little), isn't thinking about it much and crashing less. To conclude this lecture, I challenge you to purchase and use clip in pedals if only to demonstrate to yourself and the world that you can overcome this fear and gain greater control/traction/power from yourself/bike. The end.


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