Friday, December 14, 2012

On fear

It's December now, and Leah's and my evening rides no longer begin in the daylight. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge as sunset's last gasp of crimson sank into the horizon. The low-angle light gave the ocean surface a startling depth of texture, with white caps and indigo shadows etched into every tiny wave. There was a clear frost to the air as we climbed over the Coastal Trail and dropped into the encompassing darkness of Rodeo Valley. The thousand-foot hills of the Headlands loomed overhead like black summits.

"It's pretty cool how you can ride bikes from the city, and twenty minutes later end up somewhere so dark and quiet," I said.

"The Marin Headlands are magical," Leah agreed.

We climbed over the ridge into the next valley, which was even frostier than Rodeo. I was trying to get the hang of my clipless pedals, which I put on my full-suspension Element precisely so I would get more used to clipless pedals. It felt awkward and uncomfortable as I navigated these now-unfamiliar trails, reduced to intimidating contours and shadows by the white beam of my headlight. I hesitated often and crept over tiny ruts as though I were maneuvering a steep rock garden. Mountain biking these days ... what's wrong with me?

The night was clear and stunning; every time we climbed over the ridge, we could see sparkling detail in the sea of city lights across the Bay. The the west, there was only the Pacific, black and infinite. I loved being out there, but continued to fight with my bike, wrenching it over rocks and once tipping over while I was still clipped in, unable to free my left foot from the pedal. Argh, clipless. But there was a deeper, more pervasive feeling than my clipless frustrations — something I've wrestled with every time I've ventured onto trails with my bike since late last year. Fear.

I caught up to Leah, who had unclipped at a tight turn where she crashed the last time we rode. "I can't believe I stopped here," she said. "Ever since I crashed ..."

"I'm the same way," I replied. "This is why I only get worse at mountain biking, not better."

It's difficult for me to deny anymore. I am afraid on a mountain bike, genuinely. And it's not that I believe this fear is something I can't or don't overcome, but I do need to acknowledge it's there. This fear rose to the surface after I crashed in Steven's Creek Canyon in August 2011. The resulting injuries were not serious, but thanks to exposed nerve endings deep in my elbow, did develop into the most physically painful experience I've been through yet. It left an impression. One I'm not proud of, but I have to be honest. Trail riding hasn't been the same since. And I find myself avoiding challenging terrain, becoming rustier and more timid by the week. Friends like Leah are encouraging, but I'm not sure what to tell her. Yes, I need to practice more. But what should I do about an activity that doesn't bring me the same level of joy that it used to, largely because I'm afraid? It a difficult, but genuine question.

I was going to write more about this today, my fear and how I can overcome it, but like most of the rest of the nation, I feel somber and sad after the Friday morning school shootings in Connecticut. It's not a day to dwell on bike fear. As we reflect on tragedy, there are a lot of voices demanding solutions, each one trying to be louder than the next. I suspect it's not a question that can be answered, but rather a symptom of an infected culture — one that's been fearful for far too long. 


  1. This post resonates with me all over the place. I love mountain biking, I'm almost always scared on a mountain bike, sometimes even in advance of getting on my bike.

    I teach first grade, and we now (for the past few years) have lockdown drills as well as fire and tornado drills. It's routine, but for whatever reason it really hit me at our last drill how terrifying it would be if it was real, how scared the kids would be. I can't imagine what the school families and staff are feeling now.

  2. Like you, I'm overly cautious on my mountain bike, after a nasty spill several years ago. I think that fear of pain/discomfort often holds us back from achieving great things in endurance sports. I had a bit of a revelation during the Philadelphia Marathon a few weeks back, and wrote about it here:

  3. Hi Jill
    Have you ever been on a really good skills course or coaching day? I get the feeling that it might not appeal to you but the right course can change your riding so much!
    Just by session ing some stuff with a coach you change your brain patterns and start thinking differently.
    I have no real interest in free-ride parks but spent two days with an awesome bunch of women at 'Air Maiden' in the summer (i blogged about it) and my riding improved so much - being able to jump my bike really improved my balance and positioning for natural riding.
    Maybe think about it?

  4. Hi Jill,

    Love your blog and this post really resonates. I was one with my bike for a long time and didn't realize that it was a gift that was not always going to be there. My first ride after a riding accident (broken arm & lots of other contusions) I quickly, sadly realized that my relationship with my bike and myself had changed. The trust in my bike and my skills had been damaged. That was years ago, I continue to work on it and it is much more natural but never quite the same. Has it stopped me from riding?... Yes, early on it did because I was so lost on my bike but it kept calling me back and I can't imagine my life without riding of some sort it just is different.

    Ride on,

  5. Lose the clipless! I switched to flat pedals after I broke my leg (and didn't have the flexibility to clip in) and have never looked back. I ride everything I could ride before and ride BETTER because I am more relaxed on tricky terrain.

  6. Ditch the clipless pedals. It's latest trend anyway...My skills have improved riding flats recently.

  7. As a teacher of small children, this horrible tragedy hit me (and my staff) hard - there is no sense to be made of it. We can't control what happens to us but we can control our reactions, so I'm trying to focus on that. I don't think horrible events can truly be prevented, no matter how hard we try, and dwelling on what anyone "could have" done helps no one.

    Focusing on overcoming the fear that exists is so much more empowering because it is in our control. I used to be so afraid of mountain biking that I'd purposefully be slow to even get out on the trails, to maybe delay the inevitable. Thankfully I've gotten over that and then some - I noticed on our ride that I stalled on a switchback as my wheel caught one of the steps I was riding down, and pedaled harder to make it around, where a year ago I would have panicked and fallen over for sure. But, of course there is a lot of work to be done, as you saw when I hesitated where I crashed last time (and that crash didn't even hurt!). Learning to trust yourself is an amazing feeling - we have the skills in there from years of riding, and our body knows what to do before our brain does (obviously I'm not being literal here), if we just allow it. That kind of empowerment has carried over into my everyday life, which is what makes mountain biking addictive for me.

    As for the pedals issue, I think flats are your style and there's nothing wrong with that - the benefits of clipless are in dispute anyway, and who really cares - its all personal preference. If you have more confidence in your abilities with flats then that is the way to go, no doubt.

    I will always enjoy riding with you regardless of how you are feeling on the technical bits - so don't worry about that!

  8. Thanks for the comments. The skills coach sessions are a good idea. I came into mountain biking from the back end (became an endurance cyclist first, and then decided it was time to start riding singletrack), and the skills I taught myself are clearly not adequate. Mountain bike skills *are* something I want to work to improve. I still feel amazing when I clean something that's difficult for me, or nail a good downhill. This post is about acknowledging that not only have I not made any improvements in the past year, but I can see myself getting worse. I also find myself avoiding anything challenging if I can help it. Thankfully I've had friends who have helped me climb out of my comfort zone. But when I'm alone, I often just ride the same old buffed trails and fireroad that I always ride. I still love it, but that old bike euphoria is noticeably missing.

    Clipless — I started using them occasionally this summer because I thought they would help my technical riding. But I need to work on some basics and I'm so much more comfortable with platforms that I will stick to those for now.

    So, thanks, Leah, for coaxing me out from time to time. I agree with everything you said. And I enjoy riding with you too, so I hope we can get out to Skeggs and Demo and places where I'm too scared to go by myself. I need that boost. Let's ride again soon.

  9. You're better off taking it easy when riding alone and staying in your comfort zone, because there's no one around to help if you do get hurt. All the damage you do to your body when you're young WILL come back to haunt you in later years. I've fractured both my wrists, broken my finger, and broken my ankle and my leg, in various accidents over the years. I also knocked myself out and had a concussion after a clipless pedal let go during a sprint causing me to crash. 25 years later and my wrists still hurt occasionally. My leg and ankle hurt every day, the vision in my left eye is blurred and my speech is slightly slurred from the concussion, and sometimes I'll lose my balance and lean to the right while walking or bike riding. Unless you're getting paid megabucks to race professionally, pushing yourself to the limit and getting hurt is just not worth it. Just stay within what you feel comfortable doing, and concentrate more on having fun and enjoying the moment rather than worrying about results. There comes a point in your life when you're past your peak and "personal records" will no longer come, then you'll have to live with the after effects of all the punishment you put your body through.

  10. +3 on losing the clipless. I rode for 20+ years on clipess and never worried about clipping in or out. I would, however, crash occasionally for reasons seemingly unrelated to being clipped in. Just part of mountain biking, I reasoned. Little over a year ago I stumbled across Landon Monholland's blog post about switching to flats and it got me thinking because I had recently had back surgery and even the kicking out motion on clipess would strain my back if done under duress. So I did research, bought a nice pair of Straitline flat pedals and some Teva Links and used them all year. Not one crash and I can recall at least 3 occasions where not being clipped enabled me to save a crash. Even raced the local series and a national endurance event with them. Put my wife on the same pedals and some 5.10s and she enjoys riding so much more now and will try sections she used to walk. Biking is fun so do whatever makes it fun for you. BTW, I read every day so thanks for all your posts and the blog roll links. Enriches my life and makes me smarter ;-)

  11. I completely understand as I often feel the same way on my bike. I had a crash that resulted in a lot of road rash in 2007, including some to my very fragile left arm. It was then I realized that biking the way I used to isn't an option anymore. Now I take corners slow, ride the brakes on downhills, and when I reach the end of my comfort zone, I have images of crashing, breaking and losing my arm.

    I feel like this also transfers to my trail running, I never EVER bomb the downhills in the way some people do. I just need to land on my left arm to lose it forever and I've endured too much suffering to lose it doing something stupid. The heightened risks I have of falling severely outweigh the exhilaration of going fast.

  12. Karen, it's interesting to consider the actual origins of risk in an activity. Of all of the many on-foot falls I've taken this year, most have been quite silly — either while climbing or on marginally technical flats, or while hiking. I have yet to take a huge downhill digger, probably because I tend to be hyper-focused when I'm running downhill whether fast or slow, because I'm afraid. I'm hoping I can learn to channel this focus into my cycling. I think on a bike I've developed a complacency that I haven't earned, and this leads to silly mistakes, which lead to crashes, which lead to fear.

  13. For what it's worth here are my thoughts on fear ("borrowed" from a very old kayaking video):

    As well as contemplating the "origins of risk" I think it's also worth considering the "origins of fear": what purpose does fear serve? Consider an animal being hunted: fear serves to raise the prey's physiological and mental state to enhance their responses and improve their chance of survival. Once I accepted that fear is not something to be denied or banished but actually a useful emotion that you can learn to accept and even use to improve your focus and responses, dealing with/controlling it then became much easier!


Feedback is always appreciated!