About one of my more forgettable mountain biking races
"He'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease,
That daring young man on the flying trapeze."
(George Leybourne 1867, referring to Jules Léotard).
These are the words I sang over and over in my head for the rest of the day, after what was a rather spectacular crash during a 104 kilometer mountain bike race over the weekend.
I was lucky not to be seriously hurt, there were no safety nets, only a good helmet and modest tumbling skills to save me.
The race was the Lake Hawea Contact Epic. Wet weather forced the race to be changed, to be an out and back, rather than the circumnavigation of the lake. This alternative course was over the muddiest, rockiest and hilliest section of the original course with riders going out and back, doubling the usual mushing of the 4wd trail. This suited me, since mud and technical courses with lots of climbing are what I train for.
I got off to a good start in the field of several hundred and would have been in the first 20, easily, after 20 km. I was especially enjoying the boulder-strewn downhills until my rear wheel hit one hard enough to cause a slow leak. The tyre eventually deflated. By the third stop to pump the tyre up it was obvious the tubeless tyre sealant was not holding, so I removed the wheel and converted it with an inner tube. This, you might gather, is time consuming, and I had already lost many places with the earlier stops and the more cautious riding in between. My goal was to be the first over-60 years old, but this was now seriously in doubt.
Rear wheel fixed and refitted, I was on the mission to regain as many of those positions lost. I still had more than half the 104 km to go, so I was still on for a good placing, but I pushed the downhills too hard. I was heading down a hill at about 40 km/hr when the track deteriorated into a muddy rut and I was in the middle of it! My front wheel first touched the left side then the right, and I was flying, bike and body! I knew this was going to be a serious one. I hit the ground hard and my bike did a couple of noisy somersaults. I saw stars. To make things worse, there was an audience.
Someone called, "Are you okay?"
"Yes", was my immediate reply. It was far too soon to conclude I was okay, but that's what adrenalin and shock do to one's rationality!
I was more concerned about my beloved bike than myself (funny that!). I was both relieved and astonished: my bike was fine, not even bent handlebars. So I brushed myself off and continued, albeit with great care. I felt okay, although with slightly blurred vision. I had suffered what we might best describe as a "bell-ringer". There was no stopping; we were in the middle of nowhere.
Don't get me wrong: this could easily have been a serious accident and I don't want to downplay what happened. I made a basic mountain biking mistake and paid for it. I was lucky. I am probably better than most at assessing injuries, first aid and so on, and my quick assessment was I could continue. The option of staying put was only good for a serious and disabling injury (calling a helicopter).
My vision restored to normal after about half an hour, but my race was more or less over. It was more a matter of finishing The plan was to keep moving, keep warm, no more mishaps, have time to settle down and ongoing assessment any damage, some which may not initially be obvious. The final assessment as the kilometers ticked by was that all systems had reset and I was once again good to go. So the pace quickened.
I finished strongly, in 2nd place, which was both pleasing and disappointing. But that is racing for you. These events are about pushing way outside of one's comfort zones. From this comes personal growth. This was certainly the case that day.
Growth and Resilience comes via stress:
It is only by inducing measured discomfort that we grow and flourish, both mentally and physically. This is something I resolve to practice till the day I die. I'll not hesiate to go out into the freezing and wet weather, I'll exercise hard, I'll compete. I'll also reward my body with nutritious food.
Without regular, measured stress, we wither. We weaken. We die.
I had hit something hard with the side of my helmet, which explains the stars. It did its job well. It was a write-off, but it is better to have a broken helmet than a mushed brain any day!
So, what are the take-home lessons?
Practice how to fall
Falling is part-and-parcel of bike ownership. You are going to fall. The only question is how well you fall. I've had more than my fair share of falls and my neck can not and must not take any more blows. I have the choice: keep riding a bike, running trails, participating in risky adventures, or stop and join a suburban walking group (not that there's anything worng with that!). I'll keep doing what I'm doing while incorporating falling practice into my weekly routine.
Typically, I'll stop at a park while out running (I'm doing this later today) and practice several forward and side rolls, then continue on my way - that's it! Easy!
When I fall off a bike, or trip while running, I'll more instinctively tuck and roll, instead of landing on an out-stretched arm, on the point of a shoulder or do a face-plant!
This is why I survived the fall last weekend. Without thinking, I tucked and rolled. I still hit the side of my head but the damage was minimised. I suffered strained neck muscles, some minor bruising on a shoulder blade and hip but that was it. A very good outcome, considering the possibilities.
Practice biking skills
I'll go down to a field and practice figure-eights over and over, emergency braking, going as slowly as I can. These are the most basic of skills but so important. I've been riding for decades but I still practice some of the basics every week. Then there are more specific skills such as riding ruts, off-camber cornering, doing drops, jumps and so on. Even the best riders benefit from hiring a coach to teach and refine these basics of safe cycling. Your local bike shop will know who to hire.
Cyclocross (CX) racing is great for developing bike skills. CX involves racing against others on a muddy field, mostly at low speeds. It is the safest form of bike racing. The worst injury I've ever suffered is a bruised ego when sliding out on a muddy slope before an appreciative audience! It is a great way for novices and youngsters to spend an hour on a Sunday morning: https://huttcross.co.nz/
Get the best helmet on the market
I'm pleased I had a helmet with a little extra "side-wall" protection. I've just trashed my 3rd POC helmet. If it was not for these quality helmets, I doubt I would still be here. Do not skimp on the protective features of a helmet just because of the price. I think the most important features to look for in a helmet are ones that allow it to slide slightly against the skull on impact with an immovable object such as hard ground. Just a few millimeters of internal "slide" can make the difference between suffering a severe concussion and a minor "bell-ringer". These features also reduces neck vertebrae damage by lessening or slowing the shock wave of the impact as it travels from the bony skull to the bones of the neck.
It is the properties of the helmet, plus the clean fall, that saved my bacon last weekend. Always wear a good helmet. I was also wearing cycling gloves and protective eyewear. All just in case!
POC are not paying me to say this: I like POC helmets. They have saved my brains at least three times, so I'll stick with them for now. They are comfortable to wear. I'll be getting another one in the next few days.
An additional word of caution:
My worst cycling accidents have always happened when least expected, none during the heat of competitions. I fall off often during races, but I'm prepared for these. The worst injuries have been when at slow speeds, when not on the alert, when going down to the shops and having a car pull out in front and so on.
Be vigilant at all times when riding a bike and wear your protective gear. A helmet and gloves are essential. Wear eyewear if you are riding through any kind of undergrowth, lest a twig gets you in the eye. Got the idea?