H Is For Humility: On Falling Down

Every now and then, life smacks you upside the head, interrupting your flow and derailing your grace.  I’m talking about falling down: crashing, specifically. Mountain biking has one of the highest rates of injury from crashing of all outdoor sports.  If you ride regularly, and you push your limits, you are going to crash hard at some point. You just hope you don’t crash too hard.  All it takes is one wrong fall to possibly end it all – a humbling truth that most of us don’t like to think about.  

I, certainly, don’t tend to dwell on the risk of injury and possible death when I’m out for a ride, flying past trees and hopping over rocks.  But then comes the fall – always unexpected, always served up like a giant slice of Humble Pie. This is why H stands for Humility in my ABC’s of mountain biking.  A-G are Awareness, Balance, Confidence, Discipline, Endurance, Flow, and Grace. Flow and Grace are sometimes the last thing your ride is full of, though.

Ask any professional or elite-level mountain biker how many times they’ve crashed, and they’ll tell you more than they can remember; likely, they’ll add that they expect to fall again in the future.  With big risk comes big consequences. This is why you see most riders wearing varying levels of protection: full-face helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, anti-whiplash neckguards. The amount of gear depends on the level of risk you’re taking on your ride.  However, protection only provides so much actual protection in the case of a fall. If you’re going too fast and stop too quickly, there’s going to be some whiplash and possible concussion. It’s simple physics. The very thought of my brain crashing against my skull gives me the heebie-jeebies.  With every fall, whether you’re a pro-rider or a newbie, you are faced with your humility – your limitations, mistakes, and weaknesses.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve fallen over the years.  Going over the handlebars is a standard in mountain biking at some point or another.  Sometimes, I’ve managed a sort of gymnastics roll, letting my shoulder and hip take the brunt of the impact.  I did some gymnastics as a kid, and it helped me learn to fall; it’s all about keeping your momentum, and not coming to a sudden stop.  The only times I’ve been able to react with any sort of roll or grace have been low-speed falls.

The worst falls are those in which you have no time whatsoever to react.  Like a slap in the face, it happens in a millisecond. These are the higher-speed falls, often accompanied by a drop or jump and challenging terrain.  When you flow down these lines with grace, they’re the funnest rides in Santa Cruz; people come from all around to ride the trails we’re so lucky to call home.  As with anything, when you ride them enough, statistically speaking you’re bound to fall at some point.

I’ve seen several riders walking out of trails, supported by their friends, arms in a makeshift sling, blood on their faces after a bad fall. Their eyes are wide in bewilderment; adrenaline rushing through their veins keeps them moving along.  In the worst cases, they’re being carried out or helivaced; sadly, many riders have died over the years in awful falls. It’s the one aspect of riding that we all try to avoid, but know we’ll encounter personally should we push ourselves to ride just a little bit faster, a little bit riskier, and a little bit more confidently.

I mention confidence because I think it’s an essential trait for mountain biking.  It is not helpful to waver in your intention, hesitate in your action, or commit only halfway.  Believing you can ride it is part of it as well. But you don’t want to get too cocky, too confident.  You can’t “believe” yourself into riding above your ability, after all. It’s a fine line. Of all the times I’ve fallen hard, I could say I was feeling a little overconfident those days, riding a little too fast.  It’s so much fun to move quickly yet gracefully over the land, but the punishment of falling in doing so can be menacing. This is where humility comes in, reminding me of my boundaries, and highlighting my need to improve in certain areas.  Humility reminds us that our work is never done, that we are always growing, and that some things are simply out of our control.

Sometimes you’re surprised by an evil parallel root in the trail, slick as a salamander, sliding you out like a derailing train.  That happened to me, and I literally ate dirt as I fell on my face; fortunately, it was relatively soft duff I fell into. The first thing I did was check to make sure my teeth were still there.  Luckily, they were.

Flying over face-first over the bars (ENDO!) never leads to anything good.  I’ll never forget the first time this happened; I hit my head, and separated my left shoulder.  I was in my early twenties, young and dumb, and I went for a sunset ride without a helmet.  I cringe typing that! I typically rode with a helmet, but there were times, like this, when I completely ignored the biggest risk of riding: traumatic brain injury (TBI).  That was the last time I rode without one, which was, quite frankly, the stupidest thing I could have ever done when moving on two wheels.  I still have a small bald spot on my head from that scar to remind me of my mistake. I was lucky I wasn’t going too fast or I’d have split my head open – or worse.

The next time I took a bad fall, I had gone off a small jump with my weight too far forward and my seat a bit too high; then I front-braked.  Textbook rookie mistakes. I cracked my helmet, and I separated my shoulder again. I was on my face faster than I could blink.  That’s what most people don’t realize about falling from a bike at high speed. I was asked by a few people, “Didn’t you have time to react?  Like put your arms down or something?” No! There is no time to react. Unless you’ve experienced it yourself, it’s hard to fully understand how you can simply fall on your face, let alone how quickly it can happen.  Sometimes there is no, “Let me gracefully do a gymnastics-roll out of this one”. It sneaks up on me every time, reminding me there is a razor sharp edge to the envelope I am pushing. The goal is to not fall, of course, but the risk is always there.

Certainly, having an automatic dropperpost would have helped tremendously.  I typically rode with my seat all the way lowered, which was good for the downhill, but not so good for cross-country riding, when I’d have to put my seat back up again. When racing, I just kept the seat down all the way for the timed stages, which proved exhausting on the flats and uphills. I can’t believe I am only just now getting one on my next bike: my Santa Cruz Hightower LT Carbon XX1, on order from the factory at the moment.  When I demo’d it awhile back, I couldn’t believe how good it felt to have a dropper!  Being able to adjust your seat height with the click of a lever seems so much more efficient, and ultimately, safer.   

I’ve been concussed a few times, shuffling around in a mental fog for days as my brain heals.   One concussion was so bad I just sat around staring at nothing for a week; I was too tired to watch TV, talk, think, or barely move.  My husband took me to the doctor for that one, but as most doctors will tell you, rest is the best remedy. The painful accompaniment of whiplash in your neck and shoulders, and behind the eye pressure don’t help.  When you whack your head into the ground going 20+ mph, all that kinetic energy warps through your body like a shockwave. The tension in my neck and shoulders took weeks to fully unwind.

About a year ago, I fell on my head – literally.  I was coming down the end of Magic Carpet, a trail I’ve done a thousand times, off a small log-drop.  The bottom of the drop has an uphill section like a V, and usually I land the drop and roll up the little hill with ease. On this ride, however, I had my front tire pressure way too low, noticing it minutes before on my prior landings on the way down when I was hearing the telltale sounds.  At the end of the drop, my front tire bit hard into the trail, deflating momentarily down to the rim (“burping”), and turned sharply to the right. I buckled and landed headfirst on the uphill section. I also ended up punching the ground with my left hand, which was still holding onto the handlebar.  As I lie face-first in the dirt with my bell rung, Ron approached on his bike.

“I’m fine,” I said, as I always do after I fall; Ron jokes that if I say that, he knows I’m hurt. By the time we made it back to the car at the bottom of the trail, I had a big goose-egg right on top of my head, which felt hot and itchy. My right eye felt mounting pressure. I’ve hit my head before, but usually after first hitting my chin or face. The angle of this landing put the brunt of the impact directly on top of my head.  Overall, though, I was fine. Or so I thought.  My left middle finger still troubles me. I never had it looked at by a doctor, but Dr. Google indicates a tendon rupture from crashing into the ground.  For months, it was hard to ride because I couldn’t tightly grip the bar with my finger. It’s getting better slowly, but I have to be  careful not to jar it at just the right angle to make me wince in pain. I also stopped climbing at the gym. Hopefully, it will get stronger.

At Northstar in the Summer of 2016, I did my biggest jump at the bottom of Flameout (check out this  Flameout Video I found on YouTube of the trail and the jump; between 5:40 and 5:50 shows the center jump I went off).  I surprised myself – I launched with speed, and was way higher than I’d ever been. Having time to realize this mid-air was both exhilarating and terrifying.  On my landing, I ended up coming down with my bike frame pinning my left knee in a desperate, semi-controlled, slide-out of a “landing”. I was mostly fine, glad I’d managed to avoid a catastrophic fall, but my knee was killing me.  I’d basically crushed my knee under my bike frame. My inside left thigh was abraded by my bike seat slamming into it. I never went to the doctor about my injury, until six months later when I noticed the atrophy in my knee. I saw an orthopedic surgeon, who told me to keep on doing what I’m doing – exercising and yoga – in hopes of building my tendon and muscle strength back.  I basically bruised the hell out of my knee – bone, tendons, muscles and all. He said there’s no guarantee it’ll ever be as strong as it once was, but I’m working on it.

Whether it was having too low front tire pressure, my weight too far forward, seat up too high, or using my front brake at the wrong time, I’ve learned crucial lessons from each fall.  Each lesson sticks with you like muscle-memory.  No matter the circumstance, each fall is reminder that we aren’t totally in control all the time – even when we think we are.  The word Humility comes to mind again. It’s good to push your limits, but within the realm of your skillset for the trail you’re riding.  Only you can make that call for yourself.

At some point, we all fall down.  What really matters is getting back on the saddle.

 

 

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