Sunday, 27 February 2011

Near misses

Most people remember their big crashes, especially if they result in injuries, broken bikes or particular amusement for friends. My first spectacular accident resulted in none of the above, so it probably falls into the near miss category.

I was on my first proper mountain bike holiday. I'd been on a trip the year before, but as one of the guides did the ride on a Brompton I don't think it really counted as mountain biking. This time I'd gone to Sardinia with Saddle Skedaddle where I was promised sun, singletrack and most of all fabulous food. The trip delivered on all three, and threw in some fantastic company as well. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

It was fairly early in the week - the second day perhaps - and we were on a ride that followed the line of a stream out to sea. The route promised 23 (count 'em, kids!) crossings of the same stream before we got to the beach and excitement levels were high. We were riding along a ledge that was ten to twelve feet above the stream, with a rock face on the right and the sheer drop to the stream on the left. The ledge was about three feet wide, flat with the odd small rock. Now, these days I'd barely blink at such a thing but back then I was nervous about this section.

When you get nervous, riding a bike, a couple of things start to happen - especially if you are a beginner. You tense up. You wobble. You focus on the places that you don't want to go to, rather than the ones that you do. I was looking at the rock face, looking at the small rocks on the trail and most of all, looking at the drop.

The small rock. Never, ever look at obstacles right in front of your wheel. You hit them, it's human instinct. As a prehistoric hunter, chasing velociraptors and dragons across the jungle (my view on history may be slightly confused) you want to hit the thing you are looking at. That's what you are going to kill with your stone age shotgun. Target aquisition. So I hit the rock.

I came to a halt. I wobbled and toppled left. Left, towards the twelve foot drop.

I think I got my left foot down. I certainly got my right foot over the bike, swinging and spinning me round so that I ended up standing on the edge of the drop looking out towards it.

Often people teaching mountain biking will say "momentum is your friend". This can be true, but when you are on the edge of a drop having just swung and spun off a toppling bike, momentum is not your friend. Momentum causes you to carry on over the edge.

Freeze frame. I'm standing right on the edge of a twelve foot cliff, above a stream, facing outwards, with momentum about to take me over. My bike is falling towards me. There was only one thing I could do.

I ran down the sheer cliff face. Upright. My feet skimmed off the rock two or three times before I landed on my feet in the stream with a slightly turned ankle and wet shoes. Wet underwear too. I turned and looked back up to see my bike hanging on a rock six feet above me. To my left, and up on the trail, the guide was running back down the trail having seen my spectacular demonstration of mountain goat style descending.

I could not believe I was more or less unharmed. The guide said she had visions of helicopter rescues and lots of paperwork. The rest of the guests were standing open mouthed.

If only I'd had the presence of mind to shout out "ta-daaaa!" and throw my arms wide with a big grin.

Crashes are so much better when you can ride away, and finish the day with ice cream on a beach.
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