One of the most important lessons I have learned from mountain biking is that confidence is a key ingredient to making a good, safe ride. If you don’t have complete confidence in yourself, your equipment, or the condition of the trail you are riding, then you are flirting with disaster. The feeling of uneasiness caused by a lack of confidence is going to distract you from focusing on your ride, and when you lose focus bad things happen. I want to share how I learned this valuable lesson the hard way, particularly when it comes to equipment.
The ride that never should have happened
Three years ago, my friend Bryon and I decided to go for an afternoon ride on Redbug, one of the most technically difficult trails in town. The entire trail is littered with roots, tight switchbacks, steep climbs and descents, and a couple of drops. It is a very demanding trail, both physically and mentally. We met up at the parking lot by the trail head and proceeded to unload our bikes. When I grabbed the handlebars to test the brakes, I noticed my rear brake lever didn’t feel quite right. It was spongy, and the lever went closer to the bar than normal when I pulled on it. I shrugged it off as no big deal and continued to prep for the ride.
Bryon and I pedaled out of the parking lot, down a dirt path, and into the woods. Bryon was setting a fast pace as usual, and I was trying hard to keep up with him. I was riding a hardtail at the time, so I had to pick my lines very carefully in order to keep my momentum through the rooty sections. The rear brake did fine through the first few turns, but then the sponginess returned. The lever was touching the handlebar each time I squeezed it. I pumped the lever a few times, and it firmed back up. However, I now had a twinge of anxiety, and was starting to lose my focus.
Bad things happen when confidence is lost
In spite of my rear brake, the ride was uneventful until we arrived at the drop in the trail locals call “Yoda’s Hut.” This feature is a rooty, stepped drop between two large oak trees. As far as drops go, it is not particularly high or steep, but what makes it challenging is the off-camber roots that protrude up from the trail on the way down. “Yoda’s Hut” has always been the hardest obstacle for me to conquer on any of our local trails, and it takes complete confidence for me to even attempt it.
On this particular day, the issue with the rear brake had already dealt a blow to my confidence. I became even more anxious as we approached the drop. By this point in time, Bryon and I had switched places, and I was on point. To this day, I do not know what happened when I hit the drop. Either the rear brake locked up when I squeezed it to scrub off some speed before I hit the drop, or I just applied too much brake because I was nervous. As a result, I didn’t hit the drop with enough speed. The bike nose-dived into the drop, and I wasn’t positioned far enough back to save myself from flying over the handlebars when the front wheel hit a root and the bike stopped. I was flung face-first into another root that was sticking up out of the ground a little further down the trail.
Bryon saw the whole thing unfold. He dismounted from his bike at the top of the drop and made his way down to me. By this time, I determined that my face and teeth were still in one piece, got up off the ground, and retrieved my bike. Bryon looked at me and shook his head. “You need stitches,” he said bluntly. “It’s not that bad,” I replied. I knew I was bleeding from a cut on my lip, but I thought it was minor. I was mad at myself for crashing, and wanted to finish the ride.
“I’m okay. Let’s keep going,” I insisted. Bryon knew better. “I can see your teeth through your lip. You need stitches. Let’s head back.” Bryon walked me out of the woods and back to my truck. I went to the emergency room and got 5 stitches in my upper lip. Luckily, that and some abrasions on my face were the sum total of my injuries. Had I hit the root at a slightly different angle the result could have been much worse. The brake issue I experienced that day was the result of a manufacturing defect. I was fortunate the problem occurred on that trail, and not on one of the more high-speed trails in town.
A valuable lesson learned
I shouldn’t have ridden my bike that day. Instead, I should have called off the ride, and taken my bike to my local bike shop to have it checked out. My gut told me to do that, but I didn’t listen. When I felt the sponginess in the brake lever I lost the confidence I needed to have a good, safe ride. As a result, I wound up in the emergency room feeling like an idiot.
Not only that, but it took me several months to regain the confidence I needed to handle any kind of descent on a trail, even minor ones. Every time the bike nosed down a little I would have a flashback of the crash and tense up. Nowadays, the faint scar on my upper lip reminds me how important confidence is when mountain biking. I hope others won’t need a scar to do the same for them.