Photo: Pixabay.com

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

In our teens and into our 20s, we often feel invincible. I know I did as a high schooler on downhill skis. No cliff was seemingly too big to huck my meat off even though, in Northern Wisconsin, we were usually hucking to ice sheets instead of powder landings.

I remember one day specifically when we had a dusting of an inch of fresh snow in the woods. We scraped together enough snow to build a one-foot-wide run-in that measured maybe 10 feet long, leading into a 10-foot cliff drop. The catch? There wasn’t enough snow for a landing. Instead, we were hucking to a leaf pile.

We were 15, semi-talented, and 100% fearless.

The thing is, if you play in the mountains long enough, injuries will catch up to you eventually.

“Dude, I’m in the torn ACL club,” a friend texted me recently.

“What?! Say it isn’t so!” I responded. “I hate that you have to go through this.” I had just had my second ACL surgery two weeks prior, so the pain was fresh in my mind.

“I grew up playing soccer, so I feel like it was a normal part of life that I thought I avoided,” my friend reflected. “But nope. It got me in adulthood.”

Photo: Greg Heil

Every time we hold an essay contest or open the editorial team up for applications, one theme tends to emerge over all the others: injury. It could be stories of getting injured, stories of overcoming injury, or any number of possible permutations, but one thing is clear: mountain biking is dangerous. And it will bite you.

I remember one of the songs in high school that spoke to my general approach to life at that time was a newer tune from Ozzie Osborne’s recent foray into solo work. The chorus went something like this:

“All my life I’ve been over the top,
I don’t know what I’m doing, All I know is I don’t wanna stop.
All fired up I’m gonna go ’till I drop
You’re either in or in the way, don’t make me, I don’t wanna stop”

I feel like often times as mountain bikers, this is how we live. We don’t always know why we are so passionate about this sport, but we know we’re over the top, we’re going to keep riding, and we don’t want to stop. We go along this way, thinking we’re invincible, just like Ozzie:

“This thing that I found ain’t gonna bring me down
I’m like a junkie without an addiction
Mama, don’t cry, I just wanna stay high
I like playing with danger and fear”

We go along this way, but eventually, we do drop. The injury that we thought we were immune to hits, and we are forced to stop.

We all must, eventually, pay the gods of Pain and Suffering.

Not literal gods, obviously. But the pain, the suffering, the injury, is coming for all of us… or at least, it seems like it is.

Sometimes, there is a rare outlier who has ridden for decades but can’t claim to have paid the gods of pain and suffering. One of those riders is Rebecca Rusch. I’ve read her memoir, and while she discussed all kinds of challenges she overcame, she didn’t mention a single injury.

In a Q&A on Facebook, I asked her, “How do you deal with and overcome injuries?”

She responded that she cross trains religiously to avoid overuse injuries but that when it comes to traumatic injuries, she’s been pretty lucky.

Even Jeff, the co-founder of this website, when looking back on his decades of mountain biking can’t identify one injury that has kept him off the bike.

But these examples are rare. And while I don’t wish pain on anybody, I can’t help but think that maybe they just have not yet reached the barrier where the gatekeeper says, “you need to pay to pass.” Or perhaps they have paid the price already, just in some other way.

Is it worth it?

Is mountain biking really worth the sacrifice that Pain and Suffering require?

Like Ozzie, I think that some of us don’t actually have a choice in the matter. We’ve been over the top our entire lives, we don’t know what we’re doing, but we definitely don’t want to stop.

Maybe that’s a cop-out. We do have choices in life. But if we’re being honest, every choice leads to a pain of some kind. The only question is, “What pain do you want to sustain?

As I’ve thought about this question, I’ve realized that I’m willing to sustain the pain of the occasional injury and the occasional surgery for the joy that I experience when exploring the mountains. While maybe I could avoid this one type of pain by keeping my ass securely connected to the sofa, I’d rather endure the pain of injury than the endless pain of boredom in front of the TV.

So when my time does come to pay Pain and Suffering, I’ll open my wallet and empty it out onto the ground. I might not do it willingly, but in the end, the payment will be worth it.

# Comments

  • kay oh

    Thetis was given two choices for how her son Achilles would live his life; a long, boring, unremarkable existence, or a life that was as short as it was glorious.

    Heal up, then hit it again. I’m nursing a busted shoulder myself.

  • wareagle4130

    The older I get (I’m 44), the more I find myself feeling the need to compromise some though. Not to the extreme of staying on the couch vs. riding, but things like maybe not sending jumps or pinning downhills like I want to do. Granted, jumping and flying downhill are what make MTB fun, but they come with risks. The good news is MTB can still be fun even if you dial it back a bit, and there are other ways to challenge yourself that are less dangerous, such as tech climbs or rock gardens, that I used to hate but now am finding enjoyment from.

    • Greg Heil

      Even “less dangerous” challenges can tear you up. In my experience, it doesn’t take much–just something going weird or wrong in a small way can put you down hard. Few of my injuries have come from attempting to go huge. It’s all the weird, little crashes that hurt me the most.

    • wareagle4130

      True. Some of the most painful injuries were from clipping trees while on relatively tame sections of trail.

  • Plusbike Nerd

    I’ve noticed that since I’ve been riding a 29 Plusbike that I crash less often. I have so much more traction and roll-over. If you want to crash less, get a Plusbike.

    • Greg Heil

      The partially-torn rotator cuff in my shoulder disagrees with you.

  • stumpyfsr

    Interesting idea, Greg. Some paying a little but often, while others doing it once and big. I’ve heard saying “if you don’t crash, you don’t go hard enough”. But what is a measurement of “hard enough”? Everyone making a choice for themselves. For example, once, after a long day on downhill trails, I already felt tired but chose to do one final run, which finalized my riding for over three weeks. Was it worth it? No, not at all. Although that was a good lesson to stop, when enough is enough 🙂
    I wish to every rider to avoid those payments as long as possible.

    • Greg Heil

      If I had my druthers, I’d prefer a little at a time 🙂

  • triton189

    I’m with wareagle in that I have dialed back how I ride to some degree, I also tend to wear more protective gear than I used to. Being on the wrong side of 55 has definitely changed my attitudes out on the trail, injuries are just so darn hard to recover from as you age. Most friends my age think I am insane to continue to ride. However I still am more than willing to risk injury for participating in this wonderful sport.

  • shannonhoyle68

    I’ve been riding since my teens, ( I turn fifty this coming year) through to my mid twenties I was fearless even on a fully rigid beast.
    After an accident I eased off to get better, while getting better I got a good job offer and moved from whistler to a new town on van isle where at the time riding was limited to dirt roads and 10 foot wide park trails . So riding became transportation not fun but i kept riding.
    Then about 8 years ago an old Riding buddy from my whistler days comes for a yearly visit and brings his bike after three weeks he went home and i was hooked again .
    I now ride at a level well above my fearless twenties . I’m the one in the group who will ride anything no matter how steep or technical or at least try when the rest walk down.
    In all that time I’ve not had an accident that kept me off the bike for more then a couple days. Till this year at Crankworx during a practice run I jack knifed and OTB’d, breaking my collarbone. That was Aug ive been off the bike since. Now Dec and im just getting back in the saddle only on dirt roads right now doc says I’m not allowed back to trails till end of Jan.
    So I’m hoping that I’ve payed in full the trail gods for I have made my sacrifice and continue to NEED to ride
    Ride Hard Ride Long RidetoLive

  • John Fisch

    Oh, so true.

    Even if you’re not “riding hard enough.”

    While I’ve had plenty of trips to the ER/stitches/abrasions, etc., the one and only truly debilitating injury came as the result of what felt like a gentle fall to the side. I extended my arm to catch myself and must have hit at just the right angle as I fully dislocated my right shoulder.

    You ride long enough, and something’s gonna’ happen. Maybe when you least expect it.

    “The odds get even”
    Neil Peart (Rush) from the song ‘You Bet Your Life.’

    • Greg Heil

      Yes, for me, it’s always the weird crashes that cause the most damage!

  • Whistlepig

    Nice Rush reference John!

    I suppose Roll The Bones would be an appropriate song for the subject.

  • rmap01

    Is it worth it? Absolutely!

    I get immense enjoyment and satisfaction from MTB’ing. I’ve broken a collar bone, rib, wrist, and two fingers (all different accidents). None of these happened because I was attempting some crazy jump or super techy section. The biggest issue for me is pushing the edge. You never really know where it is (or your skills are) until you find yourself on the other end 😮

    Although each injury felt like a major setback at the time it was an opportunity to refocus (if I couldn’t bike I’d run) and commit to improving my skills. All that said, I’ve dialed it back somewhat because as triton so aptly stated the body just doesn’t heal as fast as it used to nor do broken joints fully function as they once did.

    On a final note: Whereas it’s the elevated risk that drives the endorphin rush, it’s the increased risk of injury that concerns me about the future of the sport. Compared to most sports, MTB is still like the wild west (relatively speaking). But if you look at the way they have sanitized so many other sports I worry about the possibility that we are just a few major lawsuits away from bringing unwanted attention here. When I get injured I curse my ability (or lack thereof). But unfortunately there are others that look for someone to blame especially in tragic circumstances (e.g. paralyzed, death). Whereas I’ve seen caution signs posted at some trails I wish they would do that across the board to try to further limit liability.

  • Scott Cotter

    I’ve been doing this for 30 years and wouldn’t do anything over any differently. I’ve been to the best places, met the best people, found the best version of me, and have lived some incredible adventures because of the damned mountain bike.

    Would I rather not have a broken elbow now? Yep. Or the two sprained wrist? Sure. But these are minor compared to what I have been gifted. The broken hand, fingers, toes, knee cap (well, that one sucked a HUGE amount), the collarbone, and the ribs … all a small price to pay for being involved in such an incredible, life-affirming activity.

    • Greg Heil

      “all a small price to pay for being involved in such an incredible, life-affirming activity.”


  • kenwrightjr

    I am 54 now and I can distinctly remember in my early teens finding old bikes around, tearing them apart, and rebuilding some kind of concoction to ride through the woods around my house. Me and my cousins would build ramps and have a blast getting air. I hit a tree head on because I had too much speed. I mean CRASHED directly into the pine tree! And when I walked up to my mom holding my arm she just asked me did I not consider the consequences of doing such a stunt. LOL. What an epiphany to have at such a young age! But to Greg’s point earlier, why is it that some of the hardest and worst crashes happen when we are least expecting it? For me I think it may be that I just get either TOO comfortable and forget to pay attention AND/OR, I am also tired and it has decreased my mind’s capabilities to do something I normally can do 9 out of 10 times with ease.

    I find myself even at this age risking a safe, comfortable ride to take a harder line, attack a jump or drop-off, et al for the thrill of it. And while it is a thrill after doing it I think to myself “was that a smart idea?” lol. Beside the occasional OTB I’ve also had, hit a few trees. etc I’ve been fortunate so far to not sustain anything that kept me off my bike. I was watching MTB on the Outside channel and the feature was on Santa Cruz bikes. One of the riders who I believe is Greg Minnaar (I think it was him) was being filmed from behind another rider and was very close to the end of the ride when his bike just came out from underneath him. The crash looked very innocent to be honest. But he was punctured somehow and was literally 10 minutes from bleeding out. Luckily he was with another rider who helped him not go into shock, administer the best first aid he possibly could, and call him medical help immediately.

    I hate knowing the fact remains that I could very well have a hard crash coming if for nothing but simple odds. But as some of you said above I’d rather risk myself for them than sit on a couch like a potatoe!

  • baillie2

    Guilty as charged. I’ve had some bad injuries mountain biking.
    BUT……..I think I’m guilty of poor technique and impatience, mainly.
    I actually don’t like to go fast and take unreasonable chances………I’d rather ace something with good style.
    AND……I see that there actually exists a “counter method” of careful, skillful technique that will allow me to try my crazy ambitions in a sane, calculated and hopefully-ER-free way. That’s TRIALS. A little bit of Trials technique, expounded by the likes of Ryan Leech, Lee-Likes-Bikes and Griff Wigley may just work this magic…….

  • Lisa E.

    Yup. ACL/MCL injury in July, surgery in August. Three months of PT three days a week. Slowly getting back on the bike. sigh…

  • Izrock

    Had my worst accident last year after over 25yrs of riding. Went over the bars on my first downhill run of the day. Surprisingly….no blood or problems immediately after the tumble. Continued riding and did another 10+ runs that day with no more issues until we had dinner that night and I began having discomfort in my jaw. Thought it was no big deal, I was WRONG! 2 days later I was in the oral surgeon’s chair having my cracked/crushed molar removed!!!! Apparently when you don’t wear a mouth guard and flip over your handlebars your lower jaw can smack into your upper jaw. That was the worst pain I have ever experienced! Positive, short recovery time. Now I tell everyone make sure you wear a mouth guard if you are going to ride technical trails.

  • wbike54az

    I am in my early 60’s and most of my bike injuries have been rib related injuries. Each time I wasn’t going fast but those slippery leaves and wet parallel roots reached out and grabbed me. It was 3-5 weeks of no riding each time.

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