Well, here we are again, another reflection piece by an injured mountain biker. I can assure you though, I will not walk through a lengthy anecdote that ultimately leads to the universal conclusion of, “life is short… mountain bike more.” This is an undeniable truth of our world and one that I know we are all aware of.

I’m sure some of you reading this can recall a recent conversation with a friend, family member, or co-worker regarding the fragility of life. The grim conversation was likely prompted by a natural disaster, the news of a loved one being diagnosed with an illness, or a car accident on the way to work. Whenever we are hit with these topics, there are naturally two paths to choose from. Some opt to retreat while others focus on what is within their control and push forward.

The concept of control is interesting in the world of mountain biking. Each and every time we decide to hit the trails, whether it’s a loop you’ve ridden a thousand times or you’re preparing for an unknown epic, controlling variables is critical, even life-saving. Going through the pre-ride preparation, I will constantly visualize scenarios that could arise and try to develop a strategy for managing the hypothetical situation.

Personally, I love this element of the mountain biking process. Especially if I am planning a long solo ride in new terrain, the element of the unknown will always be exciting. I may spend just as much time preparing for a ride as actually riding.

The moment my tires hit the dirt, though, all of the pre-ride planning fades. This is where we–mountain bikers–are operating in the moment. This is where the unconscious cognitive processes take over and we become one with the trail. We are in a state of constant variable control, anticipating rocks, roots, a slick corner, a washed out berm. All other variables are irrelevant when you are actually in motion on the trail. The ride quickly becomes an equation. Even if you don’t realize it, we are in a constant state of risk management. This is part of the game we play. There is an understanding on every ride that thousands and thousands of risks are present–how we manage risks and operate efficiently is the most interesting equation.

The odd part is, it is a pretty simple equation, though we encounter thousands of variables on a single ride. I often find myself daydreaming and visualizing the next trail section, the next climb, an imaginary wildlife encounter (which is a useless practice on the bike). When I step out of the present moment mentally and spend too much time thinking about the past or the potential future along the trail, my performance will always be sub-optimal.

On the other hand, though, when I am moving with fluidity on the trail, being patient with my progress and enjoying every pedal stroke, my experience morphs into a meditative form of awareness where I am operating completely and totally in the flow state.

This became evident on my last ride of the fall season in Colorado. I was riding the new Tenderfoot trails, my local loop that I am very familiar with. The morning was spectacular as always, and I was fortunate enough to get out before the sunrise and enjoy it from the saddle. When I hit this particular section of fast, flowy singletrack between the pines, I found myself in an equally flowy state of mind.

Unfortunately, I missed one variable and hit a loose patch on an off-camber turn and washed my front tire out. The previous miles of flowing came to an abrupt halt when I hit the dirt at 18mph. I immediately did a body scan and knew the impact was severe, with the possibility of a few broken ribs (based on past experience). The only option I had was to take the 5-mile descent to the trailhead, which is about a mile from my house, with ease. If anyone has ridden this trail they’ll understand what a bummer it was, because the new downhill section the Friends of Dillon Ranger District completed this year is wildly-fun.

In the days following, I had quite a bit of time to reflect on this particular ride and what went wrong. Fortunately, the diagnosis was blunt force trauma to the abdomen and damaged ligaments in the ribcage: no broken bones or damage to my spleen or lungs. The experience became much heavier when the doctor notified me that they incidentally identified a pulmonary nodule in my lung. While there isn’t much concern now due to my age and general health, it certainly opened my eyes to how quickly things can take a turn and re-emphasized the importance of only focusing on what is within my control. My future holds additional CAT scans, but I’ve come to realize there is no sense in retreating as this is my path, and I have no choice but to move forward on it.

As it turns out, I guess am going to conclude by saying, “life is short… mountain bike more.” Here is to you all being patient in your progress on the trail and staying in the moment out there because in the blink of an eye, it could all disappear.

# Comments

  • Timm Muth

    Mike, you hit the key thought for me : “… in the blink of an eye, it could all change.”
    Sickness, death, infirmary – you never know when they’re coming, but you can grow from it.

    In one of his books, Carlos Castenada said, “I became conscious that Death is always my companion, always watching over my shoulder.” At the time, that seemed really macabre, but now I understand. After seeing friends and loved ones fall by the wayside, I realize that there is no time for love, joy, and triumph better than today, right now. So enjoy the ride, every day, even if you can’t get on the bike.

  • rmap01

    Sorry to hear of your mishap. I’ve certainly sustained my fair share of mountain biking injuries over the years (many over the bars, lol). I hear all the time from family and friends about the risks especially for those of us on the wrong side of 50. It’s true that MTB carries more risk than many other activities. So why do we do it? Why take the risk? But isn’t there risk in everything we do – or even don’t do? What many fail to realize is that a sport like MTB’ing offers significant health (and mental) benefits for riders that are hard to quantify from a “risk reduction” standpoint. What I mean by that is how many heart attacks or CV events were “prevented” because individuals took to MTBing? How many MTB’ers live healthier, more productive and happier lives because of the sport? I realize these are extremely difficult (if not impossible) questions to answer but I do believe they deserve to be considered within the broader context of “risk”. Aside from the health aspects, the enjoyment I get from the challenge is far superior than the “added risk” I acknowledge I am taking every time I head out on the trail. But, like you, this is my path.

    Hope you heal up quickly so you can get back out there!

  • mongwolf

    Wow, great thoughts rmap !!!!!!! It seems the health benefits of mountain biking are often spoken of but rarely in the context/discussion about the health risks of mtbing. I say that as I am presently rehabbing a lower leg deep gash I got 30 days ago on a ride in CO. LOL. I didn’t go to the doc — I know, I know — but I’ve dealt with many wounds in my life. This one though just wouldn’t close up right. The infection was constant and quite deep but never out of control. Finally, only yesterday, did it finally turn a corner enough to where I certain I’m coming out of the woods. But what did I do the days immediately after getting the gash? I kept on riding. Ha !!!!!!!!! I only had about a week left in Colorado before returning to Mongolia and ending the riding season … There was no way I going to stop riding. To me, moving forward means “ride on” if at all possible.

  • mongwolf

    Mike, I loved your article and especially your thought about planning long solo rides in new terrain. Long solo exploration rides definitely have inherent risks in them, but nothing is more satisfying in mountain biking to me — the preparation, the anticipation, the map work, the sat image work, the actual exploration and navigation on trail, not knowing when a long grueling climb will end, the thrill of flying down a long descent for the first time, being encompassed by the immensity of nature, taking on a mountain and the challenge it brings on a given day. All this enriches our lives to such a degree that the risks pale in comparison. And even in the moment when things do go wrong, there is still no doubt in my mind that it was all more than worth it. Do we want to just be alive, or do we want to really live? I choose the later.

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