Accidental Progress: Embracing the Inner Idiot and ‘Oh, Sh*t’ Moment Payoffs

Sometimes we find mountain bike skills progression through pure accident.

On a recent ride a half day’s road trip from home, I made a spot decision to cut a trail at high (for me) speed onto a plateau that I knew led to a set of wooden ramps I enjoy. I’m not sure why I made this decision, other than it just felt good at that particular moment.

The problematic nature of this line choice was almost immediately made evident to me, however, as I realized that a group of riders had stopped on the plateau and were blocking the usual exit I had intended to use. As the stationary riders looked on in shock, I flew past, still believing that a solution to this problem would present itself. Brain to rider: “Remain calm. All is well.” 

“No problem,” my helmet-encased-think-tank flashed, “I’ll just go off the side…Here.” 

It was only then that my eyes spied what lay ahead in the gully I was dropping into. 

“Oh shit.”

Very bad choice. This was going to be no picnic. There was no longer a way to stop. After successfully dodging those paused on the plateau, I shot off the ledge into the gully. 

That I am writing this reveals that I survived intact, though I have absolutely no idea how I emerged out the bottom of that cross-graded, root mangled, tall weed grown monstrosity. It did look amazing, though — as if I had planned it all along — my “I meant to do that,” moment. But my internal “I survived” adrenaline rush told the real story. After coming to a stop (post wooden ramp jump, of course) my buddies pedaled into view, wide eyed and chuckling. Together we burst into hysterical laughter. “I made it” is a serious high. 

I have an unfortunate propensity for riding “oh shit” lines. If you are aware of what I’m referring to — and in the immortal words of Bill Murray (playing attorney Ken Bowden), “and I believe you are,” you know this is a line not so much chosen as much as “resulting from.” This type of line is the result of an almost pure combination of recklessness and poor decision making, often bordering on idiocy, usually with no bail-outs available. Realization of what is about to occur dawns upon the rider with extreme speed and typically manifests itself in the brain with the onset of the phrase such lines are named for. Does that sound familiar?

On that day, my riding crew knew exactly what had just happened. They are regulars on the “oh shit” circuit as well. On a ride down that same trail network’s nastiest trail, perhaps 20 days prior to my “gully ride,” my pal TC had led me on one of these lines resulting from new obstacles on a recently rebuilt trail we were riding for the first time.

“There used to be a line on the right that was safe.” But TC’s brain was suddenly faced with the realization that it was gone. There was no way to stop. No bailouts existed.

Dropping off that rock ledge that appeared out of nowhere, he saw for the first time what lay beneath, and it was what we refer to as “no bueno.” There was barely time to prepare for the precipitous drop that waited on a second ledge that had appeared out of nowhere. “All is well. Remain calm!”

As we stood laughing hysterically beyond the second drop, he shared with me his thoughts as the front wheel had gone over that first ledge.

“This may not go well.” 

Poor decision making being a dominant factor in our riding that day, I had been right on his rear wheel, experiencing very similar emotions. Adrenaline flooded our nervous systems. We made it.

This is not to say that we are full-time morons out there endangering ourselves and others; we are actually considerate riders who take a cautious approach to new most difficult rated trails we are unfamiliar with. But we do have moments when our inner monologue signs checks our actual abilities may or may not be able to pay. Yet, in mountain biking parlance, this could be referred to as progress.

Progress is a funny thing. The very concept is defined more by individual goals than universality. Progress for one rider may be mastery of a particularly gnarly downhill. For others it could just as easily be completion of an epic number of XC miles. I would venture a well-considered guess that for most, progress is merely related to an enhanced ability to have fun, via mastery of ever more trails and trail features in a safe manner. Yet, regardless of your definition of the term, mountain biking progress will eventually require payment via pain, and once you have experienced said pain, the majority of us work quite hard to avoid repeat performances. And there, my friends, is the rub. 

Getting airborne (a new thing for me) recently sent me over the bars on a 10ft path of desperate attempts at course correction. Bloody failure. A week later, I witnessed TC drop off into a difficult landing, fail to recover before a gap jump, smash a landing off trail and go careening past me through the woods for 15 yards before he was able to self-arrest, somehow without injury. 

“It’s not the take-offs, it’s the landings, buddy.” 

Our pal “Maple Leaf Man,” in the midst of heavenly-singletrack-flow, attempted a mid-trail manual for the first time. Those look cool. The resulting wreck nearly cost him the teeth he hadn’t lost already playing hockey. The “Kaz” broke his nose modeling “downhill racer” on a barely all-mountain-bike, barreling down a Colorado downhill trail. It might be time to look into full-face helmets. He followed that with a broken forearm descending a Colorado enduro trail. Lots of “careening” in Colorado with the Kaz. The rock garden, at that speed, may require some additional progress. Pain, and the amount of it suffered, is relative to, and grows directly in proportion to the amount of risk taken. This much I am well aware of.

There is a gap jump at my local trail that I am sure I could handle. I’ve studied the feature in detail, and watched friends and other riders handle it with ease. I know it is there, I know how to avoid it. There will be no “oh shit,” accidental rides of this gap jump by yours truly. The practical side of my 50-year-old brain will not let me ride it; I see pain in that jump. I have experienced pain on smaller jumps. I prefer not to have pain. So, I am stuck at abject refusal to attempt gap jumps of a certain size. In all likelihood, I will remain stuck until a bout of reckless ignorance launches me off one of these suckers, at which time I will find out if I have the skill to handle it…by accident. 

I suspect this is a common feature amongst riders of virtually all ability levels. As a novice rider, I can distinctly recall thinking “oh shit” when dropping down what was then a “steep” slope, or over a small jumble of rocks, or even down a staircase. As an intermediate rider, those same obstacles became barely noticeable. At some point later, defcon-5 moved from “jumble of rocks” to “plateau gully” and “double rock drop ledge.” 

“Oh. Whaddya know…I can do that.” Once you’re on that other side caution gets pushed into smaller and smaller corners of your cranium, and the “oh shit” lines become more common. The cycle of accidental progress, or pain, accelerates. 

Returning to our local trail network–where we thought we knew every rock, every root, and every drop– we began to take note of some new “optional lines” we never would have attempted, and in some cases didn’t know existed. 

“When did that rock pile a few feet to the right get there?” And why was it suddenly mighty enticing? Progress. 

“I’m pretty sure there’s a line there.” How had we not noticed this jumble of gully-chunder next to the wooden down-ramp before? My buddies pondered the sketchy rocks and roots and old timbers. 

Then there is the spot on the hill we have rolled seemingly a thousand times on prior rides: no big deal. And yet…

“Ya know, I think this actually may be a jump.” 

Johnny Tee’s gives it the once over look and turns his bike back up the hill. Only one way to find out. Minutes later he is airborne with a heavy, back wheel landing.

“Yup, just need more speed.” 

As rational older riders, we know we should make better choices — what one of our buddies refers to as: “age-appropriate hobbies.” But we all hate golf. So, we continue to find our new comfort zones, and dip our toes into the “oh shit” pool every so often. Sometimes this is planned, but often not. Occasionally, we find we could now handle what lay in the way. Other times we suffer the return to cautious. The needle on the skill-o-meter may occasionally get stuck at “comfortable,” until the next accidental blind roll-in you survive. Maybe somewhere on this journey we had become better riders than we realized. Other times we are reminded of the inner idiot in all of us. But damn it’s fun.