“That’s what my girlfriend says every time I ride,” said a friend. “I feel like if I come back wrecked, she’s going to say, ‘I TOLD you.'”
“Stay safe out there” is a well-meaning parting line that sounds sweet, but somehow doesn’t sit well with me. Like anyone wants to get hurt? And what is staying safe, anyway? Wet roots, powdery turns, gravel in any weather. Riding is risky. Do those words really help?
Because I ride by myself most of the time, it feels like the territory covered by “stay safe out there” extends beyond crashes to the realm of creepy strangers. In talking with women friends, this is the number one reason they cite for not riding alone. Sometimes it’s their excuse by proxy: “My husband/friend doesn’t feel good about it.” I’m silent at this point, because I’m lucky enough to have a husband who understands the need for occasional solitude and who sends me off with “Have fun out there,” an infinitely better phrase for both marriage and mindset.
Here in Cascadia, hostilities against cyclists on trails are very rare, and more likely to be perpetrated by four-footed beasts. A Seattle mountain biker was killed by a cougar in 2018. Anguishing. The stuff of nightmares. But this death was the first and only of its kind in our state’s history.
Closer to home, a mountain biker on my local trails barely survived a black bear attack. “He came around a turn and it was right there,” said the friend who told me what happened. “He tried to block it with the bike frame, but what can you do with 300 pounds of fury?” Details in local news confirmed the horror: the bear mauled the rider’s face, ripped his shoulder muscles away from his arm, tore his side, and bit off his ear. Not bit, bit off. He fought back and lived.
When I first heard this bear attack story, I hoped that “Three Hundred Pounds of Fury” was an 80s action film starring Brando and Eastwood. But the story also scared me. I was starting to solo more trails than roads, and I wondered how I might stay safe in territory shared with wild things. I began riding with Grandpa Red’s old .22 Beretta in an arm holster. Not that it could do much damage, but maybe the noise would help.
“Nice hooker gun,” said my friend Charlie when he saw me one day at the trailhead. “What’s that for?”
“Um, I’m staying safe out there?”
“You’re ripping through the woods at 20 mph and that’s what you’re doing to stay safe? Buy some pads.”
We both started laughing. Charlie’s risk assessment was far more accurate than mine.
In the hundreds of subsequent rides I’ve taken on Northwest trails, I’ve met bears only half a dozen times, always loping away from me, but I’ve met more crashes than I can count. I won’t bore you with a scar list. You have your own.
Obviously, a phrase isn’t going to keep us safe any more than Grandpa Red’s gun. “Stay safe out there” is little more than a cheap talisman of hope, almost like “Have a nice day.” But where words fail, an honest risk assessment might help.
My current method hails from a mountaineering friend, Stefan Lofgren, who counts red flags. Bad weather? Red flag. Dark? Red flag. I added my own: Riding with someone new? Awesome, but, red flag. Brakes squishy? Red flag. Not feeling the mojo? Red flag. The list goes on. Stefan’s rule is “two flags, proceed with caution; three flags, reconsider/modify the plan; four flags, no go.” This isn’t foolproof, and depends on your level of awareness and experience, but it does provide a measure of possible peril.
A veteran friend compares extreme sports to combat, though our foolery in the woods is no equivalent to the imminence of a firefight. He says, “80% of combat is predictable. You can train for it. You can train for fear; you can train for ambushes. It’s the other stuff that messes with your battle rhythm, like having someone green on your team.” Red flag.
I’m not sure if mountaineers or soldiers have phrases that are any better than “Stay safe out there.” “Don’t get hurt?” “Keep your head down?” Or like Harley owners say, “Keep the rubber side down?” Should we look to the reverse psychology of the theatre for something like “Break a leg?” Or to the Italians, who say before any scary endeavor, “In bocca al lupo!” It means, “Into the mouth of the wolf!” The rote response is “Crepi!” or “May the wolf die.” As much as I love the symbolism of that sentiment, it’s tough to picture anyone I know spouting it before a ride.
Maybe “stay safe out there” is good enough. Maybe I should be more gracious toward those who really care about my safety. And maybe it would be less annoying if I let that phrase serve to remind me that there are risks to be assessed, there is a battle rhythm to maintain, and that we all should pause to look into the mouth of the wolf before hitting the pedals.
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