When I was about 6, some local kids, teenagers, built a little plywood bridge over the rain ditch that separated our houses from the woods, the easier to access the system of dirt jumps they’d made there. As the youngest of the cycling horde in the neighborhood, they teased me until I turned my wheel to their narrow bridge and started across, terrified I’d fall in.
I fell in.
I plodded home, dripping wet, and wheeled my bike into the garage. I was sure I’d be in trouble. I pounded on the basement door. When my parents opened it, I burst into tears. They burst out laughing.
This was my first bike-based trauma.
I don’t have a great recollection of my evolution from that kid who fell in the ditch to the one who would pedal full tilt at a piece of plywood propped against a stack of bricks, hurling himself as high into the air as possible before landing rear wheel first on a flat driveway. We jumped bricks for distance. We laid down in front of the ramp and jumped each other. I had no fear then, just a burning desire to jump farther than anyone else.
When I got to college, I found a bike and took to city riding with that youthful sense of invulnerability that people find so irritating. I’d slalom through traffic, jump a curb, run a light. That changed after the first time I got hit by a car.
As I got older, I increasingly lived a split existence, urban assault idiot during the week, woods bombing mountain biker on the weekends. The skill sets overlapped in ways that some would find surprising. But as I mellowed in my approach to getting around town, the woods remained as a place to dare, to try things I wasn’t sure I could do. If no one else was going for an obstacle, I’d throw myself at it, and sometimes I’d even come through unscathed.
What I lack in skill, I try to make up for in willingness. Some would say that’s reckless, but what I’ve learned is that the bike will sometimes ride something that I don’t know how to ride myself. In other words, sometimes you just have to put yourself there and see what happens. For me, good things have almost always come from taking risks on the bike.
Your results may vary.
This week’s TCI Friday asks, what’s the craziest thing you’ve done on a bike? Have you ever surprised yourself with a bit of skill you didn’t know you had? Or maybe what you did that was nuts was endurance-based, and you found out you had more in the tank than you thought possible? Amazing things happen, as I said, when you put yourself out there.
20 years ago I taught myself how to bunny hop. At the time, I didn’t know why. I’m wasn’t a mountain or bmx rider, it just seemed like a good thing for my body to know how to do. Since then there have been 3-5 times when I’ve used that skill to avoid disaster on road or gravel rides. Seeing an obstacle (hole, branch, etc) in my path that was too close to avoid, before I knew it, I had hopped right over the other side without conscious thought. After rolling out the other side the adrenaline would hit and I’d replay the whole thing in slow motion. After each of those events, I was acutely aware of why I learned to bunny hop, but I’m still not sure I can bunny hop on demand. It’s just something that seems to happen to avoid disaster.
I’ve fallen headfirst off a 6’ high improvised teetertotter in the woods, ridden the Slickrock Trail in Moab in mid-July(!), and commuted in downtown traffic through dark winter nights… but by far the craziest thing I’ve ever done was a massive unplanned group descent of a winding 2-lane mountain road down a narrow gorge in France following the Luz-Ardiden stage of the ‘94 Tour de France. The gendarmes held back all of us cyclotouristes at the top of the road until all the team buses and cars had gone down. There must have been several hundred of us, of wildly varying skill levels, from all around the world, with no language in common except the burning desire to ride fast. We were all amped up on pro bike racing, hot summer weather, the Pyrenees, and the adrenalin of anticipation. When they finally let us go, it was like a dam had broken and we charged down the road as one, no brakes, big-ring spun out, handlebar to handlebar, wheels practically touching, a torrent of riders as far as the eye could see. We hit 40-50 mph as we carved down that strip of chip-seal, with a sheer rock wall looming above us to our right and an equally sheer drop to the river on our left. All I could do was trust, focus, and hope that our collective flow state would carry us safely through…. To this day I still don’t know how we all made it down that narrow gorge without anyone crashing. It was an extraordinary experiment in collective insanity.
Years ago, my friend Pete invited me to join him up in Exeter NH to meet his bud Sully and ride the local trails. OK, so first, have you ever met someone named Sully that wasn’t some kind of crazy?
We’re following Sully on his local trails where he knows every line and I’m doing everything I can to survive and not embarrass myself. These were twisty trails where you didn’t know what was around the corner – ever. I turn one corner going at speed and in front of me is a swamp with a “bridge” that was maybe 12″ wide just above the water. It looked like a 2×4. And it was pretty long, like maybe 10 seconds of riding. And I think it had a slight turn in it. This was awhile ago, and the details are fuzzy, but I do remember doing everything I could to NOT panic and just ride.
I haven’t seen Pete in a long time. I’d like to get refreshed on the details of that bridge. There’s a good chance my imagination has gone a little wild and this is just another fish story….