A SERIES ABOUT RISK: ARTICLE #1
Risk Calamity and Injury
Risk. We're all familiar with it, but many of us don't want to give it much thought. It's so much easier to tuck it away to a safer place at the back of our mind. Just like fear, the less we think about risk, the less it interferes with enjoying the ride.
Over the next few months we are digging deeper into Risk. What does it mean to riders who make a living riding bikes? How do they process risk and balance it against the demands of their careers? We'll talk to professionals who understand the impact of risk on our psyche. What happens when the consequences of risk take a bad turn? We'll spend time with the doctors and nurses that fix us when it goes wrong and we get broken. What do they do to mitigate risk? We'll examine ways to make riding safer and that enable us to either take more risks, or be safer while taking the ones we already take. And finally, what can we, as regular riders, learn from all of this?
This is a multi-part series about some of the big and scary parts of our sport. Our Risk series is made possible in part by support from Your Financial Tree, who provide insurance to athletes - professional and amateur - and enable them to take risks with a little more peace of mind.
My worst injury was a conspiracy of inattention and equipment failure. I think.
In 2001 I was riding a Santa Cruz Bullit. It had been born orange but after both ends failed catastrophically and were replaced, at different times, it became a deep 90s BoXXer red. The Risse Racing rear shock I was trying out had blown at some point but I kept riding it for some reason. In my memory the suspension didn’t actually feel much worse.
It was the age of biker cross in the Whistler Bike Park. I was there for my buddy Cedric’s stag and while we were all riding, I was the only keen mountain biker. The course at the bottom of the Fitzsimmons Chair finished with a table that someone later told me was 35’ from the lip to the beginning of the tranny. In memory it’s 47. It was probably 23.
Maybe I was going a little fast for my skill level (virtually unavoidable) or maybe my weight was too far back. I think it’s fair to say I didn’t lay a satisfying Vanderham-style whip. Instead I got bucked and overshot the landing. The last thing I remember is thinking ‘oh fuck’ as my hips crossed the vertical plane of my handlebar. (this is the part where I apologize to and thank the first responders and medical staff - it is oddly challenging to summon gratitude for those you have no memory of)
The next thing I remember is regaining consciousness. I was walking through the Whistler Village with my friend Craig. It was almost dark and something like 5 hours after my crash. I had spent those 5 hours asking my patient* buddy two questions; “is something wrong with my lip?’ (as I poked my tongue through the hole in my face) and, “what happened? Once tallied I had punctured my lip below my nose, compressed a vertebrae to the point of fracture, taken most of the flesh off both my knees, (my pads slid down) and broken a few ribs, but pile driving my head into the hardpack was the only serious issue. And I had spent some indeterminate period unconscious, perhaps 5 minutes, emitting the call of a wounded burro.
* I don’t remember much but in the murky margin between semi and mostly conscious he actually seemed more mocking than patient. It was only five hours FFS.
I spent five months in a haze and in the 17 years since that time, my jackass friends have called me inventive names like ‘concussion boy’ every time I forget something trivial. Like their names. Actually I think I have made a full recovery, aside from the vulnerability that is a component of post-concussion syndrome. The best news is I can’t even remember the last time I banged my head...
If we thought about it too much we’d probably quit. NSMB.com denizens tend to ride aggressive terrain and to ride it appropriately. I don’t like saying it any more than you like hearing it, but injury is a possibility every time we put feet to pedals. Is that spectre part of the allure? I’m not so sure. If actual physical risk was a requirement for activities that suck in danger seekers, Fortnite, slasher flicks, and roller coasters wouldn’t exist.
I know very few riders who have always fallen into the casual category, likely because of both where I live and my chosen ‘profession.’ I do however know some who have become casual riders. Before I met my surgeon-neighbour, whose hands are slightly more useful and valuable than mine, he broke both wrists and was unable to wield his scalpel for six months (I don’t yet know the details ). He still rides but has forsaken gravity, choosing the few trails on the North Shore that go up and down very little. I have another friend who can’t fathom taking the sorts of risks that are well within the accepted range for many of us. His words convey admiration but his face suggests pity and bewilderment. And yet the gap between what he does on a bike - occasionally ride to the beach in the summer, - and what I do, is smaller than the gap between what I do and what Andreu Lacondeguy does. Risk tolerance is a relative concept.
There are a handful of riders who can go toe to toe with Andreu on the bike, but nobody seems to handle the pressure like he does. It’s like he is laughing at 50 foot drops at Rampage or 65 foot backflip tables at the Fest series for thinking they could mess with him. He comes off as invincible. And yet he has at times stepped away when he hasn’t felt comfortable, both at Crankworx and once when the wind at Rampage made his run even more dangerous. Maybe confidence is dependent on our ability to know when we should step away?
Within the treacherous realm of impolite trails, jumps and drops, we all take steps to manage our exposure. Turning my back on moves that used to be routine is okay with me now, on days when I’m not feeling it. Unfortunately management only goes so far when you ride your bike on the edges of civilization because randomness rarely works in our favour. Trails change from day to day, branches fall, saboteurs sabotage, bears and/or cougars appear, bicycle parts fail, our reckless buddy up front dislodges a baby head because of his heavy brake hand: unanticipated circumstances are part of the allure of playing in the woods or the desert, but they are also the most unruly peril we face.
A huge part of our industry is devoted to making strap-on bits to keep us out of hospital, but somehow that’s ‘gear.’ To me the reality behind helmets, braces, gloves and ‘armour’ is obscured by the level of denial that is essential for those of us who won’t stop doing stupid things on mountain bikes until we are forced to. Ours is also a sport that rewards and exults bravado, from the top to the bottom. What feels better than cleaning a rock face or a drop we’ve been eyeing up for years? We are like moths to flame.
MX riders face consequences that are usually more severe; when a lone mountain biker breaks a wrist at that very same moment a motocross rider has bisected a femur. Or two. More severe undoubtedly, but without the benefit of statistics, my impression is falls are less common in that realm. Feel free to correct me since my moto knowledge is limited (as if you needed permission). There are only so many femurs to go around. Roadies have cars and road furniture to deal with, and for racers, especially crit racers, falling is inevitable. But I think it’s fair to say that there are roadies who go years without crashing, and serious racers who go months, but mountain bikers sometimes crash multiple times on the same ride. Skiers and surfers can sometimes opt to fall into something soft. You can probably see what I’m getting at.
Mountain bikers aren’t the hard men and women of action sports. Bmx riders make most of us look like scooter kids. And yet when you correct for the lunacy of base jumping and wing suits, it’s tough to argue us off a 5-deep podium, after accurately adjusting for any biases I may have.
There is another adjustment to make as well. South of the border it was just announced that the life expectancy of American citizens dropped in consecutive years for the first time since 1916-1917 when both WW1 and the Spanish influenza eroded the numbers. The current plagues however are inactivity and obesity and more recently drug overdoses, suicides and liver disease have moved the needle back further. Compared to the average North American human, most mountain bikers look like junkies. That’s not a perfect analogy, but the 20lbs of fat most adults gain every 10 years is closer to 3-4 for my mountain biking friends. And for some it’s gone the other way as they eat more kale. Cro Magnon kale. My MTB buddies may not feel great all the time, but they look pretty good for their ages.* And that is probably a relatively reliable indicator.
*just ask them
So. Sorry, Not sorry. We’re going to talk about these perils. You may not want to tune in, but our hope is that it’s a productive exploration, so we hope you will read, enjoy, and even participate in the discussion. I have spoken to pro riders like Matt Hunter, Miranda Miller and Jesse Melamed about how they recovered from their worst injuries and I talked to Matt Macduff about why he calls the crash in South Africa that easily could have killed him, “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” We are going to talk about protective gear, speak to a man who recently sustained a spinal injury and investigate the upside of participating in a sport that engages most muscles in our body, increases adrenaline concentration, and taxes our cardiovascular system. As well as sometimes busting us up. We’ll also talk about the psychology of risk and what makes some people seek out danger while others go to incredible lengths to avoid it. Finally we delve into the secretive world of bike park injuries by speaking to ER staff from Whistler and elsewhere to line up any convergences that may lead to increased injury risk.
Once a month we’ll be releasing an article that examines the impacts, both positive and negative, of engaging in an activity that virtually guarantees some level of injury on occasion. Look for the next instalment on January 15th.
It could even be that the boogie man becomes less scary when we stop pretending he’s not there.