Commander Crash McLarson, that’s probably what my name should be at this point. Crashing sucks and it’s been a bad year for crashes. In all the years I’ve been a mountain biker I can remember at least 6 big, helmet cracking crashes. So far this year I’ve had 4, although only one was a helmet cracker.
As I sit writing this now, I’ve just had what are among two of my most severe crashes ever within 6 days of each other. In the first, I was going north on Blue Sky in the rain and wanting to get back to the car. I was approaching the tunnel under the county road at mach 6 (like I have literally hundreds of other times) and the instant my wet, sandy tires hit the concrete the bike disappeared out from under me. This caused me to slide about 30 feet down the tunnel on my side at mach 6. The only thing I really remember was yelling F___K!!! at the top of my lungs as I felt layer after layer of skin being peeled off my right arm and leg. As I came to a stop, still tangled in my miraculously unscathed bike, the last reverberations of my exclamation still echoed through the tunnel.
Crash number two that happened six days later was pure stupidity on my part but it involved an alternate line, a blind jump/drop, and landing front wheel first on a perfect wedge shaped rock which sent me head first in to another perfectly shaped helmet cracking rock. Apart from a bruised and cut up knee and sore neck, I wasn’t as injured as the last crash, my bike one the other hand had a tacoed rear wheel and bent rail on the saddle. Along with the cost of replacing the BRAND NEW helmet that was on its second ride (ditto for the saddle…ditto for the bike, actually) that ended up being an expensive bit of misjudgment.
Crashing sucks not only because of injury and expense but the fact that it’s so damn demoralizing has got to be the worst part of it. After big crashes, I don’t have any confidence in anything; I ride slow and squirrely and target fixate on everything that I’m sure is going to kill me on the trail. I feel like I have crash PTSD and can’t relax, concentrate, flow, or enjoy myself.
After a big crash, or a series of them as has been the case recently, I always try to analyze where I went wrong because that’s just how I work. I feel pretty fortunate because my childhood of BMX and long history of mountain biking means that I rarely go ass over teakettle but I have come to the realization that my experience may be part of the problem.
One of the most common causes of crashing in my case is overconfidence. I’m not talking overconfidence like ‘Yeah, I can clear that 30 foot gap no problem’ I’m talking overconfidence like ‘I’ve ridden this line/ trail a zillion times before without an incident so I’m not even thinking about it’. I guess another way to look at it would be to call it complacency; one gets confident in their skills and speed on a particular stretch of dirt and gets a little sloppy, or tired, or distracted, and wham, it’s over.
The opposite can also bite you. I think that big, technical, fast, or burly lines are as much mental as physical and when you start questioning your skills, line choices, or ability in the middle of it all, that’s a perfect recipe for crash-disaster.
Another problem in my case is forgetting what bike I’m on and the limitations of the bike that I’m on. I do most of my high speed and technical descending on a long travel, full suspension bike. The beauty of a bike like this is that it lets you go really, really fast through really gnarly terrain. Because long travel bikes tend to be rather forgiving of poor line choices, unseen obstacles, or general ‘oh s**t’ moments, you start to feel pretty invincible after a while. 3 out of 4 of my crashes this year have been on a hardtail and it’s totally my fault because I was expecting the hardtail to work the way a 6” travel bike works when you make a bad decision. As full suspension bikes have gotten better and better, my descending times have gotten faster and faster. I forget how much I have to slow down on a hardtail in those situations. I now have to consciously remind myself that the descending speed that I’m used to and that feels ‘right’ applies to long travel only. For the hardtail ‘right’ is about 25-30% slower and the bike won’t automatically soak up mistakes; that’s my job.
I’ve talked to several people who don’t want to ride mountain bikes because of the crash potential. The truth is, crashing a mountain bike is all on the rider. The terrain is what it is and the rocks aren’t moving. If you crash, it’s your fault. If you don’t want to crash, walk your bike through the area you’re not sure about. Dealing with the variables of cars or group rides on the road is not something I’m up for. If I crash I want it to be my fault, not someone else’s mistake that takes me down.
A couple things I’m actually in awe over are the ability of a modern bicycle helmet to absorb kinetic energy and protect one’s brain and the ability of a middle aged human body to absorb kinetic energy without any real serious or permanent injury.
I think I’ve cracked 7 helmets in the past 25 years (4 in the last 3 years) and survived without a scratch, concussion, broken skull, paralysis, or death. In 5 out of those 7 head impacts I can’t even imagine what would have happened If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet. There’s a possibility I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, that’s for sure. One wouldn’t think that a cheesy Styrofoam bowl sitting on top of your head could do all that, but brother, it does it and does it well. I think I’ve retired more helmets to the rocks than I have due to age and I’m always blown away by their ability to do their job. Thank you, helmets!
I’m fortunate that I’ve never been seriously or permanently injured (knocking on wood) while mountain biking ( I do have one permanent BMX injury). All of my injuries have boiled down to road rash, cuts, or bruises, and I’m pretty sure I broke a pinky once but that’s the only thing I’ve broken. Out of all of these, road rash is the worst; in many ways road rash it the worst injury period. It hurts like hell 24/7, takes a long time to heal, and depending on where it is you may not be able sleep, wear clothes, or shower. You inevitably bang it or scrape it against something at some point and want to scream at the top of your lungs. It itches like crazy as it heals and everyone is constantly asking what happened. Crashing sucks for sure but road rash sucks 10,000% more.
I’m definitely not proud of my crashes but I can learn something from them. The immediate effect of crashing is that it slows me down and causes me to re-evaluate things like technique and mortality. Once the confidence returns and the crash PTSD disappears, I’m likely to be a little more humble and a better rider who is more concerned with self-preservation. As much as I love speed and have a hard time resisting the urge to go really fast, there are numerous places in the area where an ill-timed rock ricochet could send one off trail in to a life threatening situation in the blink of an eye. I never thought about this much before but I have been lately and it’s slowing me down quite a bit.
I have seen the frustration of beginning riders dealing with the steep learning curve that comes with learning to ride off-road and my heart goes out to them. I couldn’t imagine learning mountain biking skills as an adult. The only advice I can give you if you’re in this boat is to keep riding, keep learning, practice those skills, and don’t quit. If it makes you feel any better, we all crash, every one of us, so you’re definitely not alone.
I was so pissed off and fed up after my last crash that I stopped and bought a new helmet and saddle on the way home, replaced the tacoed wheelset on my bike, got up at 5:30 the next morning and rode 29 miles through both of my previous crash sites just to prove that I could complete a ride without crashing. The good thing is that I didn’t crash, had a good time, and feel 100% better about things.
In the world of aviation, they say that a good landing is any landing you walk away from. I think we can probably steal that one for our purposes here as well. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘good crash’ but as long as you walk (or limp) away, things are going to be all right.