moo cowsThis is an opinion piece by Reno Toffoli. Reno’s opinions don’t necessary represent the opinions of Your Group Ride or its advertisers but I always enjoy his rants. If you’d like to write an article for YGR, please email me at

 Fear. We all live with it, right? As a kid, I remember being scared of things that didn’t exist or weren’t very likely to happen. Things like ghosts and monsters and the nebulous void that was ‘The Dark’. As we age, our fears change. Sometime in my early 20s, I remember thinking that the scariest thing I could think of was losing my job…ah, yes…welcome to adulthood. I suppose that plenty of folks still fear things that don’t exist or aren’t very likely to happen but that’s probably a different conversation for a different time.

The other day, I was out on my bike and feeling very Zen about life and I started thinking about the things that scare me when I’m riding. Back when I rode freestyle, fear was always part of the equation. That kind of riding was all about overcoming fear to pull off seemingly impossible stunts. This fact makes freestyle riding about 90% mental with a big part of that 90% consisting of convincing your brain to launch into the void while riding a big piece of chromoly with a lot of sharp, pointy bits sticking out of it. If you can’t or don’t overcome the fear in these situations, you get hurt. You have to commit to the task and follow through with it and when you do this you usually end up just fine.

Mountain biking occasionally brings up these fears in me but not very often. People are always telling me that they’re scared of mountain biking because there are rocks and you can crash and get hurt. The way I look at it, the rocks are stationary and therefore predictable. It’s pretty easy to simply stop, and walk up or down something if you’re not feeling it. Even better, you could repeatedly try it until you can do it. It’s still mostly mental, and you’ve got to commit and follow through once you drop in to whatever void it is you’re dropping into. Mental commitment is the biggest thing in these situations. Changing your mind (or line) half way through a maneuver always leads to disaster.

My counter to the ‘mountain biking is scary’ argument is that road biking is scary. In this case, there are these things that are often a lot bigger and heavier than rocks with unpredictable humans controlling them; that’s scary to me. I realize that the statistical chances of being in a collision with a car on a road bike are pretty slim but I’ll admit that it’s an irrational fear that I have and it only takes one. Plus, I just think that riding on dirt is more fun but that’s also probably a different conversation for a different time.

So, I take that stuff out of the equation and that leaves me with things I can’t control while riding off-road. There are two of them and they are, coincidentally, also the two things that scare me the most these days while riding my bike. These two things are close encounters with animals and weather.

Close encounters with animals can actually be pretty cool or rather funny. They can also scare you half to death. I’ve laughed as I’m bombing down a trail and any number of startled bunnies decides to drag race me as they try to get out of the way. Little mammals scurrying about are probably harmless, that is until you hit one. Around 20 years ago, I was bombing down a trail in Theodore Wirth park in Minneapolis (which is a fairly awesome little chunk of wilderness within the city limits) and a squirrel shot out in front of me, zigged, zagged, and then got run over by my bike. There was absolutely nothing I could do other than hold on. I was going well over 20 miles an hour and there was no way I could have avoided the collision. I just rolled over the squirrel; thump, thump. The squirrel darted back off into the woods and I was laughing so hard I nearly crashed. To this day, thinking about that still cracks me up. Ok, so that close encounter was still harmless (At least to me) but it could have ended up a lot worse.


Another one of my favorite close encounters was with a rattlesnake. I’ve seen lots of rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the singletrack over the years and I think they’re cool. I used to have a couple (non-rattle) snakes and consider myself a friend to snakes so it really bugs me when people aren’t nice to them. A few years ago I was riding Blue Sky and came upon a little prairie rattlesnake sitting in the trail. I had just passed someone Indian Summer Rattlesnakehiking with a dog and didn’t want them to see the snake and freak out or the dog to get bit so I decided to move the snake off the trail. I have done this many times before and, since I’m familiar with snakes, I can do it safely if I can find a nice long stick to use. In this particular case, I couldn’t find a suitable stick so I decided to use the front wheel of my bike to kind of brush the snake off the trail and convince it to go back into the underbrush. The snake didn’t think this was a good idea and was striking at the sidewall of my tire the whole time I was trying to move it. Eventually, I got it off the trail, it went on its merry way, and I did too.

The next morning, I went out to the garage to clean my bike up and noticed that I had a flat front tire. This was strange to me because I didn’t remember anything that would have caused this to happen. (I had forgotten all about the snake). I took the tube out to patch it and see what was going on and fount 2 tiny little pinholes, a perfect fang-width apart in the side of the tube. It took me a minute to remember but I laughed as I thought of the little rattlesnake striking at my tire and patched up the tube.

I’ve had many encounters with interesting animals off the bike, especially black bears. Fortunately these have been at a safe distance and we all just went our separate ways after staring at each other for a couple minutes. The scariest encounter I’ve ever had with a wild animal was the time I was hiking on a trail in northern Minnesota and as I came around a corner there was a bull moose facing me, looking really pissed off, and like it would like nothing better than to mow me down. I don’t even remember what I did. I think that once I could actually move, I hightailed it into the woods off the trail thinking that the moose couldn’t follow me through the dense trees.

Riding near my house last year, I came around a corner in a little wooded section of single track and there was a startled baby skunk facing me and ready to fire. I really didn’t want to yield in this case so I yelled at the skunk and thrust my bike at it a couple times until it decided that I wasn’t worth dealing with and it went off the trail into the woods. As I went by the spot where the skunk went in to the woods I was half expecting it to blast me once for good measure but was glad when it didn’t.

Another crazy close encounter I had in my neighborhood was with a baby deer that was with its mother and when I came along I startled the mother away over a fence. The baby deer was just sitting in the trail in camouflage mode and there were people with a loose dog behind me so I picked up the deer and put it over the fence, out of the dog’s way with its mother watching me the whole time from a safe distance.

As interesting as these encounters with wild animals have been, for the most part, they didn’t scare me. The encounters with animals that really scare me have to do with domestic animals, specifically dogs , horses, and cattle.

I’m admittedly not a big fan of dogs, especially ill behaved dogs (and ill-behaved owners). I’ve been run down by more dogs than I care to count and have gotten to the point where I’m not shy about unclipping a foot from a pedal and clocking a dog right between the eyes with a cleat if it chooses to get that close. An angry owner can say anything they want but if your dog isn’t on a leash and you’re not in control of it, that’s your fault, not mine; I really don’t want to get bitten by a dog. I regularly ride a neat little off road circuit around my house in the dark and have taken to carrying mace to deal with dogs. I’ve haven’t sprayed one yet but I have had the mace drawn and aimed more than once.

It’s pretty easy to kick or mace a rouge dog away but cattle?  Nope, that’s not going to happen. Soapstone prairie… am I right?  You ride along just minding your own business and suddenly there are 25 cattle in the trail that don’t really feel like doing much other than standing right where they are. If you’re lucky, they’ll move if you ride slowly and yell at them but, who knows what they could also do and don’t forget that each one weighs as much as a compact car. It’s really fun when some little bull wants to get all macho and starts snorting at you and making these motions like he wants to play bull fight. A couple years ago during the Laramie Enduro, I was with a group of 4 or 5 riders on The Climb That Never Ends when we came across a group of steers on the trail in front of us who were acting like we had red capes and funny little hats. We actually had to stop because these guys were lined up at the side of the trail and we were pretty sure that as soon as we tried to go by they were going to take us out one at a time. We didn’t know what to do and there was no other way around the situation so someone just decided to go…slowly… and we eventually all made it through.

Horses? Not a fan; too big and too skittish. I don’t think that riding a herbivore is such a good idea as it tends to be afraid of everything since everything with pointy teeth has been trying to eat it for millions of years. I suppose that riding a carnivore is probably out of the question because then it would try to eat things it came across on the trail, or the person riding it, and that would definitely be a mess. Regardless, I give horses a very wide berth.

Speaking of evolutionary fears, my biggest one is also the one I have the least control over and has the potential to do more damage in a shorter amount of time than any of the previously mentioned animals. I’m talking about lightning.

Lightning really, really scares me and I’ve been way too close to it on a few occasions. Soapstone Prairie again, riding along, a thunderstorm rolls in, I turn around and am braking any number of personal cross country speed records trying to get back to my car before I’m overrun by the storm. The lightning is striking regularly and it’s getting closer and closer and there’s no way I’m going to outrun a storm cell that’s moving at 30ish mph, but I have to try because there’s nowhere to hide out there. It really doesn’t help that I’m sitting on top of an aluminum and carbon fiber lightning rod and am soaking wet. At one point, I see a flash in my computer and I’m pretty sure I’ve just been hit. There’s a huge crash of thunder that just about knocks me off my bike so I literally throw my bike as far as I can away from me and lie face down in the lowest part of the mud until the cell goes by. I’m fairly certain that bolt struck less than 20 feet from me and I have no Idea why it didn’t hit me…I guess I wasn’t the path of least resistance that time. The flash I saw in my computer screen was a reflection. I don’t go to Soapstone anymore unless it’s early in the morning, or there’s no chance of thunderstorms.

Last year was a bad one for lightning. It’s likely that I set a couple of downhill records for getting out of Horsetooth Mountain Park as a storm rolled in. On two separate occasions, I was hunkered down under big rock formations while I waited for close to an hour for a storm to pass with my bike somewhere, far away lying in the mud. On a different occasion, I was bombing down Sawmill trail as fast as I possibly could and flatted around half way down because I was pushing so hard. There was no way I was going to stop with lightning striking all around me so I kept going, fast as hell, on a slowly deflating front tire. I made it to the bottom just as the tire was pretty much unridable and to my great relief, there was a truck full of county trail workers who were getting out of there, too. They were gracious enough to let me throw my bike in the back of the truck and give me a ride back to the trailhead. Later that evening I found out that lightning from the storm had struck several people north of town.

So, yeah, be careful out there. Know the weather, know your animals, know your limits. Push your limits when it makes sense to because that will make you a better rider and the more skill you have, the more fun you’ll have. Don’t push your limits with animals and lightning because they’re unpredictable and they can bite you…literally.