Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mountain biking: To crash or not to crash. That is (one of) the questions. Becoming a 75%er

When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a Formula One driver or a fighter pilot when I grew up. Not a police officer, fire fighter, or even an astronaut. Not even a rock 'n' roll star, although in hindsight I think that would have been very cool.

During college, I interviewed with the Navy regarding their fighter pilot training program. Notwithstanding the fact that I didn't like taking orders, flying fighters off of carriers seemed like a perfect way to spend some time after college until I figured out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Looking back, I think I declined to pursue Navy flying because the military vibe was at a very low ebb at that time. More likely, I probably was concerned about my fate if it turned out that I wasn't good enough to make the fighter pilot cut. Spending seven years flying tankers or cargo planes would have been, for me, miserable.

I have always liked going fast, and have often been willing to pay the consequences for doing so. I had major shoulder surgery in January. The root of this surgery (the second time my left shoulder has been operated on) goes all the way back to a motorcycle racing crash when I was nineteen. Sure, years of wear and tear from golf, rock climbing, etc, have taken their toll, but I have not had a normal fully healthy left shoulder since that crash. Post-surgery, I endured three months of not being able to ride my road bike, and five months of no mountain biking.

Now that I have been back riding my mountain bike for a week, I find myself contemplating my riding philosophy going forward. My main goal at the present time is to protect my shoulder, as I certainly don't want to do anything to damage the surgical repair. I find myself riding conservatively, not cautiously, as that can easily turn into tentativeness, which is not good.

I probably should not even think this, let alone write it, but I have not had a DWI (Dismount Without Intent) while riding a road bike since 2007. Since that time, I have ridden over 60,000 miles. Prior to that, it was another 50,000 miles or so since I had a DWI. I have to wonder if it is possible to have a similar track record while mountain biking?

I do cross country style mountain biking and ride a pure and highly focused XC race bike. With XC, the emphasis is more on climbing than descending. Cross country riding is certainly not as dangerous as Downhill or Enduro riding, but XC bikes do not have as much suspension travel, and therefore are less forgiving when ridden fast. There is not a lot of margin for error when ridden on the edge.

I spent some time working on descending with a few of the riders who attended our seventh annual Cycle U Chelan Skills and Hills Cycling Camp in May. The mantra I tried to convey is, "No one is paying you to ride fast downhill." The key to improving descending ability is to gain confidence through skill development. No matter how skilled a rider becomes, my mantra is a reminder to ride well within your skill level. Perhaps it is time for a keener focus on practicing what I preach?

Just like with alpine skiing, learning to mountain bike involves falling. Building skills requires constantly pushing the limit just a bit, otherwise, a rider is not likely to make much progress. Most of the falls a beginning rider takes are rather innocuous, unless a rider continually pushes way beyond their current skill level. Newer riders tend to avoid tricky terrain, and ride at slow speeds, thereby helping to ensure that most falls are not serious.

I don't fall off of my mountain bike very often, perhaps 2-4 times a year. The problem is that my falls are not usually the harmless type that a beginner takes. Having spent over 2000 hours riding mountain bikes, I am well beyond that stage. No, the falls I typically experience almost always occur when I am riding at "85-90%." Riding at 100% is for racing (a whole other discussion as relates to crashing), but a skilled and experienced rider is usually going pretty hard and fast at 85-90%. These falls hurt!

I could easily attribute my new found desire to not crash to age, but that's not it, as I was often pushing hard until my surgery. I am simply no longer willing to accept the consequences of falling off of my bike. Even though my shoulder surgery had nothing to do with mountain biking, going through the months and months of rehab has resulted in a new appreciation for the value in not injuring myself.

I have nothing to prove at this point of my life, to myself or anyone else. Nevertheless, I guess I am satisfied that I have a lot of great past results on Strava, and I certainly don't feel any need to push hard going forward. I'm not likely to improve upon any of my results that involve any downhill (or even flat) riding sections. Peer pressure can be a funny thing as relates to something like Strava, but I'm not feeling it.

I now have an unusual goal for the remainder of 2016. I am not going to fall off of my mountain bike. I figure that the best way to do that is to ride at a 75% speed potential or less. I won't ride with some of the people I know who ride fast all of the time, but perhaps I will enjoy riding with more people who never ride fast. I don't expect riding my mountain bike will be any less fun. I'm riding at less than 50% currently, and having a ball!