Posted by: silverback | 2011/04/30


i’m struggling against a stereotype. it keeps coming up in conversations with friends & acquaintances, and when i’m being introduced anew: i keep getting characterized as “crazy.” i suppose the reputation could be deserved, but i don’t agree with it. i’m simply not risk-averse, is all.

several years back, i was very good at racing mountain bikes. i started out racing XC, or “cross country.” this was a primarily a fitness discipline, with a modicum of off-road technical skills requisite in order to stay near the podium. i won a few races, and even a series championship or two. at some point, DH (“downhill”) racing began to blow up, and i could do OK at these events simply because of my base fitness. my high-speed skills on a mountain bike were deplorable, though. i remember a pivotal event wherein i would pass my main competitors on the main climb, only to be passed again on the main descent, labeled the “Heinous.” i lost the race, because Heinous was closer to the finish line. i decided at that moment to start racing DH in order to get better at descending.

so i bought all the gear – pads, full-face helmet, full-fingered gloves. i upgraded my racing bike to a true DH-oriented machine, and within a couple seasons dedicated to the DH discipline, i was competitive at the regional level, winning another series championship. a couple more seasons, and i was only racing DH. XC racing had lost its cachet for me. the speed and mental approach to ripping the downhill races were more appealing to me. it took more confidence, more risk, and of course, the adrenaline. at the turn of the millennium, i was competitive at the National level racing DH.

the big bikes with big suspension and big brakes naturally lent themselves to jumping off ever-bigger stuff. again, the mental approach to “Freeride” was appealing to me. the feeling of overcoming obstacles of fear is hard to describe. stepping to the edge of a big drop (some might call it a “cliff”) and standing still through the vertigo, then opening your vision to the possibilities, then realizing the probability of success – the rational defeat of fear with arguments of physics. i cannot put into words what it felt like to huck off the edge of a big mesa in Utah, first seeing only the seeming edge of the world, then the friends watching from waaay below, then in slow-motion relativity the focal point of my line – the downhill transition (“tranny”) where i wanted to put my wheels – all seen in the split second between the front and back wheels leaving the edge of the cliff. then the weightlessness, the gentle weighting of the bars to nudge the front wheel down to match the angle of the tranny, the softening of the knees, then…touchdown, still accelerating at close to 32ft/sec^2, and rolling it out to the group of people that had moments ago been far, far below.

a couple years ago, some guys from the Triangle area came up for a motorcycle ride. Laura and i met them out near Robbinsville. it was misting heavily when we started, but it stopped actually precipitating early on, leaving damp roads. when we hit Wayah Rd, i grew tired of following & riding through the spray, so i headed to the front & began easing my way into the corners. a modern bike on modern tires is surprisingly stable in the wet. the key is to remain smooth. every input must be gentle and progressive. knowing that, however, one can carry good pace on a wet road without excessive risk. so i left the group behind, gently. smoothly. when we got to the next stop, i mentioned that i had never seen that road before, but it had good grip for being so damp. the first reply i got was, “you’re fucking crazy!”

on the track, i’m constantly seeking improvement. the reality is that since i’m more than ten seconds off Pro-level laptimes, there’s nearly always room for improvement. improvement in this venue means taking ever-larger risks. if i’m getting passed midcorner, then in my mind, i can carry more speed there. if i get outbraked at the end of the straight, then i understand i can brake later and harder in that spot. i think it’s entirely fair to say that if that guy can do it, then so can i. admittedly, sometimes my enthusiasm gets me in too deep when i don’t take the time to learn the how before i attempt the do. but how else does one learn, in the end?

i don’t feel like i’m crazy. perhaps that’s one of the symptoms of mental illness, but in this case i think the characterization is made in the sense that i act with wanton disregard for my own well being. this couldn’t be further from the truth. i rarely act without intensive risk assessment. i believe in a calculated approach to risk. don’t get me wrong – any time one is taking risks, there are going to be occasions when unfortunate consequences will be the result.


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