You ride to the edge. Looking down from the precipice it looks dangerous, unrideable. The stakes are high; how could you possibly get down that? It’s a sheer rock drop. It seems vertical. It loses about two metres and the runoff is a sketchy rock garden. You need to hit it, but every fibre of your self-preserving existence is telling you it’s a bad idea.
Fear is a protective mechanism, your body preserving itself. Fight or flight, pick your option; the palpitations, the feeling of dread. You tremble, your chest tightens; the body is readying itself for battle. Get your fists up or flee.
Unlike many fears brought to the forefront in other sports, the fears and anxiety brought upon us by mountain biking are rooted in reality. It’s not just your own concerns about performance and expectations that are raised, it’s the real-life, bone-breaking consequences you face should you take the wrong line, ride too stiff or shift your weight the wrong way.
Perhaps it starts, like many things, when you’re a child. Women in particular, whether it’s overtly acknowledged or not, are told to be careful. To watch out. Often we are herded away from riskier pursuits, and then we are told ‘boys will be boys’. Part of the fear and anxiety can be pre-programmed into our existence. Undoing that can take time, but the rewards are endless.
Pushing through the fear almost always results in something amazing, the feelings that can’t be compared to anything else. When you can acknowledge that fight or flight sensation, put a label on it, and make calculated decisions based on reason rather than feelings, that’s when the magic happens. Then you can commit and reap the benefits of riding the tightrope of capability and technicality.
The result is like heroin…or so they tell you. It’s the warmth filling your body, every extremity alive with a sensation of adrenaline mixed with joy, of mastery. But it’s a legal high, a way to feel the edge, to push it further than we thought we could.
The trade off to achieving this high is accepting the risk; the risk that drives the fear response. After all, it could end badly. Some days it does. How much risk are we willing to take? What’s the risk: benefit ratio?
In some ways those who seek out skill-based sports with a strong risk:reward benefit may be chasing something that’s absent in their everyday lives.
Sure, your 9–5 may be banal, but it’s offset by the weekend rides.
People chase the feeling watching horror movies, on rollercoasters, and carnival rides. People look for their fix by skydiving, bungee, rafting…there are a myriad of ways that those of us that seek sensations can fulfil our irrational needs to feel, to be challenged.
Some people seek a life of comfort. Stability. These are the people you see at work and can’t understand your drive to get out, ride bikes, test your limits. While a 9–5 job offers security and routine, sitting at an office desk will never allow the physical and psychological out that shredding the gnar on the weekend can.
It’s well and good that we have different people in the world, but for me a life unexamined, untested and inexperienced seems like a life unlived.
Some days it just may not be happening. You may find a log difficult to ride over when you know that you have the capability to huck a five foot drop into a rocky chute. You crash along a fire road.
Confidence is redefined, brought back a level. You start back at square one.
Suddenly things that were once easy are a bit harder for a while. You have to go back to the drawing board momentarily. Your hands tremble coming up to a feature you know can be tricky but usually nail with confidence.
Your mouth dries out.
You grip the bars tighter.
You feel the fear but do it anyway.
The rush returns, the joy, invincibility and inextinguishable lightness you felt the first time you nailed it.
You go back and look for the vertical rock drop with the sketchy rock garden.