THE FIT: Fall For It
They use a hill, Coach Bush tells me, because "when you hit is what matters." It’s a shorter distance to the ground on the uphill side so "you coast up until you stop and have that moment of freakout.”
Marcus Bush, an IMBA and USAC certified coach, purposefully sets his athletes up to fall. That way they can practice relaxing elbows and keeping their hands on the bars, thus spreading out the impact and protecting the collarbone. “Fear subsides the more times you fall successfully.”
Falling without injury boosts confidence. A grassy hill or abundant snow can be an ideal substance to hit while mastering the art of the crash. If someone is embarrassed about falling in front of others, Coach Bush cuts that out right away with plenty of laughter in his clinics, easing worry and tension in the groups’ brave bodies.
“Everybody falls. It’s going to happen.” Gloves, protective eyewear, close-toed shoes are recommended; and, of course, a helmet.
While practice can help ease a fall when it happens, there's also skill involved in avoiding falls. Bush focuses on eyes, fingers, and feet. Look where you want to go, cover the brakes with relaxed fingers, and keep your weight equal and grounded in your feet. Know and ride within your limits. Rushing, fatigue, complacency, frustration, and distraction can all make us more vulnerable to falls.
Minneapolis cyclocross, mountain, and fat bike racer Megan Barr recognizes when she is at an increased risk of falling. She gets sloppy when exhausted at the end of a race, when she’s in a negative headspace or just not feeling it. Barr honors that by taking a step back or going slower than usual, otherwise there is fear in knowing she’s not riding safely. That fear is completely different than that of facing something new or challenging. “It’s a process,” she says. “There’s always stuff that’s scary and unattainable. First turning, then loose terrain, sand, speed, riding a bridge, then a log, then a bigger log. But there is a sense of accomplishment as you get better and hunger to do it.” It took a long time to get there, but now she knows, “It’s not the end of the world if I fall.”
The crash at Terrace Oaks was simple enough - a loose downhill rutted by rain. I was going fast, my wheel caught and I was airborne. At some point my gut was nearly impaled by my handlebar ends. Sprawled across the trail with the wind knocked out of me, I envisioned grave internal bleeding. “Was it worth it?” I asked myself dramatically; not just this ride, but all the rides, being a biker, choosing THIS. And from the same injured gut came a sure answer: yep.
“As we age, we have a heightened sense of morbidity and mortality,” says cyclist and TRIA Orthopedics Sports Medicine doctor, Heather Bergeson. Despite seeing the most horrible injuries first hand, she still says cycling is a relatively safe sport, and hails it as particularly good cross-training for other more weight-bearing sports such as cross-country skiing and running.
Be comfortable and confident maneuvering on your bike, Bergeson suggests, and don’t ride in a place or with people too far over your level. Protective gear such as elbow and knee pads can help prevent lacerations, abrasions, and contusions, the most common cycling damage. Follow the rules of the road to prevent collisions with cars, and always wear a helmet. Even on easy rides you don’t know when something will happen like a dog running out in front of you.
I know that dog. And that squirrel. I’ve had many close encounters with deer and even rattle snakes on the trails back in AZ. Some of my favorite times on the bike are when I ALMOST fall, but somehow, miraculously, or may I say, perhaps skillfully (*blush*) recover, and the rush of adrenaline makes everything more alive. Yes, I’ve fallen and been hurt. Once was silly: stitches in my knee because I was carrying a baby snapping turtle in one hand while excitedly riding the trail to show a friend. I’ve accidentally gone off curbs, slipped on ice countless times, hit cavernous potholes hidden by puddles; and once I fell over a rocky edge while going uphill and landed in a staghorn cholla cactus. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. None of the falls ever really are.
I went to my favorite yoga class as I was noodling this story, and sure enough, performed a most impressive flop. Overshooting a kick up to a handstand, my feet continued on an arc over and back down to the ground, my body forming a backbend bridge, somehow conjuring latent muscle memory from gymnastics as a youth. “Yes! That was beautiful!”, the teacher blurted out, as I awkwardly maneuvered off my neighbors mat back to my own. “Falling is a skill!” And indeed I felt a sense of pride because I had played with the edge of my ability. Effort to the point of weakness (aka falling) is finding the edge of your strength. And if we don’t ever surpass that edge, if even by a tiny bit, how are we to transcend it?
It seems the more I’m willing to venture there, the more I realize: the magic happens outside your comfort zone. And then I’m drawn to go there again, both on my bike and off it.
So besides “wear a helmet!”, the unanimous opinion among several experienced cyclists, a skilled coach, brilliant physician, rockstar racer, and amazing yogini is: Falling happens, everyone does it, and it is a skill you can choose to get better at. It’s part of the risk of slinging a leg over two wheels. It’s part of the ride and, may I add, it’s worth it. So go ahead - fall for it!