Cycling and crashing are the kinds of things that come together whenever you liberally combine Newtonian Physics, skill, and overconfidence. In other words, I’ve been falling off my bike for nearly as long as I’ve been climbing on it.
One of the more memorable crashes of my youth involved the commute home from my high school and a lady driving into the parking lot of the local grocery store. Her car and my bicycle momentarily occupied the same space, a physical impossibility whose only opportunity for resolution lay in the boot of her car, and that’s precisely where I went looking for it. Another time, the right-front braking on my first real race bike helped me disprove the theory that I might be able to achieve sustained human flight. The resolution of this particular question also led me to learn how to re-cable the brakes on my bike and embark on my quest to perfect the wrapping of handlebar tape.
Some of these early lessons and their subsequent visits to emergency rooms and time spent nursing wounds led me to better understand where the limits lie that convert harmony between rider and machine into chaos. More importantly, it gave me an appreciation that descending and cornering at speed, while thrilling, provide limited reward with respect to the risk. Some might call this wisdom or maturity, but I like to think of it as something marginally more productive than refusing to learn from one’s mistakes.
It is the human condition, however, to become accustomed to current levels of risk and that we continue to push boundaries. We refer to this phenomenon as “progress”, and with progress comes an inherent sense of overconfidence; it is in our nature to assume that since we successfully pushed past the previous boundary, that the one that lies before us will be passed with similar ease.
It was with this confidence that I entered the first of three ninety-degree corners on lap four of yesterday’s Magnuson Park Cross race. During recon and the previous three race laps, I had recognized the risks of this first corner; leaving a fast section of tarmac, the course re-entered the mud and grass as we circumvented a tennis court. It would be easy to carry too much speed into the corner and loose traction on the flimsy, low-pressure cyclocross tires.
With each lap, the speeds increased, and with each lap, I successfully navigated the course. The riders around me were tiring, I was moving up in the field, and gaining confidence with each lap. On the section just prior to the first of the turns, I took an opportunity to pass a pack of slower riders from another category, set up for the corner, relaxed, and readied for the challenge presented by the upcoming muddy sections.
I felt it long before anything happened. It was one of those notions that enters your body somewhere between your senses and your brain and lingers there before turning sideways to make sure it’s noticed as it passes through your system. The tire in the front wheel depressed as I leaned on it – then folded over. I spent an eternity in limbo between the rider I had only just been and the rider whom I was about to become.
I aimed for the dirt, it seemed softer than the tarmac. I don’t know if I hit it or not, and I’m not sure what caused the rather deep gash under me knee, or the double-loop in my chain for which I could find no remedy at the trailside. What I do know is I was in a heap and the riders who had been enjoying my ample draft suddenly found themselves similarly on the ground, though for different reasons. Several cursed at me, one postulated that my mother had been unmarried at the time of my birth. While he may have been wrong about the specifics, he was certainly right in his sentiment: I was a fool who didn’t understand his own limitations.
It seems fitting, then, that I was the only rider I took down who failed to finish the race. Next time, I’ll aim to go just fast enough not to crash out.