It’s Friday afternoon as I head north along the 15 freeway with my bike fastened to the rack, the top down, and the tunes turned up. When traffic slows to a crawl just before Escondido, I try not to sing too loudly; I’ve found it frightens people. I’m on my way to the Women’s Only Weekend at Snow Summit in Big Bear Lake, California – an entire weekend of cross-country and downhill festivities, including rides, races, and clinics taught by women for women. It’s like a regular bike-fest race weekend, but without all the grunting and farting. I have little idea what to expect, but I have hopes of learning to ride wheelies and hucking off the tabletop by Sunday afternoon.
Saturday morning we gather at the grassy area behind Snow Summit lodge for announcements before going to our clinics at 9 am. I lay my bike down in the grass and spot other downhillers, easy to identify by their bikes with big beefy forks and full-face helmets hanging off the handlebars. Talking with the girls around me, I find out that some of them have signed up for the Intermediate Downhill clinic but will use only XC bikes and elbow pads – no body armour, no full-face helmet, no long-travel fork to soak up the rocky sections. They’re either really good, or really brave (probably both).
I have signed up for Advanced Downhill because I’ve been racing all season, and figure that since many of the Intermediate DH-ers have never raced, this is where I belong. I figure wrongly. I should be with the Intermediates, because my bike instincts and bike handling skills are nothing compared to the XC riders who have been riding much longer than me. The biggest factor that separates me from most female XC riders at this point is that I am not afraid of crashing and I push the edge of my ability and comfort zone on a regular basis. It’s terrifying, but I do it anyway. I’m finding that most women, especially women over 30, will not do this. Yes, I’m kind of a freak that way.
Pro riders Lisa Sher (Chumba Wumba) and Jill Hamilton (Haro) are teaching the Advanced Downhill clinic. We assemble at the top of Snow Summit and head towards Westridge to begin with cornering skills before moving on to rocky descents. The particular rocky descent we will ride (the "Waterfall" section of Westridge) has strategically placed boulders; if you don’t choose the right line through here, there’s a good chance you’ll endo. I know this all too well. At Gotta Thunder Downhill back in May, I crashed at the bottom of the descent, did a Superman over the bars and landed on the stem cap with my right quad. I still have a perfect half-circle scar about 6 inches above my knee. Why did I crash? I was looking at that boulder lying center-trail at the bottom of the descent and not looking up ahead.
So here I am again at the top of the descent, and I know that boulder is lying there waiting for me at the bottom but I stubbornly refuse to be conquered by it. Heart pounding, I tell myself to relax. I take a breath and let it go. Rumble over the rocks and pick my way through the boulders on my way to the sharp rocky descent, keep my weight back as the front tire eases over and I pick up speed… and plow into that center-trail boulder. My front tire comes to a dead stop on it, sending me over the bars with a THUD. I struggle to my feet and pick up my bike. I hate this section. Lisa Lake, the Intermediate DH instructor, is standing there the bottom. I ask what I did wrong. She tells me I looked great, right up until I hit that rock. Hmmm. I must have looked at it. Keep your chin up and look far down the trail, I tell myself, and don’t let this section get into your head. I push my bike back up the hill to try it again.
I stand over my bike at the top of the descent and mentally ride the section clean. Then I take a deep breath and begin the descent: over the jagged rocks, I pick my way through the larger boulders… and once again I get distracted by the obstacles in the path and forget to keep my head up. I hit the boulder at the bottom and go flying over the bars. I land on my shoulder and then fall onto a rock with my hip, crumpling like a tossed rag doll. I hear gasps from the group of women watching and sense someone suddenly rush towards me as I hear Lisa’s calm voice, “Just let her lie there a minute.” I know she says this to allow me time to recover, but I’m in a very uncomfortable position and can’t quite turn myself over. I’m in a lot of pain and really want to rip off my helmet. I really want to swear too. I struggle to my knees and manage to plop down on the log behind me. “What happened?” I ask, pulling off my helmet and goggles and dropping them in the dust. “You looked great. Your form was there. And then,” she pauses, “you looked at the rock and rode right into it.”
This means it’s not an ability issue. It’s a mental problem, so to speak. I know the rock is there, I’m afraid of it, and I look at it. The rock has got into my head. So, in a nutshell, I have a mental problem and rocks in my head. This is nothing new; they were telling me this years ago.
I’m in too much pain to deal with it right now; I need to get to the bottom of the mountain. I pick up my bike and the girls ask me if I want the mountain patrol to come get me. What, and cart me off?!! No, I can ride. The rest of this trail is not too bad. I set off down the mountain.
Every bump and dip in the trail sends pain shooting up through my right shoulder, and I try to steer as best I can mostly with my left arm. I finally reach the bottom. As I approach the tabletop a man is standing waving his arms telling me “Rider down.” I slow down and roll up to the top, ride gently across the flat, and down the back side. Off to the left is a girl lying in a little blue heap with a XC helmet on. It’s a good bet she came up to the tabletop too fast, launched, and didn’t land the jump. At least I can ride away from my injury. She’s leaving the mountain on a stretcher.
I find the first aid station and stagger in, the pain now becoming really intense. I am advised to go to the hospital and asked if I want an ambulance. Definitely not; I begrudge paying for cab fare across town. If I’m conscious, I’ll find a ride to the hospital. Sitting next to me is another rider who is taping her ankle. Her name is Donna, and she has a bad sprain and won’t be riding for the rest of the weekend. She offers to take me to the ER and I gratefully accept.
We store my bike and helmet at the Team Big Bear Bike Shop and stop by my car to pick up my ID and insurance card. I see the current issue of Dirt Rag Magazine on the front seat and pick it up as well, knowing I’ll want something to help pass the time. I get in Donna’s truck and we make our way to the hospital, which we find less than two miles away. Good thing I didn’t get that ambulance. The bill would have been as painful as the injury I’m nursing now.
The ER nurse checks me in fairly quickly, either because I got there before the Saturday rush, or because I’m trembling and moaning so loudly I’m disturbing the other patients. Perhaps it’s our proximity to Big Bear, or maybe it’s the bike gear I’m wearing, but this is the first trip I’ve made to the ER where a nurse didn’t look at my bruised body and question me about domestic abuse. After taking my vitals, she offers to give me a shot for the pain. I look at her with the eyes of a junkie looking for a fix and mumble, “Oh, please.” Finally, I’m escorted to a painfully bright little room and told to sit on the bed/gurney to wait for x-rays and the diagnosis. Alone now, I sit and smell the faint sterile scent of rubbing alcohol and latex, listen to the hum of the overhead lights and the din of ER activity, and sigh, and wish I weren’t here.
It’s hard not to fall into self-pity. It’s hard not to wish something had been different… I had been looking forward to this weekend, and now I won’t be riding. I was supposed to race tomorrow. I paid ninety bucks for the clinic and the race and everything, and now I can’t even participate… blah blah blah. I pick up the current issue of Dirt Rag (#108) to distract myself. On the front cover I read, “Crash and Burn: Why the Pros Take Big Risks.” Yep. That’s the article for me. Why do I do this?
The article talks about the trade offs you make: thrill for risk and pleasure for pain. “It’s what keeps you awake the night before a race: because you know you’re gonna run that razor’s edge… [and] when you learn to truly dig the ugly times – that’s when you’ve got it made.” I put the magazine down and stare into space for a moment. I’m reminded again that this sport is not just about the soaring adrenaline rush and the endorphin high, but it’s also about the pain and the crashing that come as part of the package if you choose to take risks. And indeed, that’s what I choose to do. For a few terrifying moments, I will stare the odds in the face and not blink.
Like a gambler with a sure hand, I will bet heavily on myself to make it through the nasty, gnarly sections and pull it all together for a great run down the mountain. I do this knowing that there’s always a chance the house might win, that I will not conquer the mountain today, but that it will overcome me and I will go down in flames of pain. Like the big win at the high-stakes poker table that is sweeter than the victory at penny-ante blackjack, the flawless run down the nasty descent and over the rock garden is so much sweeter than the flawless run over the fire road. When the stakes are high, the winning is wonderful, and likewise the payout can be brutal if the odds stack up against you.
In one of my favorite passages from an otherwise tedious read, Thoreau says, "To be awake is to be alive... I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life..."
I choose to chase the risk down the gnarly singletrack because I know in that moment that I’m really alive and living deep, not simply living life passively. I have to be willing to accept the consequences. As I sit in the sterile white room, I realize that it’s time to pay the ante, and if this is the price, then I choose to be here. I will learn to truly dig the ugly times.
Finally Dr Fagan comes in and tells me that nothing is broken, but I do have a slight AC separation. What does that mean? I have a sprained shoulder and should not ride for four weeks. As tears fall from my eyes, he puts up a hand as if he’s the emotion police telling me “Stop,” and he says, “I know, it’s a long time…” He doesn’t understand I’m relieved that it’s only four weeks and I interrupt him, “No, it’s not a long time. It could have been a lot worse,” I say. The hand goes down. “Yes,” he says soberly, “it could have been a lot worse.”
I am sent on my way with a sling and a prescription for the pain. I get a ride back to Snow Summit, where the late afternoon Mountain Bike Social with wine and cheese will soon begin. You know it’s a Women’s Only Weekend when they serve you wine and cheese at Snow Summit. I find my friends and my coaches and give them the story. The cross-country riders are very sympathetic and tell me how brave I am and say how sad they are for me, which I really appreciate. The seasoned downhillers look at my sling, ask what happened, and then say either, “Oh, yeah, I did that last year,” or “So, how long?” with the silently understood “till you are racing downhill again”. They all know it’s part of the downhill package, that you learn to accept it and just keep going.
The next morning, my arm in a sling doesn’t stop me from going up the hill to watch the XC race. I’ll learn to enjoy the moment, even if it’s not my moment. The women are all so excited to be here, it’s easy to catch the spirit. After the XC race, I take the chairlift up to the summit and walk down Westridge to watch the downhill race. I go to the rocky section that yesterday put me out of this race. I need to make peace with this part of the mountain or else it will forever haunt me. I will learn to love it for the both the agony and the ecstasy it brings. I choose to be right here, right now with no regrets.
Perhaps my weekend was not exactly as I would have designed it, but maybe it was the best weekend for me. I was reminded of some very important lessons that I seem to have to learn over and over again: that mental skills are as important as physical skills, that walking your bike when you are afraid is sometimes better than bulldogging your way through and getting injured, that being a spectator can be a rewarding experience, and that it’s better to live life deeply with all its agony and ecstasy and not regret that decision, than to never push the edge and not discover what you might have accomplished.
Yeah, I’ll be back next year.
Report by Laura Drexler
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