In the online discussion threads (see the list in part 2), many people mentioned the fear of injuries from falling as a reason for not considering mountain biking.
I touched on it in that post, arguing that beginners should not have to accept falling as a necessary part of recreational mountain biking on flat, wide, smooth, obstacle-free dirt trails like the dirt double track trail along the MN River Bottoms between the Mendota and Cedar Avenue bridges.
But what if you’re wondering if mountain biking could become a sport for you? What if you’re curious about what it’s like to ride on some singletrack, especially trails with some of that ‘flow’ that you keep hearing about? What if you’re tempted to engage in a little skill development, either on your own or with some coaching?
I took these photos of a woman riding the big berms section on the Lebanon Hills advanced beginner trail when it opened in August of 2011. I yelled to her, “Are you having fun?” and she yelled back with a big smile, “I’m scared to death!” Given her casual clothes, I’d say she was a recreational mountain biker at the time, right up against the limits of her skills.
It’s cool that she was out there, testing her limits. If I was her instructor that day, I might have pulled her aside to ask her if she was having fun and if so, was she willing to accept that there was going to be some falling in her near future. Why?
If she got a taste of the pleasurable physical sensations going around the lowest part of those berms, her brain was likely to be screaming “Let’s do that again!” as it released a variety of chemicals that contributed to those feelings of euphoria. From there, it’s a short step to go a little higher on those berms the next time through, a little faster on the rollers, or find slightly bigger rocks or logs to ride over. And at some point, she’ll exceed her skill level and fall.
Falling is something we increasingly don’t experience regularly as we age, and when we do, it’s rarely in the context of a helpful learning experience like when you see kids falling constantly when they’re learning to ski or snowboard.
I’m not an instructor but it seems to me that adult beginners, including seniors, who want to graduate from recreational mountain biking need to be reminded of this. Falling is part of learning when you want to mountain bike as a sport. It can be a good thing.
The good news is that spills by beginning mountain bikers are rarely severe. Tim Walsh, who I met yesterday, added a comment in the MORC forum about mountain biking injuries:
Griff, I was looking for a link on an article regarding the comparison of injuries due to mountain bicycling to other cardio action sports. Sorry that I can’t find it, (I believe the article was in Bicycling).
The message was that the incidence and severity of injury compared to other sports such as downhill skiing, snowboarding, XC skiing, running and road bicycling was fairly low. The author used data comparing industry provided estimates on number of participants and emergency room incidences resulting from sports participation as part of his rational.
The writer speculated that the reasons mountain bicycling was not as high a risk sport as other cardio action sports included the ideas that most riders rarely sustain speeds over 10 miles per hour so not a lot of broken bones and it’s not an impact sport so not a significant risk of overuse injuries. This may suggest that safety equipment promoting comfort, safety and balance would be the order of the day. Helmets, gloves, and long sleeve shirts would provide most of the protection needed for new riders. Bottom line, my experience is that if wearing the above listed items, other than some abrasions, poison ivy rashes and bug bites, XC mountain bicycling is a fairly safe sport. I will keep looking for the link.
And I’d argue that if you’re willing to also wear elbow and knee pads in addition to the gloves and long-sleeve shirts that Tim suggests, you can avoid many of those small bruises and scrapes associated with falling over and low-speed crashes.
I’ve found that wearing protective gear has some psychological benefits for me in my quest to keep improving my skills. I’m much more willing to keep trying stuff that’s just a bit beyond my ability level because I’m not overly concerned about getting hurt. I tell myself, If I don’t make it, it’s not a big deal because I’m pretty well protected. I’d argue that this mental mindset means I ride more relaxed, with more concentration on the challenge, and thus I’m even less likely to fall.
I found an article with the slightly misleading title Most Dangerous Sports that included mountain biking in its ranking:
What qualifies as the most dangerous sport is a matter of opinion, as it can be measured in a variety of ways. The approach taken in this case was to generally look at sports most people play and compare them against each other in terms of number of injuries, body parts injuries, ages of those injured, and what types of injuries occurred using the Consumer Product and Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) database…
If one defines ‘most dangerous’ as the sport with the greatest number of injuries per number of participants then football, skateboarding, and basketball could be considered the most dangerous… Mountain biking, tennis, and golf where those that scored lowest in terms of injuries per participant.
For all you seniors out there who golf regularly, note that mountain biking was last on the list at #11 (safest) and golf was #9. I’m guessing that not that many golfers get injured crashing their golf carts or get hit in the head with golf balls. Rather, as this article states,
… golf is fairly demanding on the ankles, elbows, spine, knees, hips and wrists, which, without practicing necessary precautions, can result in an injury occurring in one, or even several of these areas.
Those are the injuries that are probably triggering all those hospital visits tallied by the NEISS database.
The moral of the story is not to quit golf and take up mountain biking, since the injuries in both sports can be minimized with proper preventive conditioning. It’s really a perception thing. Mountain biking at the beginner and intermediate level is safer than most people think.
Mountain biking has other ‘perception’ problems, too. More on that next.
Update 10 PM: The photo at the top of the blog shows John Seery and Michael Knoll from Michael’s Cycles in Prior Lake attending to an injured buddy’s leg. They were tackling the narrow and rocky upper section of Timber Shaft in the Yawkey Unit of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail System when he fell and sliced his leg on, you’ll never guess, a sharp rock. Shred the Red became Shed the Red. Michael had a first aid kit, patched him up, and he promptly got back on his bike and cleaned the section where he’d fallen. Off they went to the Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby to get him stitched up. Just another way that mountain bikers bring economic development to the area. Full details of that day in May, 2012 in this blog post.