There’s the fear of the unknown, of course, the fear that holds you back: the fear you won’t be good enough, that what you’re trying will be too hard, that you’re too old, young, fat, thin, weak, stupid, clumsy—too anything—to try something. And of course you’re good enough to do whatever you want to do with some practice and knowledge, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—but if you’ve never tried it, how do you know? They’ll keep you up the night before whatever it is you’re planning on doing, especially if it’s going to be an early morning—there’s been more than once that my fear that my alarm wasn’t set right, or that I would sleep through it, or that I’d be too groggy at 6 AM to make it out on time has caused me to stay awake until 3—but, when you go out and do whatever it was you were planning on doing, you find out it was hard, but you were up to it.
I get nervous every year the night before 50 States, and I’ve done it three years in a row. The pre-ride jitters, even when you have no rational reason to be worried, still strike.
These are the kinds of fears that I face when I “try to do something that scares me”—the fear that I won’t be up for whatever I’m doing, even though I probably can. A century ride in 100 degree Texas heat? Well, did most of one—didn’t want to make everyone wait another two hours for me to finish. Racing? Tried it. Evil Hill of Death? Still scary, but done. Schlepping a tippy, cantankerous trailer uphill in crosswinds to the National Cathedral? Bike still hates me, but got pics to prove it happened. Cyclocross race? If anyone’s got a spare bike in my size, I’ll take good care of it and buy you beer, I promise. Mountain biking? It’s on the list.
Actually, there’s a reason I’m a bit scared of going back out mountain biking—it’s a reasoned fear, one I can explain, but not what I’d call a real, honest to God terror. The last time I went out a mountain bike was on the South Boundary Trail in New Mexico. Long story short, after a long day of technical singletrack, baby head boulders (seriously, that’s what they’re called), and a couple near misses, I overcooked a roller while my dad was getting a picture, caught some good air, flipped the bike a couple times, and pretty much faceplanted into the gravel. Blood everywhere, couldn’t sleep for two days, couldn’t shave for a month…
Yeah, it was pretty nasty. The folks at the local bike shop had stories of breaking backs and ribs at that same spot. Great picture, though, and I got the mustache out of it.
So, when I finally get back on the singletrack—and that day is coming—it’ll be a bit of a big deal. Something happened that got me off the bike, and now I’ll be back to where I first began: on a bike, in the woods, trying not to let the greenbriar have too much fun with me.
But then there’s the other kind of fear. The kind that keeps me up at night, knowing that every time I go out on the bike, It Could Happen To Me.
It’s the fear that it’s coming for you. It’s the corner you overcook in a race, the car that didn’t see you and clipped you with a mirror, the car you didn’t see coming, the wayward ball from a game, the unleashed dog, the opening taxi door.
It’s the fear that, while doing the thing that sets you free, that gives you that rare taste of confidence nothing else does, you’ll be cut down.
It’s the fear that it’ll be your fault, or, just as likely in this legal climate, it’ll be construed that way.
It’s the fear that the people you know from riding, from working, from advocating, will have to be the ones explaining that their friend and colleague was the one hurt.
It’s the fear that, while your skills and luck have bailed you out of any number of close calls and near misses, there may come a day when they won’t.
It’s the fear that one day you’ll be looking at a bike you’ll never ride again.
It’s the fear that the next white bike on a street corner will be for you.
And yes, I know, I could keel over while typing this, shocked by my computer’s power cord. I could be hit in the head by a falling gargoyle while walking down the sidewalk. I’ve been hit more times while in a car than on a bike—and I’m a better cyclist than driver anyway. And I know that all these health benefits I’m supposed to get out of riding so much probably mean I should be less scared of other things.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I think of my next run-in with trouble as a matter of “when,” not “if.”
Maybe it’s because I’ve heard so many horror stories, and I’m one of the few without one. Maybe it’s because “have a safe ride” is how you say goodbye to a cyclist, as if we think of riding home as somehow inherently dangerous, like we need the reminder to look after our own selves, like we’d rather our trips home be “safe” than “good.” Maybe it’s because I’ve met so many people who tell me that they would ride, but they’re scared of drivers, of DC traffic, of other cyclists. Maybe it’s because one of the big reasons I’m still not too sure about this whole racing thing, despite how much I enjoyed it, is all the pictures I’ve seen of friends with beyond gnarly road rash (and worse). Maybe it’s because I’ve had to sign so many pre-ride waivers saying that I knew what I was doing was inherently dangerous. Maybe it’s because so many societal messages seem to imply that riding a bike is dangerous and unsafe. Maybe it’s just that I know my own human fallibility all too well, and that if I play the game long enough, the odds I’ve beaten so far will one day catch up with me.
Yes, it terrifies me. When I think of all the times I had to trust to my all-too-limited skill and dumb luck, or someone else’s, I don’t sleep. Existential crises are kind of my specialty, and bike accidents I didn’t have, but could, or will, are a particularly nice fuel. Practice my mindful Zen all I want, but it’s hard to keep the scatterbrain still when confronted with stuff like that.
You can mitigate the risk all you want, but there’s nothing like meditating on what life is, how contingent and transitory is your existence, to fill you with a bit of the old dread of these infinite spaces.
So, in good Pascalian fashion, the only cure is distraction. Get on the bike, clip in, and fly. Free your legs, and your mind will follow.
Which, I suppose, is a bit of a paradox. If I didn’t ride, I wouldn’t have to worry about Fate catching up with me while out on the bike—but riding is one of the few ways I have to keep the worrying at bay. It’s not even a matter of “staring your fear in the face and overcoming it,” or whatever other claptrap you might pick; it’s just that on the road, what doesn’t fade away becomes fuel. Fears fall away, and frustrations get vented into breathless swearing, burning legs, and climbed hills. Marianne Bianchi has heard me say unkind things about many a driver who cut us off without signaling, but talk of fear? That’s only after we’re back home and she’s put away. Then, when it’s just me, facing What Could Have Been…
Not that that’s something I’m entirely comfortable with on an existential level. If the only way to get over a profound terror is to just ignore it or deny it, to fake it while I make it, then have I actually gotten over it? Is distraction and looking away any substitute for actually deconstructing and picking apart what is, when you start looking at it, a fairly rational and reasonable concern? If I may speak according to my natural lights, there is something eminently sensible and safe about listening to the voice of fear. Sometimes it’s the last thing that keeps us from doing truly insane and destructive things that just can’t be undone. Having a concern for one’s continued well being is not something generally thought especially bad.
And yes, everything worth doing is terrifying, an act of defiance against the absurdity of an uncaring universe in which we have no place and can find no place. Fine. Whatever. I get that. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
But I also understand why it’s perfectly reasonable to be afraid, and that, in the end, I can only help to mitigate the risks, but never eliminate them. And so, while I’m glad I can outrun the terror for a short while, I can never escape it.
Is it unjustified, irrational, and somewhat silly for me to be afraid of something that could never happen? Perhaps.
Here’s hoping it stays that way.