Near Misses

04.20.2008 | 7:33 am

A Note from Fatty: This post, rescued from my MSN Spaces archive, was originally published October 19, 2005.

One thing all cyclists — and nobody else in the world — know is that road biking and mountain biking are only distant cousins. They’re hardly related, really. Sure, both kinds of bikes have a superficial resemblance (though that’s disappearing, as many full-suspension mountain bikes have started looking more like motorcycles), but the way they work you out is different, the mood that makes you ride them is different, and the kind of fun you have is entirely different.

What I’ve been thinking about lately, though, is what I think might be the most telling difference of all: how you react to the unexpected is different.

The Treacherous Speed Bump
I’ve been riding the track bike a lot lately. Time will tell whether that’s because of the novelty of it or because fixed gear riding is going to be my thing, but for right now, that’s the bike I’m choosing when I have a choice (ie, when it’s not raining).

But I’m still making lots of mistakes.

There are some big speed bumps on the road through Marymoor park, which I go through on the way to work. On my regular road bike, I always stood up and coasted over those.

So of course without thinking about it, I tried to do the same thing on the fixie. But as I stood up, my crank stayed in motion, propelling me forcefully up and forward as the right crank rotated up. This happened, of course, as I went over the speed bump. This put me in a nose wheelie. On a fixie. At about 18mph.

In reality, the rear wheel probably was never more than six inches above the ground, but it felt like I was about to do a high-speed road endo. Luckily, I managed to sit down, and there was no traffic on the road, so my embarrassment was mine and mine alone to enjoy (until now, of course).

Crazy Legs
That’s not my only recent near-miss on the track bike. On short, moderate downhills, I’ve been trying to use my own power to keep the fixie’s speed under control. That’s worked fine.

When I tried to do that on a long, fairly steep downhill, though, I wound up going faster and faster — my legs weren’t able to exert reverse force quickly enough to keep up. Before long, the bike had my legs spinning so fast I started bumping up and down in my seat. I was close enough to out of control that I was afraid to move my left hand out of the drops even for the short time it took to grab the front brake. That was the only option, though, and I managed to bring the bike’s speed (and my legs) back under control before getting to the stoplight. Which I’m going to go ahead and call a good thing.

My closest call on a road bike, though, was when I was coming down the Alpine Loop one day. It was one of those rides where everything is going perfectly. You’re feeling fast, you’re nailing the turns, and your bike feels more like a part of you than a machine has any right to feel.

And then I hit a turn I didn’t expect. As I came out of a fast sweeping right turn, I expected the road to straighten. Instead, it turned sharply left. To the side of the road was gravel, then a steep bank that went down and down and down.

I was going about 35 entering the turn, and knew as I approached the apex there was no way I was going to make it. I locked up both brakes and — instead of high-siding like I should have — I skidded to a stop in the gravel. I got off the bike and walked around for ten minutes, ‘til the adrenaline shakes finally wore off and I could ride again.

Mountain Near Misses
The thing about mountain biking is, you have near misses all the time. On “Frank,” my closest mountain bike ride back in Utah, you start the ride by zooming downhill on ledgy singletrack, with a 50-foot drop six inches to your right. I’ve put a foot down to keep myself from falling off that cliff several times.

On Grove (another favorite mountain bike ride back in UT), you’re riding on loose shale with a steep, sharp slide 100 feet down to the river just one dab away at all times.

In Leadville one year, coming down the Powerline trail, I dropped my front wheel into an erosion trench and managed to clip out as I got ejected over the front of my bike. I’ll never know how I managed to land on my feet, but I did. Better yet, my bike came flying after me. I caught it, righted it, and kept on going. It was the most beautiful near-miss of my life.

The fact is, just about any time you’re on a mountain bike, you’re in a state of near miss.

The Big Difference
And that — I think — is the real distinguishing factor between mountain biking and road biking. When I’m on a road bike, I’m all about control. A near miss on a road bike represents a failure and is downright mortifying — not to mention terrifying.

A near miss on a mountain bike, on the other hand, makes you laugh. You seek the near miss out. Really, a near miss on a mountain bike means…well…that you’re out mountain biking.


  1. Comment by pantaloonfan | 04.20.2008 | 7:47 am

    When I’ve been on a mountain bike, the thing that I enjoy the most is that I have no curiosity after the ride as to what the bike computer says.

    On a road ride, I get frustrated about average speed, and time and all that other junk. On a ride through the woods, even on fire road it’s all about the scenery and the individual technical tasks. It’s a whole different kind of enjoyment.

    The road is also sketchier when there is a wobble or snafu because you wind up so focused on just consistently moving forward, there’s no expectation of stopping and grinding/falling over/through a particular obstacle.

    On the stretch I ride locally to get to nicer routes, there was a patch between the repaved and non-repaved section, where a four inch deep and eight inch wide trench was just open, with some sand in it. On a mountain bike it would have seemed like nothing, but on a road bike it seemed like a landmine in the way.

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  4. Comment by Hamish A | 04.20.2008 | 3:40 pm

    I had my own ‘near miss’ today so can totally get where you’re going with this post. or where you WERE going with this post. When you posted it. I’m on pain relief, we’ll blame my lack of writing ability on that, shall we?

    I was excited to get out on the road bike today. I woke up just itching to do a nice long ride on skinny tires. I got ready, ran upstairs for one last bathroom break before setting off… and totally forgot I was wearing my Look (carbon soled) road shoes as I tried to get down the stairs too fast. My left foot slipped on the carpet and shot off like I had a ski attached to it while my right cleat got hooked up on the step and refused to let go. End result was my right leg twisting up behind me as I fell and a very loud snapping sound as my foot rotated back on itself.

    About a dozen xrays later and after a lot of poking and prodding they decided I’ve got radial fractures to my tibia & fibula as well as a (non displaced) fracture of the talar neck.

    So, I’ve got weeks off the bike and the endless jokes of my friends and riding buddies to look forward to. Joy. But, it could have been a lot worse. I don’t need surgery and I’ve got crutches that are going to get stickered up in the morning. So that’ll be fun!

    Hope you’re having a great weekend FC :o)

  5. Comment by Duane | 04.20.2008 | 7:07 pm

    I don’t talk about mtn biking with my wife it makes her nervous.

    I rode a nose wheelie on my 29er. I ran over a skinny tree that went under my crank and lifted the back wheel off the ground. I thought it was funny since I didn’t crash.

    For me the big difference between the two:

    Screw up while shifting a mtn bike on a steep climb… you have time to swear before tipping over.

    Do that on a road bike… you clip out and gravity drags you and your slippery cleats down the hill.

  6. Comment by Big Mike In Oz | 04.21.2008 | 1:20 am

    The fact is, just about any time you’re on a mountain bike, you’re in a state of near miss.

    That’s why I don’t mountain bike. It’s in complete conflict with my OCD.

  7. Comment by Mike Roadie | 04.21.2008 | 3:10 am

    Shouldn’t it be called a “Near HIT”?????

  8. Comment by Jeremy | 04.21.2008 | 5:13 am

    “…a near miss on a mountain bike means…well…that you’re out mountain biking.”


  9. Comment by DougG | 04.21.2008 | 5:53 am

    On a road bike a car can go by you with three feet to spare and we get angry and curse and swear at them. On a mountain bike you can miss a tree by half a inch and you laugh and do it again!

  10. Comment by gr@sshopper | 04.21.2008 | 1:54 pm

    I have little handling ability. My friends have lots of handling ability. I have, more than once, had to kick off guardrails to keep up with them around corners.


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