When you’re mountain biking, there are many, many things to be afraid of. For example, you can — and should! — be afraid that you’re not going to clean the ledge you’re dropping.
Or that you’re not going to clean the ledge you’re climbing.
Or that you’re going to get sucked into a rut and endo.
Or that you’re going to lose traction, slide out, and collect a whole bunch of gravel in the bloody place where your knee used to be.
I could go on.
The thing with road bikes is, it has nowhere near as many obstacles to worry yourself about. Sure, there’s the biggy: cars. And if you ride in groups, there are other riders to worry about. And of course, there can be something that makes you lose traction with the road. Gravel. Water. Oil.
Other than that, there’s just the road.
Except, there’s another kind of obstacle. An easy one to forget, until you suddenly are right there and it’s too late and your doom is certain.
This has happened to me.
Which is Stronger: Pain or Humiliation?
It was 1990. I was 24 years old. I lived nine miles away from WordPerfect Corporation, where I worked as a technical writer, writing documentation about programming with macros.
Most days, I rollerbladed the nine miles to work and back. But a couple of friends I had met at work had convinced me I should buy a bike and start riding it to work.
One of those friends was Bob Bringhurst.
As a person who is highly susceptible to peer pressure, I went a little crazy and spent a ton of money on that first bike — a Bridgestone MB-5. It cost $350.
I rode to work a couple of times before I ever took the bike offroad. I didn’t have any problems.
And then, one day, as I rode the final blocks in to work, I heard another bike coming up behind me (bikes were noisy back then). I looked over my left shoulder and saw my friend Bob on his own bike, catching up.
So I sped up a bit.
I looked back again maybe thirty seconds later, and Bob was continuing to gain on me.
I didn’t have a lot more speeding up I could do, but I gave it what I got.
Five seconds later, I looked back again, to see if I was now holding Bob off.
I was not. He was seconds from catching me.
Disappointed, I turned to face forward again and accept my defeat with grace.
And then, suddenly, I was sliding in the street on my chest and face.
For I had not known the incredible danger the seam between the asphalt and the concrete curb can pose.
While I was looking left over my shoulder, I had evidently been drifting right (this is remarkably common, and I promise you it is a very scary thing indeed when your driving-permitted child does this while checking to see if it’s OK to change lanes). My wheel had dropped into the little gap, and that was it. Down I went.
I got up. Bloody. Shaking. Clearly hurting. And embarrassed as I had ever been.
“I’m just fine,” I lied, hoping Bob might perhaps just ride by.
Bob came to a stop.
“Why did you fall?”
“I was moving over so you’d have room to pass and hit the curb,” I said, now lying just because I was hoping that eventually I’d hit on a storyline more interesting than mundane truth: that I had just been KO’d by a very narrow crack in the road.
“Uh, see you at work,” Bob said.
And then I got back on my bike, vowing that I would go back to rollerblading the very next day, and would never ride a bike again.
Older and Wiser
Of course, back then I didn’t know exactly how scary a tiny crack in the road can be. It’s extraordinary: if I drop my road bike’s front wheel into the most insignificant hairline crack, it suddenly feels as if my whole wheel has been swallowed and the handlebars are being wrenched from my grip.
Even worse, that little crack on the road is completely invisible to pedestrians, people in cars, and other cyclists. To them, it looks like you’ve just decided — on a whim — to nearly (if you’re lucky) crash your bike.
Now, of course, I know.
And every time I cross a crack — a tiny little crack, especially one patched with that gooey tar stuff — lining up with my front wheel, my stomach jumps into my throat, and I hope that my wheel won’t get sucked in.
Or that at least nobody’s watching.