"Survival instincts kick in and I look for a safe place to crash. I lie in the pine needles loathing myself"

We all ride within our comfort zones most of the time but taking the occasional risk can reap the greatest rewards.

>>> 12 classic mountain bike crashes we’ve all had

Words and photos: Sim Mainey

Project Fear

There’s something about winter, especially in the early part of the year, that seems to make people think that they need to suffer. Cyclists call this suffering ‘training’. Maybe it’s guilt accumulated over an indulgent Christmas period forcing its way out of the body as sweaty and sorry penance. While training used to entail spending hours slowly turning pedals on a road bike into a perpetual headwind for hours on end it’s morphed into staring at a computer screen while half naked in something called a pain cave. A bike may or may not be involved.

I get it, people want to be fit and ready for the first glimmer of dry weather so when tyres do eventually kick up a bit of dust rather than sink an inch into the trail they can make the most of it and think “it was all worth it.”

While technology has made it possible to get the miles in without leaving the house that’s still not possible when it comes to skill. Reflexes and muscle memory fade just as quickly as leg strength and after a month or two of festive celebrations, illness and weather induced apathy my legs and brain needed a shock back into action.

Rather than stick myself on a digital treadmill or attempt to stomp out some worthy but soul-destroying miles I decided to go for the short and sharp, high-intensity method of scaring (and possibly scarring) myself – getting my head in the right place for riding, if not my legs.

Asking around my circle of friends it seems I’m not the only one who thinks this way, hiding in the woods and risking life and limb seems, oddly, preferable to a death slog across an open moor. Fight or flight and failure are brutal teachers but they get results so it was time to enact Project Fear.

I’m lucky enough to live within a short distance of some truly terrifying trails. Well, I think they are but having seen pro-riders skip and jump down local trails that give me vertigo I wonder just what constitutes terrifying for them. Fear is relative, it’s also relatable. Every rider gets scared, whether your trying to clear a two foot or a twenty foot gap jump for the first time the feeling is the same. One of the things I love about mountain biking is that the highs and lows are equally understood no matter what your ability.

Saturday morning and I’m suitably padded up for a day of falling down hills. We decide to start with something I’ve ridden before, but which still pushes the limits of my talent threshold. Steep stuff has always been my nemesis, that feeling of the front wheel tucking under and being flung over the bars to land some distance, vertically and horizontally down the trail gives me shivers. Steep makes me sweat so this is something I want to tackle head on, but preferably not head first.

“I’m not really bothered by steep stuff. Jumps with gaps, yeah, but steep trails, not so much.” Dan says with a shrug. To prove this we head off to one of the steepest, slipperiest trails around so fellow followers of fear Dan and Ben can show me how it’s done.

“Panic braking is the enemy of speed and I WILL overcome it!”

This trail is a handful in summer, today it’s a strip of brown grease. Things start well enough with us just about managing the entrance and the first corner but things quite literally go downhill from there. It’s obviously not been ridden for a while so there’s no rut or edge to eke out traction from. It’s a plummet that, without a slight adjustment half way, smacks you into a tree followed by an even steeper section. I watch as Dan and Ben take it in turns to fall down the hill, sometimes on their bikes sometimes not. Making that first mental commitment is the key, convincing first yourself that you’re going to ride it out then persuading your bike that that’s the plan. A few stalls, failed attempts and semi-successful wobbles later and both the boys have done it, but not without it taking a toll. “You know I was saying that steep stuff doesn’t bother me? Yeah, well it does.” says Dan, looking back up the trail. Bike on his back he scrambles back up the slope for another go. The only way to overcome fear is by doing. When you fail and fall, get back up for another crack until what was scary becomes routine. Easier said than done…

Playing Havok

My left hand has a deep and meaningful relationship with my back brake. It gets a near constant feathering, despite my best intentions to Stay Off The Brakes. Comfort braking I call it, despite it making things less comfortable. I have more of a problem with my right hand and the front brake. When things get steep, slippery and techy some part of my brain that is hardwired to only operate my right hand has an unnerving habit of stepping in and making things worse. I roll up to the edge of a horrible drop-in and find my right hand bunched up around my brake lever. It takes as much concentration dealing with what my right hand is doing as the trail in front. Fighting my subconscious to stop it from making matters worse, swearing as, yet again, the front wheel locks up from panic braking I didn’t ask for. I need to give myself a good talking to and get used to not being fully in control, to relax and go with the flow.

Leaf mulch and thick loam provide a gripping ride

Taking some time out from conquering my demons and hiding behind a camera it’s interesting watching the mix of facial expressions. Concentration, exertion, concern and relief played out in a mix of extended tongues, puffed up cheeks, frowns and smiles. Facial contortion plays as much a part in riding as body position when things get hairy.

We retire to the pub bruised but mostly unharmed and work on ideas for how to push things a little further in our training plan.

Mossy woodwork looms out of the emerald gloom

Havok Bike Park just outside Todmorden in West Yorkshire may be small but it packs in two good downhill runs and a freeride area. Within its confines we were bound to find something to get adrenaline pumping and heart levels racing. Having an easy way back up to the top makes life easier too.

>>> Havok Bike Park, West Yorkshire bike park guide

Steep learning curve

A good bike park is much like a good teacher, it introduces you to an idea and then slowly expands it, building on what you’ve learned rather than just dropping you in at the deep end and leaving you to flounder.

Havok is more of a middle to upper skill level venue, there’s no Blue route and the Red route gets you into things pretty quickly due to the limited amount of elevation to play with. This would be less of a semester of learning and more of a crash course, Ben and I the pupils.

Well taken, and no gurning to boot!

A couple of bits of boardwalk and we’re thrown into mud, roots, ruts and berms. The dense wood means light is scarce so eyes are strained and the other senses are running at 100% to keep things going forward and staying upright. While the trails aren’t as steep yesterday’s they make up for it with highly polished roots, jumps and the unknown. I’m struggling to commit to some of the deeper ruts, getting the wheel slightly sideways and almost catapulting myself off the bike. A few repetitions of the same corner and things improve. Having somewhere you can ride well built sections over and over again without feeling guilty about damaging the trail instantly makes things easier.

Is this fear or respect I wonder as I look down a particularly steep and technical rutted section. Likely a bit of both. Not enough respect for the trail will lead to a nasty crash but letting that respect turn into fear will have the same effect. I aim to stay cool, objective and relaxed – not allowing things to phase me. This works for about three seconds before my brain does its subconscious braking thing and my rear wheel tries to overtake me. My stomach tightens, pulse races and eyes widen as my in survival instincts kick in and I look for a safe place to crash. I lie in the pine needles loathing myself. Less speed, more respect and a real effort to keep my fingers off the brakes gets me through clean the second time. Relaxing and going with the flow is taking a lot of effort.

Following a friend can be helpful for getting up to speed or utterly demoralising as they disappear into the distance leaving you lying upside down in the undergrowth wondering what exactly it was that you did wrong. I try and keep on Ben’s rear wheel down the black trail, following his lines and aping his movements. Sometimes this works but sometimes a slight misjudgement in weighing the bike or a fundamental difference in how we ride means I end up out of control or unable to keep momentum. Sometimes you have to find your own way down and round things…

We meet one guy pushing up to the trailhead who happily admits this is his first time riding a bike that isn’t along a canal bank. Apparently his mates idea of getting him into mountain biking was to bring him to a bike park. It’s an interesting approach but he’s grinning ear to ear and watching him come down the trail he’s clearly cautious but loving it. It’s pretty inspirational watching him pick his way down the trail the model of respect and fear in equal measure.

Warmed up and fired up, Ben wants to face down the large tabletop that lurks in the woods. There’s a minimal penalty for failure for coming up short but that doesn’t stop it being scary – on approach the upslope of the jump looks like it’s a wall, the landing is well out of view until you’re on top of the jump, something Ben says he struggles with. Ben’s first attempts, even by his own admission are a little sketchy, but again repetition subdues the fear until he’s easily clearing it. “I’m well pleased with that” he grins.

It’s only 2.30pm but the dark north facing forest has got even darker making some of the trails a little too touch and go for our liking. Tired and limits suitably pushed we decide to call it quits.

It can be easy to concentrate on getting the miles in, to put your head down and grind out rides but it also pays to keep your head up and look to push your limits, to get a little bit scared and work on getting your skills ready for summer as well as your legs. It’s easy to shirk away from fears but it pays to embrace them.