Photo and text by Danielle Baker
I have a guitar that’s been collecting dust in the corner for the better part of six years. I keep it for the same reason crazy bingo ladies keep troll dolls. I’m superstitious. I believe that selling this unloved, unused guitar will result in an injury and I would need a new hobby to fill the temporary void left by mountain biking. This new hobby, obviously, would be learning the power cords to Rock You Like a Hurricane.
Why are we so afraid of getting injured? There are the obvious reasons, like pain, inconvenience, expensive medical bills, and bad hospital food. But what else is going on in our heads about it? There is almost a competitive nature to our reports on how quickly we’ve gotten back to riding post injuries. I’ve watched people shave down their casts so they can fit their hand on a set of drops and hit jumps in Whistler after much too recent concussions. One friend is the proud owner of a cadaver ligament as his eagerness to ride post surgery resulted in unsatisfactory healing. I like to ask him if his leg feels haunted.
When I broke my collarbone, yes it is ironic that the one injury that has kept me off my bike for any length of time also kept me from mastering any Hendrix, the doctor told me that I would be off my bike for six weeks. Somehow this information triggered an outpouring of boastful reports of 4-week or less recovery times. Apparently there was a race for me to get back on two wheels and I wasn’t entirely sure that my underachieving collarbone was up to the challenge. In the same vein I often see status updates on facebook to the effect of “The doctor told me I can’t ride yet, but I’m going anyway.” What are we so afraid of missing by being off our bikes?
There is the chance that in six weeks of not riding we will become morbidly obese. Or maybe we are afraid that in our absence the trails will disappear, mountain bikes will be outlawed, or the zombie apocalypse and riding for survival will take the joy out of it all. Perhaps we are just afraid of the void. I once spent a season racing amateur BC Cups on an injured foot because I didn’t want to give up the people, the fun, or the high. At the end of the season when my foot had finally seized into a right angle and refused to budge, I had it looked at. Apparently I had actually popped my ankle out and back in, tearing everything in the process. I spent months after that in physio and rolling my foot back and forth on a tennis ball under my desk. I also spent a lot of time wrestling the tennis ball away from the office dog and looking for it buried in the yard. In the end I spent more time off the bike than if I had dealt with it immediately, but I did not have to give up my summer of racing. This is the reasoning of a crazy person, right?
Being injured can be a very lonely and dark place, leading to Patsy Cline albums and bottles of red wine. The culture of mountain biking has become so entwined in our daily lives that when it is suddenly revoked it affects more than just our lack of saddle time. You have disappointment and withdrawal to process. The disappointment of losing what you thought your season or summer was going to be, kind of like a break up that wasn’t your idea. Your short-term expectations have to be rerouted and limited. And then there’s the withdrawal from the endorphins, a little like a junkie going cold turkey, suddenly the thing that felt good isn’t there. I’ve watched friends warp their bodies with overdeveloped active limbs at the gym in an effort to keep these feel good chemicals pumping. Research has shown, however, that training an uninjured limb can help maintain strength in the injured limb, its called transference. So if transference gives you a reason to hit pause on ‘I Fall to Pieces’, un-sink the cork in your wine bottle, and get off your kitchen floor, then get out to the gym.
When I was dealing with my biggest injury (I also like to call it post secondary education) and wasn’t able to ride often, I spent a lot of time shuttling friends on the local mountains and doing my homework in the truck. It beat sitting home alone. Yes, I was temporarily referred to as ‘shuttle bitch’, but hey, I got my fix in and it kept my spirits up. It reminded me that the trails were still there, bikes were still legal and my friends hadn’t forgotten me. In fact they loved me even more.
The reality is that when it comes to our culture an injury is more than a physical impediment. Riding, and everything that comes with it, makes us feel good. Being injured can mean a missed summer of high fives and post ride beers, for some it can mean a missed race season, and for others it can be an exciting opportunity to master Back in Black. Find a way to stay connected. Train at the gym with other injured riders (they are out there), shuttle your friends, show up at trail days and show off your foreman skills, but don’t rush your recovery or ignore your injuries. You may get lucky the first time you do, but ask anyone wrestling a dog for a tennis ball with a bad ankle, or playing host to other people’s body parts, in the long run you’ll be off your bike for even longer.