Opinion: The Opposite of Learning to Fly

by | June 29, 2022

Words: Matt Wragg

I don’t think I made a mistake. Clearing the little double, I came in hot. Grabbing the brakes, I tried to get the speed under control to load the fork and lift the front, swing it out left to open the corner.

It was an innocent-looking lump of rock, but a piece of rock that had no place on the trail. I should have been paying more attention. As I pushed into the front, the rock skittered out of the way, taking me along with it. The bars turned, the front tucked, and I think I rolled forwards onto the loose rock below.

It was one of those confusing, brutal crashes. I didn’t see it coming, finding myself on the floor trying to figure out what happened and how much of my body still worked.

Stripping down after riding, I counted big impacts on my hand and hip, smaller ones on both knees, my forearm, shoulder, ribs, and back. That evening on the drive home, as the muscles seized and hardened, I had to limp to the pizzeria, the hematoma on my leg somehow pulling my kneecap out of line. The weirdest part of all this? I felt great.

As all of us must face up to our aging bodies, there is an inevitable question that follows: How long can I keep doing this?

This year I face one of the milestones: I turn 40.

Where I grew up, you were pretty old at 40. The British lifestyle of hard drinking, poor eating, and long hours on the job take their toll. Especially the factory and manual jobs that the people I grew up with worked. Sport was not a thing – one of my friend’s parents had the audacity to run regularly, and he was considered pretty weird by most people in the village. Somewhere in their 30s, people tipped into middle-age, before passing into old age at around 50.

Today, being 40 is not the same thing, and it feels good to reach one of these milestones in life and realize that you’re not over the hill yet. Staying active, eating well, and looking after your body can make a huge difference to how old you feel. Maybe more important for continuing to ride is something that we rarely talk about: learning to crash.

It is not something I have ever heard discussed amongst riders, maybe because none of us want to tempt fate. After all, there’s no redder rag to the bullish universe than loudly proclaiming that you know how to crash without getting too hurt. And it’s not that, I still hurt this morning, but the grazes across my body prove that somehow, in the midst of all that chaos, I managed to tuck and roll.

Maybe the reticence is because it is hard to define. I could not exactly tell you how, or even if, I learned to crash well, it just seems self-evident to me. I know that when I am in that moment mid-crash, I don’t freeze or panic, I can let my body do what it needs to do.

When I start thinking about this topic, I remember Lewis Hamilton explaining to Top Gear how to crash in a Formula One car. He explained that once the traction is gone, you let go of the steering wheel, try to relax your muscles, and fold your arms across your chest. In an impact, it’s the tension that can make it way worse. For example, if your arm is out to put your hand on the steering wheel, then if the steering wheel is driven back by the impact, your whole arm and shoulder are pushed back with it while your body remains static in the seat.

More than anything, you have to overcome the fear of crashing. Which is no small thing in our world. Back when I used to work in an office, I would proudly parade my injuries around on a Monday morning as it used to freak people out. Thinking about things, I realized for many of them, the idea of being hurt like that was completely alien.

Modern life divorces many of us from any situation where we could possibly be hurt like that, saving a major trauma. Between the sofa and the office, the supermarket and the pub, there is nowhere in most people’s lives where they could imagine a minor broken bone, some road rash, or a good hematoma. An injury like that is a wild, uncontrollable thing for them, while experienced cyclists know that a crash is a series of decisions.

If you can start to recognize those sequences of events that lead toward a crash, you can even break the cycle sometimes. For example, these days I am very mindful of when I start making small mistakes in my riding, which are precursors to a bigger mistake, so I put my ego in check and call time. That setting aside of the ego is underappreciated. Because, if you are honest with yourself, how many of your big crashes were when you were pushing on when maybe you should have stepped away? I know most of mine were because of that.

If you are not used to crashing, you will have no idea how wonderfully resilient the human body is. You can absorb way bigger impacts than you think you can, brutal-looking crashes don’t usually hurt as much as you fear and you can learn a lot about yourself through the healing process. It is only through repetition that you can learn to crash better.

Maybe it’s some sick recall association for me. One of the happiest times of my life was when I lived out in Queenstown. I was riding with guys who were way faster than me, and I was pushing hard to try and get on their pace. That meant I was crashing a lot, and I was perpetually carrying some small niggle or other. I can’t help but wonder if walking around with that everyday pain takes me back to that part of my life.

This is not to say you should go out and try to crash. Or that by learning some secret kung fu you can magically dodge injury. I ride alone in the high mountains often, and up there it would not take much to lose my life. That is a price I accept each time I head out. But I also believe that by being able to ride without tensing, with a good understanding of my own abilities, and a willingness to put my ego aside, I have a better chance of coming home again.

As I age, I know that at some point this calculus must change. That the risk/reward axis for riding fast will evolve, and I don’t know if or when that may be. Here’s hoping that I can just wheel this op-ed back out and change the numbers in 20 years…