So I’ve mentioned a few times now that I had a mountain biking accident a couple of years back. Woe is me, cue the violins.
I promised to explain what happened, because it’s wholeheartedly at the root of all my fears around descending, and those fears tend to govern everything I do when I’m on the bike.
Basically a couple of years ago I saw a Facebook ad for Mountain Yoga Breaks, and I thought it sounded amazing. Spoiler alert: it was. It was a weekend of mountain biking around the gorgeous Elan Valley in Powys, Wales, with two daily yoga sessions to start the day and wind down. Polly, who teaches the yoga and co-leads the rides, is well versed in the poses best suited for stretching out all the right muscles post-ride. If this sounds like your bag, I highly recommend it. I actually bumped into her in Oxford a couple of weeks ago, where she taught a Yoga for Cyclists class at the Broken Spoke Women and Cycling Festival.
The one detail I neglected to consider was that I’d never been mountain biking before, nor had I ever considered how technical and dangerous it could be. Nonetheless, I contacted Heidi Blunden, who I’d met on a Breeze ride previously, and she took me through the basics for a couple of hours at Ashton Court, which was a lot of fun. I was nervous as hell but I felt well equipped to give it a try, and a couple of weeks later I was on a train to Llandrindod Wells.
Honestly, it’s a gorgeous weekend away. The Elan Valley is stunning, they hire out the Elan Valley Lodge so the group has the whole grounds to themselves. Food is provided, including a packed lunch and snacks to take out on the ride, yoga is upstairs in the morning and evenings and everyone has their own en suite room.
The people I met were lovely. There was a mixture of experience among the group, including many really experienced mountain bikers, and other newbies like myself. On the first day we all set out together as a group and were tested very quickly on our abilities. Over the course of the 7-hour ride, it became clear who amongst the group needed more tuition and easier routes than others (myself included). We split up into two groups towards the end to allow the more experienced (or just braver) riders the opportunity to do a really technical and fun descent. I was not part of this group.
I found the first day really fun and challenging, and in some places really scary. Particularly at the beginning, when everything felt unfamiliar and I forgot everything Heidi had taught me because I could concentrate on nothing but my fear. But I did start to get over it, and towards the end of day one I was gaining some confidence and really enjoying myself.
On day two Polly and Phill (the other ride leader) decided to split us into two groups for the whole day. Phill took the more experienced riders on a more challenging route while Polly took those of us with less experience on an easier route which included some on-road as well as off-road riding. By that afternoon I was feeling really confident. I was having a lot of fun, my technique was starting to come along and it was starting to feel quite natural. I felt in control of my bike and my speed, and I was absolutely loving the views.
Unfortunately I came down from my high pretty quickly. Right towards the end of the ride, we were descending quite a significant downhill, with loose gravelly terrain. It was one of those downhills which levelled out every now and then, giving you an opportunity to brake and rein in your speed before the next part of the descent. It was also the type of downhill that had a narrow path, and was flanked with bushes, so the path ahead wasn’t always that visible.
So, for the most part, I did well to keep my speed in check. I used the flat parts to brake, and I remained in control of the descents. I was feeling confident and I was enjoying myself. Eventually I saw the path open out into a longer, flat surface. It was still surrounded by bushes but it looked like we’d reached the bottom. In my elation at having completed a scary descent, I forgot to brake when I reached the bottom, only to find that it then opened out onto another downhill. I wasn’t ready. I was hurtling down at an uncontrollable speed and gaining more as I went. I tried to feather my brakes as we’d been taught but by this point it was too late and completely ineffective.
In the end I panicked. I pulled hard on the brake levers, and I accepted that I was going to come off the bike. It slid out from underneath me, and I proceeded to roll down the rocky hill. All I really remember from that sensation was that I felt a rock hit me hard in the chest, which winded me. I just rolled and felt like I was going to die.
Eventually I stopped, and I just lay still for a moment before the awful pain in my chest suddenly hit me. All I could do was start wailing; partly to get help from Polly, who was behind me somewhere, and partly because it was literally all I could do. The pain and the panic took over. She found me soon after, administered some first aid, and checked me over. ‘Oh you poor thing,’ she said, ‘you’ve landed in the nettles’. I looked around and realised she was right. I was lying in the middle of a bush of stinging nettles, and hadn’t even noticed because of the adrenalin. Needless to say, not long after that, my skin was on fire.
It could have been much worse, I know. Nothing was broken, and I got away with some scrapes, bruises and stinging nettle rashes. But that moment when I knew I’d lost control of the bike, the sudden momentum as I gained unwanted speed, the acceptance that it was over… it was traumatic for me.
It turned out where I’d fallen was also pretty much at the bottom of the hill, and all that was left was a flat ride on a cycle path back to the lodge. I wiped away my tears and reluctantly got back on the bike, and pedalled very slowly back to the comfort of my bed. The yoga session that evening was a challenge for me, as I had open wounds on my knees and elbows, making some of the poses difficult.
I’m glad it happened at the end of the weekend, because had that happened earlier on, I probably wouldn’t have gotten back on the bike. I probably would have gotten an early train home. Instead, I got to have a really fun and scary weekend, before the fun was over. Admittedly I didn’t really get back on the bike after that, and haven’t really given mountain biking a second chance since then. But I’ve reached a point where I think I’m ready to try again. Regina has helped me to become braver, and I’ve started pushing myself more, particularly on the downhills and off-road paths.
A few of my friends – Hattie and Lucy to name two – have offered to accompany me on some downhill practice and trail riding up at Ashton Court. Now that the days are getting longer and warmer, I’m going to take them up on it. Hopefully a bit of time, courage and adrenalin will make a mountain biker of me yet.