The Fear - Bike Magic

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The Fear

I have the Fear. It’s currently in remission but I know it’ll be back. Lurking in the shadows like a malignant tumour, sometimes treatable but never curable. Ready to debilitate physical prowess by insidiously burrowing into the mind’s eye. The Fear’s symptoms are a can’t-do attitude and shaking limbs, breeding on the dark side of the interface between ambition and achievement.

The Fear is treatable. But it’s immune to component upgrade and rampantly aggressive in the face of shiny new bike syndrome. It laughs in the face of tall tales grown fat on beer and indolence. It does not accept that life should be fair but subscribes to the premise that each of us reaches our own level of incompetence before residing there forever. Or descends into the moral and physical turpitude which far more precisely defines impending middle age than a simple counting of years ever could.

The Fear is patient. Sometimes lying dormant for months on end while dusty trails inflate our fragile egos before rushing in to fill the vacuum that a single moment of doubt creates. It’s fired by frightened imagination burning down the walls of invincibility and spreading root and branch to wither the confidence that enables you to treat mountains as equals. In short, it waits for the one opportunity to erode everything that is perfect about riding a bike, and when that time comes strikes like a laser leaving nothing but charred self-belief.

Let’s be clear here. Whatever the marketeers panhandle as the next big thing, mountain biking is in your head and in your soul. It’s probably having a big say on your bank account but that’s hardly relevant here. Except that, while many of us advance the ‘bike as art’ argument, much of our pious worship at the shrine of pimp is thinly-disguised placebo against the onset of the Fear. We’re sacrificing shiny aluminium totems in an attempt to placate the one god that can invalidate our obsession in an instant. Scary, eh?

If you’re still here, then, presumptuous as it is, I’ll divide you into two camps. Those who see this as nothing more than pretentious navel gazing and the remaining poor bastards who are nodding sagely but pretending they have ‘a friend’ who is suffering from the fear malaise. So in the spirit of public therapy let me tell you this: “Hi, my name is Alex, I’m 36 years old and I’ve had the Fear.”

It’s important to be clear about definition. A single moment of temporary insanity where enthusiasm overrides ability does not constitute the Fear. Arriving alive at the bottom of a descent where for a second or more, things have gone badly wrong and you’ve sporting the gurning rictus of terror facing an imminent head in the bushes scenario, is nothing more than rolling the dice of fate. Sometimes you roll a double six and sometimes you are at one with the local flora and fauna. Don’t delude yourself, that’s not the Fear.

The Fear starts way before you clip shaking feet into uncaring pedals. Lying in a storm-tossed tent, body half asleep, mind wide awake, playing tomorrow’s trails in a Jekyll and Hyde manner, hoping against hope that it’s Mr Hyde who’s at home when the sun comes up. Or talking bollocks in a pub, twelve hours away from a wave of trail obstacles breaking on the beach of singletrack, and while you’re waxing your board with your mates, the fear sits on your shoulder mocking your bravado.

The Fear caught up with me in Morzine this summer. Before then, we’d had a few skirmishes, post stack and bruised but never had it gained a hold. It was benign. Irritating yes, but easy to push back into the dark with a couple of beers or a bold move in front of those whose opinions strangely matter. Morzine was different. Bigger in every way, steeper, rife with technical difficulties on the edge of my ‘good day’ skills. And yet things were going so well on the first day before ill-advised overtaking moved me out front and expected me to perform. The ensuing highside saw me body-surf a gravel ravine at 20 miles an hour with only skin as protection. It hurt with bloody seeping wounds packed tight with the rock-lites that had been my ego cushion. So I took it easy for a while which – remember Fear isn’t fair – saw me take a second tumble adding more shrapnel whilst reducing the skin coverage further.

A few beers and everything was fine. Except they wore off and the next morning saw me fitting wider tyres and encasing my battered body in armour. But the Fear doesn’t recognise these feeble acts of defiance and the first descent drove home the insurgence of Fear against the dereliction of the confidence that had been so prevalent the day before. The monster reared up and scared me into immobility leaving me wide eyed and frozen on the brakes for that descent and all that followed. The frustration of knowing your limits, being both nowhere near them but still badly scared is almost unbearable and the harder you try, the worse it gets. And the sympathy vote from your fellow riders, some minutes ahead, rates a pretty close second in the bloody miserable stakes.

The next day was a rest day. I chucked away the fat tyres, gave myself a serious talking too and drank far too many beers. I’m not sure it helped, but I certainly felt better. However, the first chairlift after sobriety kicked in did not bode well. Sweating: Check. Shaking knees: Check. Wanting to feign injury so I could go home: Check. So much for positive thinking. And then someone said “ride the bike”. It’s a better life statement than a holistic treatment of the Fear but for me it encapsulated everything that was wrong. Stop thinking, start riding. The bike is way better than you, just hang onto the bars, tweak the nose of terror and be prepared to run away if things get a bit rough. Did it work? Strangely enough it did. The Fear kept trying to push back in with images of a sprawled Al broken on the rocks but I was riding the bike. That’s all you need to do. Treat the fear with adrenaline and dopamine, look around, realise how bloody lucky you are to be here and laugh, maybe nervously, at your demons.

Has it been back? Oh yes. Remember, the Fear only ever goes into remission. A hint of self-doubt, a botched move, a stupid stack or an obstacle refusal brings back the flood and leaves you drowning in the Fear. But I almost welcome it now, because it’s beating it, pushing it back into the dark places and rejoicing in the knowledge that it’s only an enemy outside and not the host within that makes you love the good times more. The option is to stop, ride towpaths, pretend you quit because you wanted to, and leave the best feeling in the world to those who stand on the bridge between fear and joy. And you know what, that’s probably the best place in the world. Room for a frightened one?

I know the Fear will be back and it’ll be up for a fight. But I’ll be ready. And whilst I may lose the odd battle, I’m going to win the war.


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