Sunday, 27 January 2013

Calculated Risks

Of all the forms of cyclesport that exist out there, there’s a good argument to be made for mountain biking, and particularly mtb racing being the one that depends most on its practitioners to be able to take calculated risks. In a mountain bike race, there are so many variables we as riders are in control of, and which we must make decisions about. Someone’s riding with you, do you pedal harder up the hills to try to drop them, do you take faster but dodgier lines on the descents to shed them, or do you rely on your sprint to dispatch them at the finish. Like Jason Bourne, we have to make a decision based as much on impulse and instinct as racecraft, and after a few races, we all become capable of making a split-second call on what to do.

The crucial word in what i’ve written above is “calculated”. Mountain bikers are viewed as reckless by roadies - we crash, we bounce, we get back up and keep riding, surely we must be overdoing it all the time. But the truth is, if you want to race well, you have to be conservative - if you spend all your time upside down in bushes, you’ll always be too bruised or injured to race well. It’s all about knowing your limits and the dangers you face, and riding within yourself most of the time.

It therefore seems particularly sad and dispiriting that two international-level mountain bike racers have lost their lives to road traffic incidents in the last three months. I found myself genuinely shocked and distraught on hearing the news that Burry Stander had been killed by a taxi in South Africa. He was a young man in his prime that i remember as a youthful, vibrant 18-year old racing at the very front of an NPS race in Thetford forest during an unusually warm April day in 2007. He had since risen to become an under-23 world champion, and a multiple national champ and world cup winner, arguably one of the very best XCO and XCM racers in the world. You don’t get that good by taking needless risks. It seems so deeply shocking and indescribably sad that even Burry’s incredible powers of risk minimisation (much talked about after the collision was the fact that he was super-careful when riding on the roads of SA) were not enough to keep him from harm

0.00000067. It’s a number that sticks in my head. It’s not just because i’m a mathematician by training, and a physicist by trade that i remember this particular number so clearly. It’s the numerical chance that, based on the cycling statistics for London, i will be killed or seriously injured on any given day i choose to commute to work. I can strive to reduce this number, but like Burry, there’s only so much i can do. It takes a concerted effort by politicians, city planners, road designers, automotive companies and above all drivers and the DVLA to make a significant dent in this number, a number that chases all of us who use bicycles on the road for transport or pleasure. If you haven’t already, i encourage you to sign this excellent petition;

I am the eternal optimist. I think we can all get along. I don’t see why a tonne of metal, plastic and fossil fuel should put up a barrier between human beings. i think that all it takes is a realisation that we’re all in this together - we are all entitled to our place on the roads of this crowded little island we call home, and with that great freedom comes great responsibility - to look out for one another. How hard can that really be?