Of all the senses, smell short circuits synapses with such breathtaking speed it sometimes does just that – rewinding the minds eye to a vision of something so joltingly real it pushes the physical world away. For some fresh cut grass triggers a memory of long – and long ago – carefree summers, others will walk into their kids’ classroom, and be instantly transported back thirty years into a world of short trousers and tall teachers.
For me it’s the smell of warm gravel. Rubbish you say, gravel doesn’t have a smell – ah but it does if you’ve ever given it a proper nasal examination from close quarters. My approach was a high velocity, low level pass- ramming gravel up a nostril until it was piled sufficiently high to create a never-to-be-forgotten mental bookmark.
It didn’t really register at the time, because all my organic processing was being diverted to having a large accident. And while the memory of flint slicing my knee directed my riding bravery for far too long, that was much more about a sense of fear rather than the smell of it.
Until now. The weekly night ride split my brain neatly between then and now with a sensory throwback of scrabbling tyres hunting for grip on smooth granite marbles. The malevolent sound these mini Grim Reapers hissed sat somewhere between an analytical explanation of fat tyres on loose rock, and an imagined disaster movie with me being nothing more than a painful passenger.
You see the thing that pissed me off more than anything back in 2006 was my stupidity in ignoring a stand-out warning of what was to come. I’d had some proper wiggly feedback through the bars on the corner before, but I pushed it just as hard anyway into the subsequent gravelly arc.
And paid for such bravery with first a month off the bike, and then two years when riding became so much of a chore I so nearly packed it up for good. So last night put the Vu back in Deja after I’d spent most of the ride letting air of the tyres so carefully inflated some time earlier hunting for some grip. I was riding the big bike for a change, and that change made for so much silly fun, so much more downhill speed, and so little purchase on big fat 2.5inch tyres better suited for proper sized rocks in the Peak District.
The start of an accident inevitably comes near the end of the ride when reflexes are not quite as sharp as confidence is high. We ride a fantastic ridge which funnels into a steep, loose gulley, guarded by a natural berm that shoots you wide of the tyre sucking danger of the eroded centre. Instead you stay high, stay off the brakes, push out over a tree root before committing to a properly shaley left hander.
Fail to make it and you’re in the quarry, get it wrong and rapid, full body exfoliation awaits. Get it right though and you’re pumped out at high speed, grab a chunk of usefully located bank and ping off into something a little flatter and safer. It’s ace, but loose and looser than ever with weeks of nothing falling in there other than the occasional mountain biker.
I entered that berm at a speed entirely inappropriate for a man of my limited skill, which unsurprisingly compressed the next few seconds into a mental riot of terror, acceptance, amazement and relief. I avoided the root by simple dint of ploughing into the gulley. My tyres felt it was important to bring the absolute abscence of any grip whatsoever to my attention by starting to slide in a manner worrying reminisant of a long stay in hospital.
I caught the first slide with stiffly frightened muscle memory, but by now the only manner by which I could be classed as “in control” was still being on the bike. While this was going on, that left hander loomed tight and fast and my options narrowed to nothing. Had to stuff it in, had to push the bar, had to find time to pray it wasn’t going down.
The slide was properly mental. In so many ways of that word, as I could hear the echo of a bike crashing groundwards, the shhhhhsssshing noise of fast gravel at ear level and the sound of body bounce. Yet it didn’t happen, and I still don’t know why. In the same way I still cannot understand how I lost a different bike in a similar corner, but with a younger God of Fate looking on.
Margins. That’s what this is about. Two situations, starting the same, finishing entirely differently. It’s made me think about the accident again but in a good way. Because for every crash that smashes you up and leaves you wondering if it’s bloody well worth it, there are a hundred mirrors that you don’t hold up for proper examination.
So I know this time I got lucky. But what I’ve worked out is that I’ve been sodding lucky so many times before. Only when you understand the margins do you finally comprehend the massive deficit of risk to reward than mountain biking serves up every time you go out and ride.
I’m feeling pretty damn good about that.