That’s just wrong.

Pretty much sums up my thinking, as I solved the mystery of why the British Army can’t source sufficient body armour for the front line troops. Because we’ve nicked it all, and were variously unpacking it, dusting it down and strapping it on at a trail centre car park.

When I say we, I am referring to weekend biking warriors in general and not me specifically. Because after giving my knee a repeated percussive workout at CLIC 2008, it became clear that my body was pretty well healed, and any perceived protection was addressing the wrong organ. The mountain biking part of my brain needed armouring up and a bit of a cuddle, while acting Mr. Plastic Fantastic was merely other limb placebo.

There’s a good argument for body armour, but it’s not the lame one trotted by those who confuse adrenalin with danger. And we’ll be back to that, but first this – the right time to strap yourself in a shock proof cocoon is when you think you’re going to hurt yourself. Back at Chicksands when multiple feet of whistling air separated squidy organs from hard ground is a good example. As was giving it some humpy on the downhill course at CwmCarn.

Here the body untalented – into which I absolutely place myself – quite rightly try and balance the risk/reward gig by piling plastic on the “staying alive” side of the seesaw. I crashed so many times back at Chicky which that was fine because I left my comfort zone in the car, and forced myself to try stuff that was beyond my meagre ability. That armour has the scars of those rough campaigns – full face helmet dented, leg pads in natty lion-savaged motif, pressure suit compressed where otherwise my spine would have been.

But trail centres are purpose built to roll out thrills without any spills. There are no walkers to cross your path with danger, no unseen obstacles to pitch you eyeball first onto a pointy rock, no trails apparently hewn by spiteful Gods trying to kill you. In short, much fun, bugger all risk. And the facile argument which runs “I can’t afford to hurt myself, I have to go to work on Monday, I have a family” misses the point completely.

Points really. Here’s the first; Mountain Biking is dangerous, Christ I should know having been hospitalised twice, and bruised a million times*. But if it wasn’t a bit spicy, we just wouldn’t do it. Sorry but we just wouldn’t – we’d ride the Sustrans, head out onto broad leafy cycle paths, squeeze into roadie tops and pound out the miles, but we would not risk possible and permanent injury whizzing between trees and banging over rocks.

So if you don’t want to get hurt, the solution seems to be body armour. But it’s not a solution, well it is but it is looking for a problem that doesn’t exist. I found the best way to avoid crashing was to slow down a bit. Radical I know, but riding at 90{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2} of whatever ability you have has many benefits, some subtle, some less so.

You don’t crash for a start – that’s a big one. You’ll still take risks but they’re calculated and the important part is you don’t think you’re going to crash. And when you back off, interesting stuff starts to happen as panic braking and desperate pedalling give way to looking further ahead and using the trail. And with that comes smoothness, and with smoothness comes speed.

It’s a beautiful thing, man. Seriously this became clear I was chasing a super smooth friend of mine at CwmCarn a few months ago. There’s a section before the last climb which has little gradient but more than compensates with a river of flowing left-right-left bends. I’ve always enjoyed it, but following someone who can clearly ride a bit, you begin to realise that to be fast, the most important skill is to think fast.

And when you’re thinking of better lines with faster choices, there is no time left to think of crashing. You don’t need body armour because it’s going to slow you down, both in thoughts and in deeds. Don’t get me wrong, it absolutely has its place, but trail centres aren’t any of those.

And last night, riding with the same friend, we were ragging down some local cheeky trails into the deepening gloom. These are MY trails, and I know them well enough to take a few risks, but not too many. Only twice did I open the taps and go beyond 90{45ac9c3234d371044e23e276755ef3a4dde8f1068375defba7d385ca3cd4deb2}, and both of those shot me full of adrenalin and full on fear.

The rest of the time, we were having a bloody fantastic time, by not crashing. And by not thinking about crashing. That’s my problem with body armour – it’s not an ego thing, or a macho thing, or an image thing, It’s an attitude thing.

I could be wrong. But – let’s face it – that’s pretty unlikely 🙂

* This could be because I’m rubbish. I concede that point. Before you make it!

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