Words by Alicia Leggett // Photos by Eddie Clark and Scott Wagner
One of the most universal, unavoidable truths about mountain biking is that crashing sucks. And, for some reason, even though most of us know that it’s only a matter of time before we are injured in a fall, we keep riding anyway.
Sometimes, it feels like these two competing facts – that I want to ride my bike fast, and that riding my bike fast will probably hurt me – collide at the worst moments. At the first Big Mountain Enduro stop in New Mexico, I came face-to-face with a bit of harsh reality and have spent some time since then thinking about my relationship with this sport.
The race weekend was my first time riding in New Mexico, and I was loving it. The course was in the mountains above Santa Fe, based in a small community called Glorieta. Most stages included several distinct sections, with loose rocks, pedaling sections, fast flow, and some serious gnar, finishing with the famous Chili Dog rock drop. In short, the riding was awesome, and each practice stage made me even more excited to race.
Things changed when I fell off a 10-ish-foot ledge in my last practice run the evening before the race. I wasn’t going particularly fast or taking any real risks. I was just tired and a little sloppy, didn't know what was coming up and royally failed at going the right direction.
I don’t know exactly what happened, but I know I twisted and/or slammed hard onto both my knees. That’s when the mind games started.
If I couldn’t make it through two practice days without hurting myself, how could I last through the two race days? It hurt to bend one knee, and it hurt to straighten or put weight on the other. Could I race? Even if I could race, was it worth it? Although I was frustrated that I was hurting, I knew I was lucky I could even stand up after a crash like that. Still, I was angry -- with the course, with my bike, and mostly with myself.
I rode gingerly down the rest of the trail to the last feature, a rock drop that I knew wouldn't be a problem, but that I wanted to hit before my race run. Or, rather, it wouldn't have been a problem if I hadn't just wrecked myself. With my confidence gone, I stood and stared at it, wanting to be done riding for the day, but really not wanting to do the one thing I had to do before I was done riding for the day.
After arguing with myself for a good 25 minutes, I hiked my bike back up the hill, closed my eyes for a few seconds, told myself to trust my skills, and pointed it. It was fine.
Isn’t that how it usually goes? We let ourselves become headcases about features that don’t deserve our attention. We focus on the moments when we fall, which are few and far between compared to all the times we stay on our bikes. Overcoming that mental block Friday evening, even on a relatively straightforward drop, was a turning point. It set the tone for a weekend of working on the mental side of racing. In fact, using all the mental tools I had would be the only way for me to make it through the race.
I’m not great at sleeping, and the night before the race, I was especially restless. Every time I tried to move, knee pain jolted me fully awake again. Finally, just before 6 a.m., I gave up on sleep and started making coffee. One knee felt okay, but the other wouldn’t bend at all. It took two hours of hobbling around the campsite and stretching before I could bend it enough to pedal with my seat up. That would have to be good enough. It was time to race, and I started the first climb, a 2,900-foot combination of pedaling and hiking.
I think the best athletes are defined by how they respond to setbacks. I’ve watched so many of my heroes stay unfazed in the face of injuries, mechanicals and all kinds of other curveballs. The morning of the race, I’d checked Instagram and seen an update from Kate Courtney about how she flatted at the start of her race that weekend, but had set aside her doubts, dug deep and somehow, through pure tenacity and resilience, won the race. I’ve watched others hurt themselves, and, when forced to take time off, stay focused through their time off the bike to keep training and come back stronger than ever.
As I pedaled up to the first race stage, my knee interrupting each pedal stroke to ask me to quit, I thought about all the racers I admire. Why do I follow their careers, if not to be inspired by how they approach racing, and life? I think we’re all trying to make the most of the circumstances handed to us, but the best of us can figure out how to make something special out of something rough. I wanted to learn from the best and learn to roll with the punches. I decided I would put everything I had into my riding that weekend.
I rode hard and smart. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. I took the risks I needed to take, pedaled at every opportunity and kept things relatively smooth. I surprised myself, sitting third in the pro women’s category for most of the race, with a strong fourth place rider close behind. My knee hurt, of course, but I could set that feeling aside for a bit.
Finally, Sunday afternoon, we had just one stage left. It would only take about five minutes, and it was all that stood between me and the post-race tacos at the base area. Still, I was nervous. I knew the girl in fourth place had been making up time on me, and she was strong on technical trails like the one we were about to ride -- the one where I'd crashed less than 48 hours earlier. I didn’t think I had much of a chance of hanging onto my top-three result, but I knew I still had to try. I rode my best, pedaling out of corners and letting go of the brakes when I could. More importantly, I stayed on my bike. Number four won that stage, passing me, but second place dropped back, so I hung onto third.
All in all, the race reinforced the cliché racing advice that we’ve all heard before: It isn’t over ‘til it’s over. Don’t give up. Trust the process. Pedal, hard. Each time we make it through a hard race, we become a little stronger, a little smarter, and a little more likely to keep trying in the future.
Bike racing takes me out of autopilot. It forces me to be honest with myself, to recognize my limitations, and to try to push through them. It makes me think about how I move through the world, and how I would like to. Mostly, it helps me learn. I hope that never changes.
I’m already looking forward to the next race, when I can take some lessons from Santa Fe and apply them to a new situation. It will be yet another chance to test myself, mentally and physically, and to become just a bit braver and more resilient.
In the meantime, I’m going to go ice my knee.
About the Author:
Alicia Leggett, age 23, lives in a GMC Safari that is sometimes parked in Missoula, MT
Industry affiliations: Knolly Bikes, TRP Cycling, PNW Components, Maxxis, CushCore, The Gravity Cartel, Compel Wear, Dialed MTB Mudguards, MTN LAB Performance Coaching