Saturday, May 28, 2011

Life - Fear

One cannot have missed the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt in the 2011 Giro. A descent, one moment of millimeter impreciseness, and that was it.

People I know asked if that would make me afraid, if Fear would keep me from riding, if it would make me go a bit easier on descents, if I'd change anything about my riding.

I've ridden my bike since WW passed.

I've done crits, fighting for position, cornering in the middle of a tightly crowded field. I've descended aggressively, diving into almost-switchback U-turns, tires scraping for traction. I've drafted a UPS truck, inches away from its spring-type bumper, and sprinted unsuccessfully after other prey, massive efforts amidst swirling, gusty wind, with aero wheels buffeted like the sails they can be.

Following Brown.

I even did all out sprints in the rain, rear tire skittering around, barely under control, inspired by Petacchi's incredible sprint victories in the rain, rear tire skittering around as his rear tire desperately claws for traction.

I've done all that and felt no Fear.

And really, when it comes down to it, it has to do with, contrary to what you might think, being risk averse.

Risk averse? How does shying away from risk justify sprinting after trucks? Isn't that the whole concept of risk?

Well, no, not really. It's about riding with many variables under control, and using judgment for those variables not under control. The truck represents very few uncontrolled risks - perhaps a tire throws up a rock, or the axle breaks off and bounces around in front of me.

But really, when you think about it, the rider controls many of the risks. The rider controls the bike, the speed, the follow distance, and, by peeking around the side of the truck, even has an idea of the traffic and such.

When I was drafting the UPS truck, I was easing well before he was for red lights, slower cars, and the like.

Let's take a non-cycling example. I'm afraid of heights. It's why my bike is so low. Heh. Okay, it's not, but I'm really afraid of heights. When I first cleaned the gutters on my old house, a one floor house whose gutters sat maybe ten feet off the ground, I felt virtually paralyzed with fear.

I managed to get up the ladder, my then girlfriend watching, ready to dial 911 in case the fire department had to come by to extricate me from the roof. I cleared the gutters, sometimes dizzy with fear, using garden hoses as partial belaying ropes (and using them to spray into gutters I didn't want to reach for). Sometimes I even lay on my stomach so I wouldn't slip or trip or slide off the very shallow pitched roof.

When I was ready to get back down the ten foot drop seemed like the Grand Canyon. I finally gathered the courage to get a foot onto the aluminum ladder, then to lift the other foot.

As I made my way down my somewhat concerned (and somewhat amused) girlfriend asked me what was making that rattling noise. It sounded like a cat in a Havahart cage, scrabbling to get out.

I paused and focused on analyzing the noise.

"Don't worry. It's just me shaking so hard the ladder's rattling."

Let's just say that my then girlfriend's "somewhat concerned" attitude disappeared, replaced with "fully amused" and barely concealed laughter. Even I smile when I think of the whole situation now.

Havahart trap, which rattles like an aluminum ladder, with Bella who was about 4 weeks old.

Now, as afraid of heights as I am, I've rock climbed (in real, i.e. at the Gunks near New Paltz, NY), I've been to the top public deck of places like the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Stratosphere, the Twin Towers, and even the dinky-by-comparison Arc de Triomphe.

I never felt "fear" when I did those; a little uneasiness, yes, but fear, no.

It's because I felt like the significant variables were under control. In high school, when I rock climbed, I learned to trust the rope. I never had an experience to tell me otherwise so for a couple years I trusted the rope absolutely. The worst part of the climb was at the top, when I unclipped said rope.

Suddenly, even though I climbed a couple hundred feet perfectly okay, even though I was standing 10 or 15 feet from the edge of said climb, I felt absolute, near-paralyzing fear.

I'd lost control of that variable.

Earlier this year we went to Vegas for some post-tax season de-stressing (or post-Bethel for me). Since the Missus and I don't gamble per se (we usually use up the free play coupons and we'll throw maybe another ten into it after that), we try and do other things. In the past we'd check out a show per trip, or, more recently, do a Pink Jeep Tour. (Note: our favorite guide is Shanin (sp?), a very knowledgeable guy.) They're a lot of fun and very educational.

This year we went to Grand Canyon.

That's a place where people afraid of heights don't belong.

But you can see where I'm going with this. There are two ways (well, three really) to experience the beyond-comprehension visuals at the Grand Canyon, at least without a helicopter or a mule.

The worst way is to fall. One guide pointed out to me that the fall generally doesn't kill you - it's the stop at the end.

The second way is to stand near the rim of the canyon. Since this is not officially the US of A (it's Indian territory), there are no liability type concerns here. Clueless people are welcome to walk right up to the edge of the drop, look down, whatever.

The new way of doing it is to do the Sky Walk, where you walk on a horseshoe shape walkway formed by glass "floors" laying across the opening between two horseshoe shaped beams. We did this first, trying to avoid too much of a line.

While you're standing there you can read some of the placards which boast of the Sky Walk's capacities (as well as some of the safety features). I remember one placard that said that the beams can hold 71 million pounds (something like that).

These placards help the guest rationalize the safety of the structure. It's kind of like controlling the variables; although I had no control over the design of the structure, by the time I got to the actual Sky Walk I had quite a bit of faith in the horseshoe bit.

Notice I didn't mention the glass?

The glass... well, it's five layers of safety glass, laminated together. It looks kind of like bank teller glass, the shield the tellers sit behind in higher-risk locales. You can stomp on it pretty hard if you want, and it'll be okay.

Normally this would be enough to ease my fear of heights, even though I'd be looking down about 2000 feet below my feet, well beyond my 1000 foot experiences with man-made structures.

The only problem in my whole "controlling the variables" bit was a show I'd just watched while resting after a ride - Myth Busters. Specifically the show dealt with how to get out of a car that's just dropped into water. The water pressure on the glass is immense so it's virtually impossible to roll down the window.

The guys tried using steel toe boots (a surprising fail), car keys (ditto), cell phone (no phone is that strong), and just lowering the window using power or manual levers (neither worked although the power windows worked for a long time, even submerged).

However, using a sharp, hardened metal object (like an awl or the safety hammer thing sold specifically for this purpose), the glass shattered instantly.

So, here I was, looking down a couple thousand feet below my shoes, a few layers of safety glass between me and eternity.

Unfortunately the first staff person told us with a big grin that they've been replacing the glass panels. The newer ones were made in a different place (Germany vs Spain, although I forget who made the originals and who made the replacements). The staff member also pointed out that the glass got scratched and people dropped stuff on the panes (and over the sides too).

Maybe like an awl?

Suddenly I lost control of a variable.

I became hyperaware of any sharp metal objects that could be made with hardened steel. Like the big cameras the staff had to take pictures of the guests.

I was fine for about 10 feet of the walk.

Then I had to make a beeline for the handrail at the edge of the walk, over one of the 71 million pound strong beams.

As others made it okay in the middle, I ventured out there too. I was walking in the center now, over the glass. I felt okay just looking down, but if I moved while looking down, forget it. I think the motion gives you three dimensional cues to the distance beneath you and makes the fear of heights thing kick in.

To make things even worse, when I finally rationalized that if the glass would have failed it probably would have failed under the thousands of people that preceded me, I got to the older glass. You could tell because it's a bit scuffed up.

And, disconcertingly, it crackles when you step on it.

Back to the hand rail for me.

The worst part was looking over at the Missus (she's less afraid of "real" heights like the Grand Canyon rim but more afraid of actual height like the Sky Walk). She and Shannin were standing near the actual rim, taking pictures of us on the Sky Walk. I could see the 1800 foot drop literally only a few feet away from them.

And when we finished with the Sky Walk (and a half serious "Don't worry about the crackling glass, that's normal" to the folks about to walk onto it), I couldn't get the drop out of my mind.

I couldn't get closer than about 20 feet to the edge.

No rope. No rail. No wall. No nothing between me and eternity.

I was reflexively covering my mouth and saying, "Oh my God!" so much that the Missus dragged me away from the rim.

People backing up to the rim.

"Oh my God!"

People pretending to be falling, and then losing their balance a bit.

"Oh my God!"

When the little old lady wanted to take a picture from the same spot her friend was using, about eight feet from the edge, but didn't see the foot tall drop off between them, and then tumbled into her friend...

That was "Oh! Oh my God!" moment, along with a cringe, looking away, and curling up tightly.

"They're fine," the Missus said. I looked. The little old ladies were okay, even their friend who had been posing with her back to the rim, oh, about a foot from the edge.

So what's this got to do with descending like a madman?

Well, it's the difference between controlled variables and random ones.

I literally had a hard time sleeping for a few nights after the Grand Canyon. I'd imagine one of those people near the edge (not even falling) and my gut would clench up like I was just about to hit the deck. My heart rate would soar, adrenaline pumping, and I'd lay there trying to calm down.

The Sky Walk - I didn't think of that in any fearful way.

To me the Rim represented an uncontrolled situation. It represents Fear.

For me, with cycling, I tend to fear little. I've done extensive drilling with wheel touching, where my front wheel hits someone else's bike; bumping shoulders or elbows or arms or hips; cornering at high limits; descending down unknown roads.

Those situations don't represent Fear for me.

Therefore I feel somewhat comfortable. It's like the feeling I had while standing at the top of the World Trade Center - feeling totally isolated and safe on a floating square platform.

Wheel touches, bumps, cornering, descending, those all sit in a circle of comfort.

I don't do enough of some other cycling and so other situations cause me Fear, primarily cornering in the rain. In virtually every rainy flat crit I've done I've either gotten dropped or hit the deck.

I remember many of my rainy "deck" races - Danbury Crit, Turn One, a few laps to go, sitting about 7th spot, and someone came up my inside, slid on a manhole cover, and swept my wheels out from under me. I hit the curb hard after sliding across much of the road.

Birmingham, Michigan, an 8 turn, half mile course (!!) in pouring rain. The overall leader fell in front of me, one of about 24 guys still racing, and I glanced off of him, the rear wheel a foot off the ground, pretzeling when it landed.

Danbury Crit, another year, Final Turn, sliding casually across the road and into the curb.

In rain I don't have control over the traction element, and I don't corner hard enough when it's wet out to get a feeling for my limits. Even when I do, I've been taken out by others who exceeded theirs.

Therefore I feel Fear.

On descents, probably the most dangerous bit of bike racing, I've regularly felt fear in road races. It's one of the reasons why I don't do them - if I stay with the field, I inevitably have to descend some 50-odd mph descent surrounded by a wide variety of bike handling skill racers.

A lot of them don't know how to deal with bumps, touches, and such, and studiously avoid crits for that reason. In a road race though it is worse, with narrow roads, usually a yellow line rule, and speeds hitting at least 10-20 mph faster than a typical crit's 30-ish mph surges. Going 55 mph down an unknown descent, surrounded by riders of which at least a few are so uncertain of their handling skills that they avoid crits, well, that to me spells Fear.

On my own, descents are no problem. I have faith in my equipment, my technique, and my responses to those off chance incidents.

For example, people wonder what I'd do if I flat at high speed. Honestly, I almost always have an out for a flat. With self preservation at the top of the list, I'll lay down the bike if necessary, but most of my "out" strategies don't involve intentionally losing skin.

I think about these things when I descend alone. Palomar Mountain, my favorite descent, allows me to attack real switchbacks (i.e. virtually a U-turn), long arcing carve-your-line type turns, decreasing radius turns, all with a nice dose of well defined braking zones.

Without distractions around me, like other riders, phone calls, whatever, I can focus all my attention on what I'd do if something bad happened RIGHT NOW.

It's possible, yes, that I'd have a catastrophic failure - a fork collapsing perhaps, or my bars folding up suddenly. I check these parts often enough, buy parts that I have faith in, and stay away from anything that makes my gut instinct alarm go off.

Sometimes I need some convincing, when I get paralyzed by over-analysis. A BF guy Chris D recently made me realize this, when he pushed me to do Somerville. Both the Missus and I steeled ourselves for a rainy race, but by the time I'd mulled it over, the forecast changed so much it's now going to be a mid-90s day, a scorcher for sure.

I can assure you that although I'm a bit nervous about the race, with the unknowns it brings (it's a Cat 2 only race, the first I'll ever have done, and it happens to be one of the most prestigious races on the East Coast), I won't feel Fear.

Excitement? Yes. Nervousness? Yes. Perhaps some trepidation? Yes.

There are variables out of my control. Yes, something bad could happen.

But something bad could happen when I drive to work, or when I cross the street, or when I grill a hamburger, or when I venture under the store to feed the cats.

Fear is a strong and sensible limiter, one that helps avoid risk, an immediate and strong instinctive feeling that helps preserve the species.

There's one thing to remember about Fear.

You can't live life solely base on Fear.

See you at Somerville.

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