Mountain Bike Racing: Mountain Bike Salvation

White Wave Riders at SERC Chattanooga

White Wave Riders at SERC Chattanooga

Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”

I wasn’t expecting to face a moral dilemma at this past weekend’s SERC mountain bike race in Chattanooga but life has a way of changing your plans.

About halfway through the first lap I and another rider I was pacing with encountered a downed rider. Another rider who arrived just ahead of us was with the victim, and what looked like a course marshall or spectator was just coming in through the brush.

The rider wasn’t moving, laying on his left shoulder, and if memory recalls correctly, still attached to the bike. It was a spooky crash. Normally mountain bike crashes are spectacular, with rider and bike separating, and the rider animated, walking around and talking. But this guy was just lying on his side with his head in the middle of the trail. There was no debris, no yard sale.

I asked if anyone had a cell phone and the course marshall/spectator said he did. Someone asked, “Who should we call?” and someone else answered, “Call 911.” Then I ramped up to speed and got out of there.

A racer to the core, my first thought was, “This is good, this will slow people down behind me.” As I came around a bend in the singletrack I passed within easy sight of the paved road that lead back to the start/finish.

As I continued on the weight of my decision came down on me like a load of bricks. “You’ve chosen to run a race rather than help another human.” “You are cruel, inhuman.” I thought of Saint Peter denying Jesus three times. And the very night before at mass was the story of the good Samaritan, a person who helped a beat and dying man left for dead on the side of the road when others passed by. Riding on I felt like I was cursed, like I had the mark of Cain on me.

The rider I was pacing with before the encounter caught up to me and I asked him if they were able to call 911. He said they were and an ambulance was on its way and the rider was knocked out. “It sounded like he was snoring,” he said.

I let the guy go.

I was in a unique position. I was one of the first people at the wreck. Nobody else at the start/finish knew yet. An ambulance was on its way but we were on the top of a mountain. Was there a nurse or paramedic at start/finish who could get there faster?

What if it was my son or daughter lying broken on the trail…

I saw the next stretch of pavement and said to myself, “I gotta go.”

I literally time-trialed it back on the paved road. If there’s one good thing about training with a PowerTap it’s that I’m pretty fast on paved, flat roads like the one that ringed the mountain top. 53 x 11 all the way back, baby, or whatever the MTB equivilant is, and hard. I met the race promotor just as he was heading out and was able, as best I could, to give him a good location of the downed rider. I didn’t think to get a rider number so they could at least identify who it was.

I went over to registration to let them know that I didn’t know the rider number. The last thing I heard was “714-DNF.”

When a rider leaves the course there is no turning back. There is no asterik by a DNF that says “good intentions” or “mechanical failure,” just the three letters that signal you weren’t rider enough to finish the course.

In Winder, Georgia, earlier in the year I DNF’d when my front deraillure and chain rings wouldn’t speak to each other. That’s okay…a second lap would have been bad for the bike and would have proved nothing.

But to choose to abandon a race strikes at the heart of being a racer. That cold, calculating individual who was locked into the course and bypassed the injured rider could find no succor. It didn’t matter if I was going to finish top ten or last. The drive to compete was cut short and left in its place was a hollow feeling that bordered on self loathing. “A 500-mile drive just to DNF.”

Since I did come to at least ride I headed out again from the start, but either due to the pace I set on the paved road coming back in or just distraction, I wasn’t going very fast. It took almost 30 minutes to get back to the crash site, and when I got there the medevac chopper was just taking off from the nearby switchyard. It took me about an hour-fifteen to finish the lap.

In the end I have no idea if what I did made any difference at all. I have a sneaking feeling it made no difference.

But a day later I feel better about things. Confronted with a unique situation I made the right decision, even if it took some self examination.

I feel a little better also that I heard one of the women in the wave behind us stopped and stayed with the guy for awhile, that someone else abandoned their effort to race.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who did make the decision to go on. You can’t stop a race for a wreck. Everyone there was there to ride. What made my situation different was that in my mind I saw a gap in the coverage that could have potentially made a difference…no one else saw that gap, or came to that conclusion so it was on me to make the right call.

I’ll end this piece with another quote, this time from Carly Simon, “You probably think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you?”

I’ve been the star of my own little drama here. But the song we’ve been singing is really about the rider who was down on the trail. May he be healthy and safe…may we all be healthy and safe when that inevitable crash comes. And may we all abandon if it looks like the right thing to do.

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