It’s only scary when you brake

June 22, 2018

Riding a bicycle is such a perfect metaphor for life.  I mean, there are countless famous quotes that compare bicycling to life.  Some of my favorites are:

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. – Albert Einstein

Life is like a 10-speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use. — Charles M. Schultz

Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race. — H.G. Wells

Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike. — John F. Kennedy

….and my personal favorite:

The bicycle is just as good company as most husbands and, when it gets old and shabby, a woman can dispose of it and get a new one without shocking the entire community. — Ann Strong

I’d like to add my own.  A Jessica original:

Life is like flying down a mountain on a bicycle – it’s only scary when you brake.

My quote sounds so clunky and unpolished compared to the giants before it, but it works. Let me explain.  Or try to.  I’m not through my first cup of coffee yet so bear with me.

Descents on a bicycle – whether a little one down a hill or an epic descent down a mountain (like the 7,000-foot continuous drop down Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, Arizona) are gleeful things that life help me reconnect to my inner child.  Going downhill on a bicycle is just plain fun. Unless… I let fear step in.

My first downhill

As a kid, I rode my bicycle all over the neighborhood and there was this one big hill about a half-mile from my house that I always looked forward to.  I rode down it for the first time when I was about 5, not too long after taking off my training wheels.  I called my mom this morning to listen to her recount the story of the first time I rode down that hill.  She was following behind me on her bike, and my little sister (who was just over a year old at the time) was in one of those kid seats mounted behind her saddle.  As we approached the hill, I told my mom that I wanted to ride down it.  I was on a tiny little bicycle with pedal brakes.  My mom said “ok,” and told me that if I needed to brake as I went down, to just brake a little.  If I got going too fast, she told me to take my feet off the pedals.

And off I went.

As I listened to my mom re-tell the story, she shared how she watched in horror, afraid I’d crash and end up with road rash, but knowing that she needed to let me try.  She followed along behind me as I flew down the hill, sure that I’d be panicked or freaked out by the time I got to the bottom.  I kept my feet on the pedals the whole time, my little legs a blur.  After she caught up with me at the bottom of the hill, I was smiling.  “That was fun, mommy!” I told her.

Putting on the brakes

I had no fear as a little girl bicycling down a hill for the first time.  I knew I had brakes, I knew they worked – but why the heck would I want to brake? Wasn’t the point to go as fast as I could?  A couple years later, I was riding down that same hill when my shoelace got caught in the right pedal arm of my bike.  The laces wrapped up in the pedal and I ended up crashing in the grass.  But – no big deal.  I remember laying on the side of the road, trying to unwrap my shoelace from the bracket.  I’d crashed but nothing terrible happened.  I can’t tell you how many times I must have flown down that hill in my neighborhood, carefree with a big goofy grin on my face.  Never touching the brakes.

But then something happened.  I got older and a shadow of fear began to creep in.  I was 24 when I bought my first road bike, which of course went much faster than any bicycle I’d ever ridden.  Suddenly, I became more cautious.  I would keep my hands strategically on the brakes during any descent… you know, just in case.  Descents were still fun, but they were also a little scary to me.  I didn’t ride down hills with the careless abandon that I had as a kid.  I’d ride down, tap my brakes, maintain control, pull them harder, watch my speed – STAY. IN. CONTROL.  I’d feel my pulse quicken as I approached a hard-earned descent, not out of excitement, but out of anxiety.

Several years ago when I was biking the transam when I had a meltdown during a descent.  I was dropping down from the Blue Ridge Parkway into Vesuvius, Virginia.  The descent was nearly 2,000 feet in about 4 miles – the grade was over 20% at times (the picture at the beginning of this post was taken right before that descent).  It was ridiculous.   And because I was on an [over]loaded bike that weighed about 100 pounds, I was able to get up some speed on descents.  The road was very narrow and winding with no shoulder, and lots of potholes and debris.  Within about a mile of the descent, I’d heated the rubber pads on my caliper brakes so much that there were black smears of rubber on my rims.  I remember panicking at one point because I couldn’t get my bike to stop.  Suddenly, as I dropped down this absurdly steep mountain, I felt the need to stop.  Like, full-on stop.  Not because of an actual need to stop the bike, but because of a need to control the bike.  I ended up unclipping from my pedals and dragging my feet as I pulled the brakes as hard as I could, overcome with this absolute desperation to stop the damn bike.

The day was quickly getting away from me and I still had about 20 miles before I’d reach my campground for the night.  But at that point, I didn’t care if I had to ride in the dark.  There was no way I was getting back on that bike – I would walk it down the mountain.

Wellllllll… that idea lasted a whole 2 minutes.  In cleats, with a 100-pound loaded bike, down a 20% grade, I was in even less control of the bike than when I was riding it.  Plus, it would have taken me over an hour to walk it down the remaining 3 miles of the descent.

So I made a decision.

I was going to ride the bike down the mountain and not use my brakes unless I absolutely needed to (they were so hot and soft at that point that braking would have been relatively futile, anyways).  Really, my options were limited, right?  My brakes were still soft and I knew if I tried riding them the rest of the way down, I’d burn them up.  So I got back on the bike, clipped in… and flew down.  At one point, I was up to 40mph.  The rest of the descent wasn’t scary because I made the decision to not use my brakes.  I realized it was the act of braking that turned the descent from something fun and exhilarating into something terrifying.  As soon as I hit the brakes, my focus went from having fun to “ohmygod what if I can’t stop?!?”

Fully aware that braking takes all the fun out of a descent, I still need to have this talk with myself before any big descent on my bike.  Big, long downhills, like the LaSalle Mountain loop near Moab, Utah, or the 10 mile descent from the top of the Colorado National Monument in Fruita… or the 25-mile drop from the top of Trail Ridge Road into Grand lake – these are all epic, beautiful, exhilarating rides that allow me to tap into a childlike glee as long as I remind myself to let go and enjoy.

Braking off the bike

So here’s the metaphor – unnecessary braking takes the fun out of things.  Whether it’s on a bicycle, or starting a new business, or following a lifelong dream – if we aren’t careful, that need to be in utter control of everything can creep in and cause us to put on the brakes.  At best, that kind of braking dampers the fun of something that could otherwise be wonderful and exciting… at worst, it can be completely self-sabotaging.

The good news is the neurotic little voice in your head that’s shouting, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? HAVE YOU LOST YOUR DAMN MIND?!?” is totally within your control.  With practice, you can muzzle it.  Over time, you may silence it completely.  We brake to appease a need to control.  Or because we have self-doubt.  Or because we’re scared.  But living – real living – requires you to let off the brakes.  It requires you to take risks and be willing to throw a little caution to the wind.  Riding downhill on a bicycle is definitely the most fun when you’re not trying to brake the whole time.  Life is the same way.


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