I started mountain biking two years ago, and it’s been quite the ride. I’ve never been a fearless thrillseeker, so rolling off rocks, taking sharp turns, and mashing up treacherous climbs was really nerve wracking to me. Despite my nervous grumpiness before tough rides, I’ve found that nothing is more satisfying than sticking with a ride that freaks me out. I’ve gained confidence as a woman and a rider, knowing that I can do hard things that make me nervous. There’s nothing like getting up into the mountains for incredible views and a few amazing thrills.
I’m not a pro rider yet, but I have made a lot of progress. Here are a few lessons I learned in my first two years of riding:
1. Look where you’re going.
This may seem obvious, but it’s a magical rule in mountain biking (and life): you’ll go where you look. If you’re looking at the rock in front of you, you’ll hit it. 100% of the time. Also, miraculously, if you look ahead to where you want to go (instead of fixating on what you want to avoid), your body will automatically correct around obstacles in your path.
Trust me. I’m not that coordinated and I don’t have incredible reflexes. But your body registers obstacles and will get you and your bike around them naturally.
It’s like magic.
So, look ahead and spare only a few glances for what’s right in front of you.
2. Trust your bike.
Recently, Nash has been reading excerpts of Robert Penn’s remarkable book It’s All About the Bike to me, which offers convincing evidence that the invention of the bicycle was as revolutionary as the invention of printing press. (Did you know the bicycle played a role in women’s suffrage, social mobility, de-localization of courtship traditions, patent law in the US, women’s fashion, the introduction of pants…? I’ll write a blog about it soon, I promise.)
All this to say that if your bike was a catalyst for getting women to vote and wear pants, it is certainly capable of getting you up that rock.
Mountain bikes are remarkable and can do way more that you think. They’re built to climb absurd angles and absorb remarkable amounts of force. They can take you over huge rocks smoothly. If you look at an obstacle and think, “I don’t know if I can go over that,” you probably can. And if you can’t, it’s probably because of you, not your bike. Trust that your bike is designed for greatness. It will surprise you every time.
3. Move your butt.
This is figurative and literal. Move your butt by getting out on your bike frequently and finding familiar trails that you love and can ride easily. Get out there a lot and you’ll get much better.
But also, move your literal butt off your bike seat.
If you unstick your butt from you seat, you’ll be open to a whole new world of riding. When going downhill, move your bum far behind your seatpost – your weight will stabilize you and allow you to descend really steep sections with confidence. When climbing, move your butt forward on your seat. If you have to climb over rocks and roots, stand up so you can transfer your weight to the front wheel after getting your front wheel over the obstacle. Being comfortable with motion where your bum is not on the seat will make you an exponentially better rider. (Also, if you can afford it, a dropper post will make this un-sticking process significantly easier.)
4. Manage your mind.
Mountain biking is a mind game, especially when you’re starting off. There will be lots of times that you may think, “I can’t do that!” I’m very prone to this, so here’s my tip:
Ignore that voice frequently, but don’t smother it completely.
Try things that freak you out. When doing a trail that’s challenging for me, I’ll find myself stopping at the top of nerve-wracking descents. My natural reaction may be to hop off my bike and walk down, but I’ve trained myself to look first, identify a line, then back up the trail a bit and give it a shot. Most of the time, if I take a second to develop a strategy, I surprise myself with what is possible. As mentioned earlier, you (and your bike) can do more than you think.
However, in my opinion, it’s not smart to totally shut that voice out. If you’re crashing several times each ride or spending most of your time feeling out of control, mountain biking won’t be fun. So it’s okay to decide to walk a section or go slowly down a descent. Right now, my signature move is creeping down sections that are really technical. (This, btw, is a plan that will eventually fail me, as really technical descents are much easier with speed. But while I figure out how to control myself, going slow is my MO — plus, it’s better to try it slowly than just walk down the tough stuff. I’ve found myself speeding up as I get more comfortable, but there’s no shame in starting slow.)
Respect yourself by pushing your limits and also honoring your instincts.
This is a little joke in our relationship, because saying “Calm down!” to someone who is upset is generally useless. However, if you can get into the habit, learning to relax on a ride will make your trails joyful.
For one, it improves your riding. When I breathe deeply, relax my shoulders, and soften my grip, I become a smoother, faster rider. A relaxed, responsive rider can get through obstacles that will upset a twitchy, tense one.
Also, relaxing will let you enjoy the ride. Don’t get so hyper-focused on the trail that you miss the scenery. Those gorgeous views or aspen groves were probably why you decided to start mountain biking in the first place. For me, it was for the thrill of being miles away from civilization (and cars), with stunning views, exciting challenges, and the wind in my face. I savor the bliss as my daily stress succumbs to the necessary mindfulness of cornering, climbing, and descending.
Recognize these moments; they’ll bring you back to the trail often.