How I learned to stop worrying and love my mountain bike
I haven’t always liked mountain biking, though I’ve tried. A lot.
This picture is one of many snits captured along my mountain biking journey. I’m writing this not to discourage anyone from trying - I really love mountain biking now - but to help people who want to like a new sport, or a new type of riding, but struggle at first. I also want to help those who are trying to encourage their friends, significant others, etc. to try something new.
I first started mountain biking the summer after I graduated from college. I had a fully rigid, incredibly dodgy, Gary Fisher that I bought for college and brought home with me in the back of my Saturn (this will give you a sense of how long ago this was!). On a trip around southwestern Colorado, my boyfriend at the time immediately took me on an intermediate trail in Crested Butte which is a Colorado mecca for mountain biking. I crashed at least three times and got so frustrated that I threw my bike. I am not joking. I was obviously completely juvenile at the time, but I was also totally out of my depth, pretty terrified, and scared of hurting myself. I still remember the trail - it was gorgeous singletrack with fantastic views. But I also remember the fear and anger. So I quit.
Eventually, I bought a slightly better mountain bike - a full suspension Rocky Mountain. It weighed approximately 300 pounds but it did at least have suspension. I tried again and the same boyfriend took me to a place called White Ranch, just west of Denver. It was super technical with huge drops. Again, I had a terrible time, freaked out, and cried. At that point I quit for the second time.
I wanted to like mountain biking so much! I loved the idea of effortlessly flowing through the woods, getting out of the city, and being that super cool girl on the trails. But when I tried it, I was terrified and incompetent. So I quit again.
I finally dumped that boyfriend and tried mountain biking again. I have a vivid memory of going to a place called Heil Ranch, north of Boulder, with my friend Michelle. We tried all kinds of adventures together - runs, bike rides, and triathlons. A guy passed us on the trail, on a bike I thought was a road bike, going so much faster than us and over all kinds of rocks. I was fuming about it and Michelle, who has always been honest with me (the sign of a good lifetime pal), turned to me and said “look Barb, we really suck at mountain biking.” I was used to being pretty good at sporty things, but I just couldn’t “get” mountain biking. I also threw out my back (I was in my mid-20’s!) and could barely walk for a week after this ride. It wasn’t bike-throwing level that time, but it was terrible.
After these unfortunate series of attempts, I took a long break from mountain biking. I would try it every few years, usually going to a trailhead all the mountain bikers promised to be super flowy. This usually meant huge rocks and obstacles that scared the crap out of me. When I moved to New York, I sold my mountain bike because I figured people in New York City didn’t mountain bike, I would have a tiny apartment, and I didn’t like it that much anyway. I thought I had quit for life.
After I met my husband, he mentioned he had always wanted to try mountain biking and suggested we get mountain bikes for each other for Christmas. Because this relationship was still relatively new, and I still wanted to appear to be that cool girl who loved mountain biking like I had wanted to be in my 20’s, I said, “sounds great!” We got bikes and decided that it would be fun to take them back to my home state of Colorado for a vacation. We planned to ride our bikes from Aspen to Crested Butte and back. This is a cool Colorado thing to do because the two towns are close as the crow flies, but almost 3 hours drive by car. I still had no idea what I was doing, and the trail was rocky, steep and long. A lot of it was like this (you may notice I was pushing the bike, not riding it. Did I mention it was pretty heavy?).
I cried so many times, and by the time we got back on the second day, I wanted to quit all over again. My husband gently nudged me to use my dropper post, encouraged me to ride some things I was scared of, and was overall, incredibly patient. When I stomped around and said, “I quit!” he just said he would support me no matter what.
After mulling things over, I did realize during this trip that the bike I had was all wrong for the kind of riding I wanted to do. Often when newer mountain bikers look for bikes, they’re overwhelmed. Even though I was an experienced cyclist, and had bought a few mountain bikes, the guys at the shop sold me a trail bike without explaining what that was - a bike with a lot more suspension than I needed and a geometry that was best suited for fast technical descending. I admit that I did not do my research before hand, but I also think they felt like I wouldn’t know the difference between different types of mountain bikes anyway, and they could just sell me whatever they had around in the shop. I popped into a different shop in Aspen and explained that I felt like my bike was heavy, slow, and impossible to maneuver, and they explained to me why that might be the case, and what type of bike would be better.
I sold the offending bike and bought a cross country bike that I love to this day. My current bike is lighter, has much less travel, and has what you might describe as a racing geometry. This doesn’t necessarily sound perfect for someone who lacks confidence while riding, but it’s great. I also know that I don’t care for fancy features. 95% of people (especially men) who see my bike ask me why I don’t have a dropper post - a feature that allows you to drop your seat height when you want to descent. Well, there are a few reasons for this - first of all, I’m tiny and I could only drop it a bit even if I did have a dropper post; secondly, doing things while riding sometimes freaks me out; and finally, I can get my weight where I want it to be by keeping my elbows bent to 90 degrees and flattening my back.
Over the next couple years, I went mountain biking here and there. I may have “quit” a few more times. At one point, I went into work on a Monday after a particularly scary and frustrating ride, and told a coworker that I had quit and he said, “Barb, don’t quit. When I ride my mountain bike, I just look around and see how beautiful it is to be riding around in the woods. If I feel like walking something, I walk. But who cares?! It’s great to ride around in the woods!” This became my mantra. If I encounter something I don’t feel like riding, I can get off my bike whenever I feel like it. No matter what happens on the trail, I’m still riding around in the woods!
Believe it or not, during this time when I was still pretty scared of mountain biking, I tried racing and had some success. Granted, the fields for women’s mountain bike racing are small but I’ve won a few less technical races and even got a California state championship somehow (this was in our brief time in California last year).
Now that I’ve moved back to Denver with my endlessly patient husband, and hired a badass mountain biking coach, I’ve really started to genuinely love mountain biking. If I feel like getting off my bike, I get off! My coach has helped me learn better body positioning to feel more stable going over obstacles. I’ve learned to session scary, but not particularly difficult, features. Sometimes I can clear things other people can’t, especially going uphill. I take my time on a new obstacle, and if I’m not feeling brave that day, who cares! I’m still riding around in the woods!