First off let me say that mountain biking with friends in the mountains is the best cure for a hangover, especially in the fall. Breathe in that crisp autumn air, ride over all the crunchy leaves, enjoy the mountain views, hang out with good folks…and of course ride your bike up a mountain for an hour and a half, then scream back down it in less than fifteen minutes. Sweat out the toxins and replace with endorphins. Feels so good. And it feels even better when you have a major breakthrough: this past Sunday’s ride I finally got loose again for the first time in a while.
Ever since a nasty crash in May I’ve been a bit skittish on the descents, so instead of “screaming” down mountains, I kind of just creep. Backcountry descents are a completely different beast from well-groomed cross-country trails. They’re just…wild. Big rocks and scree, random logs and fallen trees, lots of brush and briars, sometimes big drops. When I see skilled riders navigate these things, it looks playful, fun, even beautiful. For me, though, I will admit that it’s kind of terrifying and sometimes feels like riding a pogo-stick down the mountain.
Actually that’s exactly what it feels like when you’re NOT getting loose: a pogo-stick. Your whole body is rigid and stiff from fear as you cling to your bike for dear life. You drag brake instead of feathering or using your brakes only when needed. Every obstacle that your bike encounters turns into a jolt that is transmitted directly into your body and nearly rattles your teeth out. You fight the trail and exhaust yourself. Instead of going with the flow, you ride a bucking bronco bike and hope that you don’t get bounced off the side of the mountain.
All of these things are the exact opposite of what you need to do. You need to get loose.
The hard part is actually putting it into action. Yes, I know I shouldn’t drag brake. Yes, I know I need to let my bike move and do what it’s built to do. Yes, I know I need to be springy with my arms and legs, use my body’s suspension, the muscles and joints in my arms and legs. I know it, but how do I do it? My Jiminy Cricket of self-preservation says that surely I will die if I let go of my brakes and go any faster down the trail. So, what then?
So, it’s completely valid to be terrified as you ride a 30-lb wheelie-cycle contraption down a mountain trail. And maybe that does mean that you’re creeping down the mountain to start. You just have to get out there and keep doing it and convince yourself that you can. It’s all about building confidence and figuring out what you and your bike are capable of doing. I’ve found that the first few times I try something scary and meet with success, the easier it is the next go-round. I’m more willing to try again because I know I can do it because I’ve done it before. Riding with more skilled riders and getting feedback is tremendously helpful too – I encourage attending clinics with professionals* or riding with your local badasses.
I should make the disclaimer that having a certain level of comfort and handling skills on the bike is necessary before attempting more difficult trails. Always ride what’s in your comfort level. There is no shame in getting off and walking a section you don’t feel safe riding. The trails will still be there waiting for you the next time you ride. It’s not worth an injury.
So yeah, Sunday’s ride was a return to getting loose and not fighting the bike and the trail anymore. So go get loose. Have fun. Go with the flow. Don’t get all rigid and awkward and scared. Do what you’re comfortable doing. Start small to build your confidence for more challenging tasks. I could try to explain how that carries over to life in general, except I feel like it’s fairly self-explanatory already.
*Check out these sites if you’re looking for skills clinics and/or coaching. Do it! Feedback on your riding is life-changing.