As an avid triathlete, road cyclist and commuter, I consider myself pretty capable on a bike. So buying a mountain bike and jumping on didn’t seem like too much of a big deal. It’s a bike – you pedal and steer, it’s all the same. I bought a bike and some shoes, and I hit the trails, fumbling my way through them. On some mountains I was surviving on blue and even black trails. And on other’s blue was torture, but I scraped my way through (literally – I still have scars from falling off those first few weeks). Surviving is probably the most accurate word to describe what I was doing. With surviving comes angst, and I was getting constantly frustrated with falling off. I was losing confidence, getting tired quickly and not riding very far. Whilst I thought I was enjoying it, I did not love it. I can understand how people, particularly women, could try mountain biking and give it up very quickly. I hate the idea of people trying and not enjoying riding, and therefore not pursuing it. If you know what you’re up for and are therefore prepared physically and mentally, I think you’ll have a great first impression of mountain bike riding and continue on with the sport.
What I was completely oblivious to is that mountain biking is a new sport to me. It’s like saying I run so I can do hurdles, or I swim so I can do diving. Whilst the equipment is similar (a bike, running track, or a pool), and there are some similar techniques, they are different sports. Taking up mountain biking meant I was a beginner learning something completely new. As adults, it is very rare that we take ourselves back to basics and learn new things from scratch, and have the openness within ourselves to accept that yes we are a beginner and need to be taught. As soon as I came to this realization my whole approach and enjoyment towards mountain biking changed for the better.
The first month where I bought a bike and attempted to mountain bike I learnt some lessons that I wish I had realized before taking this adventure. It’s ok to learn from mistakes or self-discovery, but it also helps to be more prepared by reading up on the topic or asking questions, and learning from others mistakes (namely mine in this instance!). While the basis of the following lessons can be applied to any new sport or skill you may take up, I hope they help others new to mountain biking, or considering taking it up.
Mountain biking is not about distance or speed. Coming home tired and seeing that I hadn’t even ridden 20km’s was deflating as I was coming from a road cycling background. So I removed my Garmin and started riding until I was tired. It’s that simple. It took me about 60-90 minutes before I was exhausted, whereas I could spend over 4 hours on a road bike. Take away the gadgets and calculations and let yourself be free to enjoy it, and stop the session when the enjoyment has ended – no need to keep going to hit a certain distance or time just because you planned to.
Mountain biking is mentally exhausting. Lesson 2 is strongly related to Lesson 1, as the mental exhaustion fatigue’s you quicker than your fitness. I have no doubt this will ease with time, but as a beginner there is so much to focus on, and with that so much mental exertion and concentration. In road riding it is very easy to zone out or chat to friends riding alongside you. It is ok to be mentally exhausted from mountain biking, you just have to be open to it and aware of it, and not set yourself time, distance or speed goals when learning. Raynie from Cycle Education gave the analogy of when you start driving. After 2 years of learning on your L’s, driving is still difficult, stressful and exhausting. You are always remembering to check your seat set up, your mirrors, and the different sides the indicator and wipers are on. Fast forward 5 or 10 years of having your licence and driving is second nature. Learning to mountain bike is exactly the same, it takes a lot of practice for it to become ingrained in you that you can ride without thinking, so fitness fatigue will take over from the mental exhaustion.
It takes time to learn. Again Lesson 3 ties in closely with Lesson 2. If you wanted to learn to play golf, you wouldn’t go play for an hour every couple of weeks. Like any new skill or development, you need to apply yourself, particularly at the beginning. Be prepared to get out a few times a week, so that when you develop confidence or a new skill, you don’t lose it by the time you next ride. Practice, practice, practice. Confidence is the biggest hurdle to mountain bike beginners, and the only cure to confidence is practice. If you struggle going over an obstacle, stop, review it and do it again. Then do it a third time. The first time you were exposed to it, the second time you tried to do it better as you knew what was coming and the third time you hopefully master it.
Lesson No. 04
Know where to go. I ventured out on Mt Stromlo on my own, in my ‘survival’ period and I would have described it as “OK”. OK?! If you know Mt Stromlo, you know it’s not OK – it’s AMAZING! I then had someone take me out, who is a fantastic mountain bike rider but they were willing to give me a couple of hours of their time, and they showed me how to get around the mountain. Learning how to read the signs, which grade paths I was capable of and learning a loop I could do on my own changed everything. Mountain biking is daunting enough for a beginner, but not knowing where to go and which trails to take just increases the stress. Find someone experienced who can take you out, or if you can’t find someone, scour the internet for trail paths, blogs, tips and tricks. If you’re out there on your own and you’re uncertain – follow someone who looks similar or not as good as you! Regardless, knowing the right trails will empower you to go out on your own and practice, and give you confidence in training as you can worry about riding and not where to go.
Don’t over estimate your ability. I love to encourage people to push themselves and tell yourself you can do it – but this is a new sport and you are learning new skills, so start with the basics then progress. As I mentioned I was “surviving” on blue runs, because I could get my way through it I thought I should stick to blue. I should have been on green trails and developing my skills, not pushing myself out of my comfort zone so much. You are better off doing trails and finding out afterwards that they are easy and then progress to one more difficult. Its not ideal being stuck in the middle of a trail, where you can’t keep going because it’s too hard, and you can’t go back as it’s one directional so you stop and throw a tantrum. I mean, speaking hypothetically of course…
After finding out these lessons the hard way, I absolutely love mountain bike riding and I am so pleased I have taken it up. My love for it increased exponentially when I changed my ways, realizing I was doing it all wrong. Stepping back and accepting that I needed help and had to learn the basics was the best thing I could have done for myself. I am now improving and working my way onto more challenging trails, distances and events. Learning new skills is so rewarding as I love to challenge myself and expand my knowledge. Good luck to everyone that is new to the sport, I hope you find as much joy and happiness in it that I have found.