Now that I’m 37 and have three young kids, I probably spend most of my mountain bike mental energy thinking about the fact that there are so many trails in so many amazing parts of the world that I will never have the chance to ride. Sure, this is a “glass-half-empty” mentality, but the inadvertent effect of my middle-aged reality is that I never take any of my rides for granted anymore. When I ride now I feel lucky to have a chance to be outside and flow with the trail and the weather I’ve been given that day; I now try to learn more about myself and my riding ability each time I clip-in.
In my earlier riding years, I had a terrible habit of pushing off that “hard ride” until the magical day when I would finally have enough skill to be able to (at least hypothetically) crush a ride with the highest amount of performance and minimal risk of injury or embarrassment. In effect, I put a low ceiling on my riding, limiting myself to those trails and features that would confirm my already intermediate skill set. That “big ride” would just have to wait for a better bike, a more recovered set of legs, or perfect weather. And under those conditions, it would really just wait until never.
Going above and beyond my limits
What finally pushed me to go above and beyond my limits was reading stories of other riders who had just packed their gear and done something crazy on a bike. I remember reading a blog post of someone who had planned and completed a ride known as the “Pisgah Traverse.” A bikepacker had created a 190-mile tour of both sides of Pisgah National Forest and took off for a 4-day-ride through the gravel roads and singletrack routes of one of the best riding landscapes in North Carolina. His journey propelled me to at least try to do a 3-hour ride, and so that very week I got my brand new Salsa El Mariachi hardtail together and took off north of Black Mountain, NC into some of the more remote portions of Pisgah.
The actual ride that I completed is not as important as the fact that I just attempted it at all. Yes, the conditions were less than ideal, the climbs longer than normal, and the descents more technical than those I had tackled before, but the most important part about the ride was that I wasn’t ready for it and I did it anyway. I was completely out of my comfort zone and got banged up a bit, but I learned more about the terrain and my riding style on that ride than I had in the previous six months of riding combined.
As I transitioned into coaching mountain biking at the school I was working at, I constantly tried to instill the idea that it was ok to ride outside of your limits some of the time. I taught that if you never rode outside of your limits, you would never improve. Our riding seasons were short (only about 12 weeks), so we had a very narrow window to improve, but having my students buy into the idea that they would push themselves once a week doing a ride they never thought they would be able to handle was key to having them become competent mountain bikers in a relatively quick time period.
One team that I coached improved so much that we were able to race in the Pisgah 10-Hour Adventure Race and finish 3rd and 4th respectively. Most of the students 2 months before the race could do very little besides ride only the smoothest, flowiest trails, but by race time they were not only riding on some of the toughest singletracks in Pisgah, but they were racing and beating much more experienced riders.
The best time to go on the ride that will push you to the edge is today
What I’ve learned is that the best time to go on the ride that will punish you the most is today, or at the very latest the coming weekend. Sure, you can’t ride on the rivet all the time, but if you’ve been waiting for the perfect conditions to complete that hard trek you’ve waited too long. You might crash, your bike might break, and you might end up getting frustrated, but the truth is that you’ll be glad you’ve gone and you’ll be rewarded by increasing your fitness and skill way faster than you might have thought.
Matt Chisholm is a data analyst and freelance writer who studies the environmental history of the Southern Smoky Mountain region of North Carolina. He was a contributor to Lost in Transition: Removing, Resettling, and Renewing Appalachia and the 2016 edition of the Journal of East Tennessee History, for which he won the 2017 McClung Award. When not writing, Matt enjoys road and mountain biking, hiking, trail running, and drinking beer around Concord, NC where he lives with his wife, daughter, and twin boys.
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