Building confidence on the mountain bike is one of the most important ways to make your riding more enjoyable. But it’s difficult to know when it’s time to “level up” and try that new feature or trail section that you’ve been avoiding.
It’s perfectly natural to want to avoid the scenario of hobbling back to the trailhead with a broken body, bike–or both. But if you’re in the habit of riding scared, then you’re riding wrong. So you gotta step up to the challenge at some point if you want to improve and be worthy of the bike that you’re riding.
There is only one great time to challenge yourself.
The truth is that there is only one great time to challenge yourself on the bike: whenever you’re ready. Over my time spent riding and coaching, I’ve found it’s better to always ride within your limits than barreling around the trail hell-bent on sending every jump, rock garden, or drop the trail offers. Also, a warmup of at least 20 minutes is essential to ensure your body’s neural networks are warmed up and responding. I’ve ridden many times with guys who wanted to start a trail with a problematic feature, and almost always, the ride has started with someone on their ass.
I usually spend each ride thinking about my goals for the day.
Sometimes that’s to go hard on a climb, others it’s just to enjoy myself and feel the flow, and sometimes it’s to push myself to do something scary. I make sure to always stay calm and make sure that my balance is in place before dropping into whatever I’m trying to figure out. The key is to stop thinking, pick the line you’ve researched, and just go. The minute you hit the brakes is the minute you’re in trouble. Remember: it’s your job to ride the bike and not let the bike ride you.
If all of this sounds overly cautious, then you’re right. When I was 22 years old and ate Cheetos and beer 2 meals a day, (possessing a superhuman ability to recover with three hours of sleep!) I could ride whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and bounce back after crashing. The truth, however, is that I was more of a bull in a China shop, mowing over terrain instead of learning how to ride sustainably. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that it’s definitely fun to monster truck down a trail, but it’s better, in the long run, to study the trail, know my bike, and flow through the scary bits.
If you’re one of the people who never try anything scary on the bike, then you’re missing out on some amazing riding.
At some point, you’ve got to level up, or you’ll be on the bunny slopes, which honestly are more fun on a CX bike anyway. So, make sure every third or fourth ride to try something new, scare yourself, and be willing to land on your butt to learn a skill that you can use for the rest of your time on the trail. Then, your future self will appreciate the effort, and you can reward yourself with a well-earned beer at the trailhead!
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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