I was at an event recently, riding one of the more technical trails for the first time. I felt a bit uncertain as I approached the entry, in a way that’s normal when you know you’re about to jump into something exciting and gnar.
As I got rolling, my confidence increased. After a few tight corners, some big rocks and a lot of deep dust, I had my head dialled into the trail. I could read it and trust it. I knew that anything with a double downward arrow was a part that I’d enjoy.
When I saw a triple arrow, it seemed like a good time to park the bikes and have a look. Was it wheels-on-the-ground stuff, or did the obvious lines go through the air? How much momentum would I need to keep rolling over the rough stuff? Was there anything that could get ugly if I wasn’t paying attention or my skills weren’t up for the job?
It pays to be careful the first time you ride any new trails. At this point in my time as a mountain biker, I was stoked to find that it was all very rideable. Go back in time a few years and I would have needed a much closer, slower look.
I felt like there was a mushroom cloud of negativity descending from the sky. I couldn’t handle it. I marched back up to my bike, jumped on board and got out of there, fast.
There were quite a few others checking out this section as well, and soon enough everyone started to offer their opinion. I like talking about how to tackle obstacles with other riders. But here’s the thing: everyone was talking about what not to do. How to mess it up, how to lose your wheel, where it would all go wrong.
I felt like there was a mushroom cloud of negativity descending from the sky. I couldn’t handle it. I marched back up to my bike, jumped on board and got out of there, fast. Note to self: I enjoy triple downward arrows on this course.
This scenario isn’t specific to one trail or event. You can be guaranteed to find similar conversations at almost any mountain bike competition. That’s because part of racing is testing yourself on tracks that you might not ordinarily ride.
It’s ok to be worried about whether you can safely navigate a section of a trail. It’s good to workshop this with other riders. Sure, a few negative comments are normal – they help us troubleshoot and debrief. But if neg becomes your norm, maybe it’s worth considering how this is affecting your riding in more ways than you think.
For starters, I’m pretty sure there’s not a sport psychology book out there that tells you to think in ‘can’ts’. And I have yet to hear of a top coach encouraging ‘can’t-thinkers’ to spout their anxiety far and wide – to complete strangers if they’ll listen – in the hopes that these attitudes become socially reinforced.
Why not walk the trail with your bike and break it down a bit? Talk through options that work, test out similar skills somewhere less daunting, and ask other riders for tips. Seek out handy words of wisdom to keep in your mind the next time you give a section like that a go. Look for markers on the trail to aim for if you can’t see the other side of a steep roll-down or drop.
If you’re not feeling it, just go easy on yourself. There’s no point building bad habits by riding tense. (But maybe note a few markers to aim for the next time you ride this section of track. You know, just in case.)
If you look and listen to successful riders, most of them are quite methodical about how they approach the sport. If you have to take a B-line or jump off and walk an obstacle, make it part of your race plan. Turn it into a positive – maybe a firm decision to skip it will free your mind from worry for the rest of the lap. Or time how long it takes people to walk it compared to riding it, and redeem that extra five seconds by focussing your attention where your strengths help out somewhere else.
I’m not arguing that walking technical trails is the best way to make friends and win races… But there’s a lot to be said for enjoying the way skills build progressively.
I’m not arguing that walking technical trails is the best way to make friends and win races. For starters, rules, etiquette and pride imply that if you’re off your bike you should always yield to someone riding through from behind. But there’s a lot to be said for enjoying the way skills build progressively. One of my favourite things about mountain biking is that every time you learn one thing, it opens the door to learning about ten more.
No one is ever going to bag you for riding within your limits. And I think you’ll find that if you tell people the good things about a ride, or an element of your riding you want to work on, they’ll share good things with you as well. You might find you end up riding much better as a result.
The same goes for riders who are always complaining about what they can’t afford, races they can’t get to and weekends they can’t get away for. Cheer up guys. I think you’ll find that the reasons you might not be riding the most expensive bikes in the universe 24/7 (spending time with your family, getting an education, owning the place you live in, having a life outside of bikes or working a job that provides you with a lifestyle you enjoy) are pretty good as well.