The Soapbox: Are you a lone wolf?

A little while ago, Flow asked you guys whether you preferred riding with others, or by yourselves. The responses were interesting: most of you seemed to get more out of riding with other people, but often rode alone because it was hard to find other people to ride with, or because you were embarrassed by your skill level. In fact, unless the purpose of a ride was to train, pretty much all of you indicated that, if given the choice, you would prefer to ride with other people (especially good friends).

Humans get more reward out of experiences with other humans (especially ones we like) than we do from solo activities.

As a sport psychologist, I find this really interesting, because it follows both the research and my own experience as a mountain biker. It’s all about shared involvement: humans get more reward out of experiences with other humans (especially ones we like) than we do from solo activities. Our preference for doing things with others is probably an evolved one: being with the tribe is safer, but also allows for cooperative activity, increasing our chances of surviving (it’s easier to bring down a mammoth with your mates). As a result, we get a buzz from doing things with other people that is harder to get by ourselves.

The fact that mountain biking is a challenging, absorbing, and fulfilling experience in its own right also enhances the group experience. Typically, we enjoy ourselves more when we’re doing something that is engaging (d’uh), but also that requires our full attention and a reasonable skill base. When we do this with other people, it stands out even more. This is probably why mountain biking is a great way to form friendships. When we share intense experiences with others, we’re much more likely to form strong bonds a lot quicker (you’ll also notice this sort of thing happening when you travel – sharing novel experiences with others forms a close connection because we’re much more open to experience in situations that require a lot of our attention, and where having support makes us feel more comfortable).


Interestingly, when we ride with others we appear to encode more intense memories of the experience than we do when we’re by ourselves. Think about your own experience: chances are you have much more vivid memories of your last shared ride than from your last solo effort.

All of this adds up to an area that’s been a research interest of mine for some time: what types of exercise give us the most psychological benefit? Watching people punish themselves on treadmills in the gym (and hating what they’re doing) it’s pretty obvious that any psychological benefit is missing in action (even though they might be getting a physical effect). Researchers have shown that regular exercise improves mood, increases resilience, and decreases stress, anxiety and depression. But this only happens when we voluntarily engage in a physical activity we enjoy. Most interesting is that fact that this effect is enhanced when we exercise with other people (especially those we like). So mountain biking, especially with other people, tends to tick all the boxes for psychological benefit.

This is probably why mountain biking is a great way to form friendships. When we share intense experiences with others, we’re much more likely to form strong bonds a lot quicker.

Having said all that, there are times when riding with a group can be a pain, and a solo ride can be thoroughly refreshing. Groups add an element of competition, and it can be exhausting to feel like you’ve always got to outdo your riding buddies. Needing to go faster and harder every ride also adds an element of risk – although it’s great to be challenged, pushing your limits every ride whether you want to or not, can be dangerous or just scary, reducing the pleasure you take from the experience.

Without the pressure to perform, or the need to have other people around to see you rail a berm, a solo ride can be very pleasant – an opportunity to take things at your own pace, to stop and practise the things you want to work on, and to enjoy your own company for a while. Of course, it goes without saying that riding solo should go hand in hand with the good practice of letting people know where you’re going and when to expect you back, and to carry a mobile phone that gets reception where you’re riding.

My advice? Take some time to think about why you mountain bike and what you want to get out of it. If it’s all about the training or time by yourself, then don’t stress about finding people to ride with. But if mountain biking is about shared experience with people you enjoy spending time with, it’s worth making the effort to get out there with others. If you don’t have anyone to ride with, or your friends are always busy, check out the various riding forums, or local clubs, for riding buddies. It might feel awkward to begin with, but mountain biking is a great way to build friendships quickly. Three rides later, it’ll be worth it.


In summary:

Why ride by yourself? Training, time to self, chance to practise without pressure.

Why we ride by ourselves (even if we don’t want to): embarrassment, no one to ride with, low confidence.

Why ride with others? Increased psychological benefit, more fun, feels more memorable, added safety if things go wrong, increased challenge, chance to form good relationships.

The downside of riding with others: peer pressure, excessive competition, less chance to slow down or practise.


About the author:

Dr. Jeremy Adams is a registered psychologist and director of Eclectic Consulting Ltd. He divides his time between mountain biking, working with athletes and other performers, executive coaching, and private practice.

In past lives, Jeremy has been a principal lecturer in sport and performance psychology at a university in London, a senior manager in a large consulting firm in Melbourne, a personal trainer in Paris, and a scuba instructor in Byron Bay. He’s also the author of a textbook on performance in organisational management, a large range of professional and popular articles, and a regular blog about how to be human (

Jeremy is based in Melbourne and can be contacted through his website (

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