Ask around. Particularly now as winter melts into mud season and the desert starts calling. In the mountain community, you will find nearly every lovely mountain mama you meet shares a few things in common:
- An affinity for plaid flannels and beanies
- The requisite Girafficorn hat + a craft beer sampler
- A strange addiction to carbon and a growing collection of Shredly shorts
- A disastrous story of one’s first attempt at mountain biking
- Then, a love story about that same bike, that same trail, and that same sport
The “dirt pow” and the wheels that traverse it hold a unique place in my heart. I have never been more terrified or broken than at the hands of my pink handlebars; I have never been more alive or liberated. There has never been more doubt or uncertainty; there has never been more courage or confidence.
I have never been dirtier or more elegant than at the back of my Minon DHF tires.
In fact, in all the ways that mountain biking has broken me (literally – from ankles to ribs to shoulders), it has built me back up, creating someone new, someone bold – all while fostering a deep appreciation for life, for mountains, and for my beautiful + badass babes (and the men who love them).
My story with biking was a horror story; it began with a flurry of rocks and endos aboard a cheap, $50 Craigslist bike (a 20+ year old Trek with a busted front shock). My then boyfriend (soon to be husband) took me and that glorious bike to a trail in Boulder known as Bitterbrush for my first run (one of “the most technical trails in Colorado” – thanks babes). It was a maze of rocks and ledges, of narrow cliff bands and long descents. I would consider that trail to be oodles of fun now…then? I wore a climbing helmet and a pair of vans sneakers; I managed the rock gardens with a death grip and the smell of burning v-brakes; I almost died. I emerged hours later, bruised and battered. I admit- there were also a few tears. At the edge of a rocky switchback upon which I KNEW I was about to meet my own, bitter end, a kind man with dreads and a Jamaican accent (who also possessed a fancy Yeti and turquoise shorts) told me to, “walk to day; ride tomorrow. The trail will always be here when you are ready.”
I was broken; I was humbled; I was hooked.
How does this sport (in which nearly everyone has their own horror story) inspire such devotion and joy? Why did I emerge from my near death experience with the competing desire to throw my bike into a lake…then swim out, retrieve it, and try again?
Regardless of how, over the past decade, mountain biking has saved my life and my sanity more times than I can count.
1. It is hard.
Yes. This is a reason WHY mountain biking is so addictive and transformative.
Challenge. Sweat. Humilty. There is nothing easy about mountain biking. To quote a friend and former amateur cyclist:
It never gets easier. You just get faster.
I remember moments of defeat – where I carted and heaved and lugged myself and my bike up and over rocks, jumps, logs, and streams. There was fear and apprehension, a sometimes brutal wakeup call to my limitations. There was always sweat and the thrill of pushing my body to its edges and beyond. Sometimes, there were bruises, tears – but always, there was the challenge. That challenge meant that there was opportunity and possibility. the room for growth demanded growth – guaranteed it. With every triumph came humility; with every humbled moment came possibility – the chance to grow, to learn, and to try again.
It is hard. And that’s the point. With easy things, you start and end and stay right where you are. With hard things, you end up somewhere else – you become someone and something more.
2. It is fun.
You know what makes those hard things less impossible? When they are also fun.
It’s simple, really.
Riding bikes is fun. It is the joy, the thrill, the possibility of childhood personified. Close your eyes. You can almost feel it, can’t you? The wind in your face, the sound of rubber on pavement, then dirt – the promise of summer. Simplicity. Friendship. Every good thing. Spinning.
That promise? That joy? It is still there, and I rediscover it every time I leap to my bike seat.
It is fun to climb mountains, to stand atop distant ridges, to soar back down. It is slap happy, giddy, irresponsible, beautiful, liberating, glorious FUN – from ear to ear.
3. It is freedom.
Susan B. Anthony said it best.
Independence is happiness
That’s what riding is: freedom. As a child, my single speed huffy provided the freedom to go, to explore, to travel, to wander in search of life, friends, and adventure. When I received that pink tasseled steed of glory (aptly named the B.G.M, aka big green machine), I gained a certain degree of independence. I could now test the borders and boundaries of my quickly expanding world (and I could put a few internal boundaries of my own to the test as well).
As an adult, cycling also represented freedom – this time from self doubt and depression, from cubicles and rush hour traffic, from pain and disappointment, from anger and uncertainty. It was a way to reconnect with something innate and primal within my soul; on my bike, with the sky above and the wind behind, I was utterly and completely free.
Ms. Anthony went a bit further with her take on cycling, crediting it with the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
You see, in the Victorian era, the fashion of the day (tight and tighter corsets, long heavy skirts, etc.) made walking, running, and most physical activities nearly impossible; it served as a reminder and as a metaphor for the limitations placed upon women who were expected to be physically, economically, socially, politically, and intellectually subservient to and dependent upon men. When even breathing is a chore, how could one even begin to imagine something more? In the early 19th century, however, the bicycle emerged and quickly became a cultural phenomenon. Everyone had a bicycle. It was the “it” thing to do – particularly among women. And despite some inevitable backlash and criticism, the tour de force of bikes and ladies continued to gain momentum (literally).
Women began to use bicycles to, well, go places – to shop, to travel, to wander, to run errands, to visit friends. Fashion changed, making movement easier and more accessible. Women’s ankles were being exposed (the horror!). And with the ability to move freely, women discovered something even more profound: the empowering thrill of independence and agency.
I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have felt like—in an age when American women were still decades from the right to vote and inundated with men’s opinions about their ankles—for a woman to to go outside, hop on her bicycle, and ride as fast as she could wherever she wanted, leaving the rest of the world wondering where she might go.
Today, man or woman, adult or child (and everything in between), recognize this simple fact: the ability to move = freedom. And freedom, the ability to move as and where one chooses, by the strength of one’s own body and the conviction of one’s own heart = happiness.
4. It simplifies.
Bikes (particularly of the modern variety) have gotten more complicated. But riding bikes? It is the most simple thing in the world. There is simply you, your body, your breath, and the trail beneath and before you. There isn’t room for much else.
Jobs and careers, mortgages and rentals, cars and dinners and conference calls and zip codes and fine denim jackets – all that silliness that divides and steals our time and energy, that robs us of unity and focus? It doesn’t matter on the trail. Not in the least.
And while, at the trail head or behind your keyboard, you may gawk at equipment, shorts, chamois, brake fluid, garmins, and whatever other silliness we have tacked on to the biking industry – on the trail itself? All that “stuff” fades into the joy of simply moving, simply breathing, simply riding.
5. It is meditative.
When riding, all else falls away. It must, to an extent. Daydreaming about bills, errands, and that morning-argument with my SO, is a surefire way to start a much more physical argument with an Aspen tree (ouch).
Mindfulness means living in the moment. To quote a former Zen master, “when you sweep the floor, sweep the floor. When you run, run. When you sit, sit. When you eat, eat.”
Too often, our bodies are doing one thing while are minds are off, doing a million others. This division breeds stress, anxiety, depression, and a host of negative emotions, thoughts, and actions. Meditation seeks to resolve this division, and thus, provide us with a way to reconnect with our bodies, to live in the moment, and to foster awareness and gratitude.
This may be why sports like mountain biking are so addictive and therapeutic. When biking, your mind and body are working together, in the moment, on the very specific task ahead of you. It is a kind of meditation – of the much more thrilling and exciting kind. There is nothing more than you and the trail and your bike. In the moment, your mind is clear and present, your body is moving, and you are truly and fully living within that moment, soaking in every ounce of its joy, color, light, and potential.
6. It is adventure.
The open road – you can see it, can’t you? Admired and traversed by wandering gypsy souls, a metaphor for American ingenuity and spirit, the greatest symbol we possess of freedom and possibility. Here, you can be, do, and go anywhere.
That road. Navigated. Adored. Feared. A place that was not a destination as much as it was a journey – less a thing and more an opportunity, a tool to be used to whatever end.
Today, the American road, unfortunately, is less “an open race towards freedom” and more a “grid commute.” But the spirit of that metaphor lives on in a different way in the wildness of dirt roads, singletrack, and aspen groves.
Because, at the edge of that trail head, out there, is adventure and possibility – things happen. And in wandering those spaces, you get to be a part of those happenings. Riding, is simply a microcosm of those open road and their figurative possibilities. Whether your ride is ten minutes or ten hours, a causal ride on familiar terrain or a week long excursion into unknown places, you will do things, you will explore, you will meet people, you will challenge yourself, you will experience something.
And that something? That unknown, mysterious possibility? That is exactly what life and living are all about.
7. It is wilderness (and wilderness is good for you).
There is something about the mountains, about nature and wilderness. It reignites our souls and our imaginations. It nurtures our spirits and strengthens our bodies. In the wilderness, we are able to focus and align ourselves with something greater than ourselves. We discover humility and purpose; we sweat and we learn. And we emerge from those lessons renewed.
The benefits of getting out into the wild spaces of our souls isn’t limited to the emotional and irrational world of us gypsies, however. Nature is energizing and restorative. Getting out of the “box” and out into the open spaces of the natural world increases both mental and physical well being, increasing our sense of well being and vitality while warding off exhaustion and depression.
Wilderness is not only good for your spirit; it is essential to your physical health. In fact, according to the 2010 issue of Journal of Environmental Psychology and professor of psychology, psychiatry, and education, Richard Ryan:
Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses. One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings
8. It builds community.
Human beings do not function well in isolation. In fact, isolation is akin to torture and can rapidly undermine both our mental and physical health. Loneliness can kill you – literally. To guard against isolation, we surround ourselves with people, with social media, with “things” – but it turns out being alone isn’t where we go wrong; being lonely is. You can be in the center of a crowded room and still be lonely; you could have the world at your fingertips and still be isolated. To guard against isolation and loneliness, we need and crave meaningful connections with living things (and adding more insta followers isn’t going to cut it).
“We have a natural connection with living things,” says Ryan. “Nature is something within which we flourish, so having it be more a part of our lives is critical, especially when we live and work in built environments.”
Mountain biking cultivates connection. Even when riding alone, one is never alone. There is the connection you have to the natural world around you, the connection that you feel and foster within your own spirit and body, and of course, the connection that you foster within the larger cycling community. Mountain bikers are a social bunch; we are passionate about our sport and thus, passionate about each other. I have never met a stranger at a trail head. I have experienced the greatest kindness on singletrack laps – from those who stopped to chat and share their glory to those who have, in the past, picked up my mangled steed and helped me to repair a chain, a tire, a cable. While biking, my walls are down, my mind and heart are open; the world rushes in and I rush back to meet it with a smile, a nod, and a genuine, deep-in-your-soul kind of joy.
Go to any trail head. I dare you. See for yourself. Like minded people, connected by a shared joy for nature, wilderness, and all things rubber? Now that is fabulous.
9. It will make you stronger (and fitter).
Mountain biking is hard. And doing those hard things does wonders for your body.
Biking is, simply, an incredible work out. It increases endurance, transforms those little lungs into massive cauldrons of athletic glory, and strengthens your heart. It strengthens nearly every muscle in your body.
And, did I mention that is far easier on your joints than high impact sports like running (or even high impact workouts, like plyometrics)?
What’s more, biking is the kind of workout that doesn’t feel like work. Sure, it’s hard. Sure, it gets your heart pumping and your body moving. But it is fun – and that fact means you are far more likely to jump on your bike over the years than hit the gym.
10. It breeds self sufficiency.
Wilderness sprawling in every direction, the open singletrack, my bike, myself and the adventure before me. And to traverse those spaces? I needed to be self sufficient. Because the freedom that mountain biking offers has a cost: that cost is your willingness to take responsibility for yourself and your actions.
Because, while your community is always there to provide guidance, support, and knowledge – at the end of the day, your ride, your bike, and your journey belong to you.
You need to know how your bike work and how to fix it. You need to know where you are going. You need to know how to take care of yourself (and others). You need to be prepared to take responsibility for a poor decision (and to learn from it). You need to analyze what is and plan for what might be. You need to think, act, and do – sometimes all on your own.
On the trail, you cannot hide behind someone else, you cannot slink into the shadows of another’s decision. It is your body, your bike, your ride, your future. You must be your own line of defense against injury and hazards.
And it is this mentality, the need to be aware, responsible, and sufficient as a mountain biker, that has had the most immediate impact on my professional and personal life. Because, the person that I am on my bike (confident, prepared, aware, resilient, free, and capable) – that person is still there at home, in the office, and in the classroom. I found her and discovered her strength on the trail. And because of my passion for riding, I get to develop that strength and bring her back with me.
There is always something about the mountains that transforms fear into courage – that, in showing us our weakness and humbling our pride, reveals our true potential. In daring to strip away our ego and shower our mangled bodies in a shower of sweat and dirt, the mountains provide a path and an opportunity to let go of all that which truly does not matter.
And in this way, in this sweaty, muddy, bruised and battered way, every dirt path promises only one true thing: freedom. This freedom, this sport, saved my life – through injuries and poverty, through homelessness and despair, through bad relationships and eventual romance, through the struggles of marriage and baby making, through the joys of motherhood and the difficulty of finding a balance, through all the trials and celebrations of my life now and into the future, mountain biking has been my center.
It can be yours (dare I say it…it should be).