“Go ride your bike!”
I heard this a lot from my mom when I was a kid, squirming in her shadow and whining, “I’m so borrrrrrred … .”
And ride our bikes, we did. My pink Schwinn Sting-Ray with the sparkly banana-seat and white plastic wicker basket took me wherever I wanted to go, multi-colored mylar streamers flying from the handlebars.
My friends and I pedaled to the playground, to the corner store, to the lake. We flew at heart-stopping speeds, racing each other down windy paved roads and steep hills – sans helmet, pigtails behind us, weightless. On my own, I chased make-believe bad guys and solved imaginary Nancy Drew-like mysteries (The Secret of the Tree House! The Clue Behind the Library!).
Bikes were freedom and opportunity, and we were fearless.
Then we got older. Our bicycles were left out to rust in the weather, sold at a yard sale, forgotten at a friend’s house, or stolen from the playground. We snubbed the effort of peddling under our own power for the ease of the gas pedal.
For a time, we felt freer than ever, but we are no longer fearless. Now we navigate family life, climb corporate ladders, and look forward to coasting into retirement – all the while steering clear of risk by keeping to a straight and narrow path.
Like Riding a Bike
As a young mother, I wheeled around the neighborhood with my children on sunny spring afternoons, but I did not really get back in the “banana seat” until the age of 46 when I took up mountain biking.
For those not familiar with mountain biking, it is not starkly different from the biking of our youth. Imagine tearing through the woods on old logging roads so overgrown that only a single-track remains, your older brother daring you to ride your bike down the school steps, or the humiliation of pushing your ten-speed up that long steep hill on wobbly legs in the summer heat.
The bike designs are different – you can select from duallies, hard-tails, rigids, downhills, and fat bikes. The tires are fatter and knobbier. Made specifically for rough terrain, complex suspension systems help absorb shock (crucial for aging bodies).
The main difference is that today’s sport of mountain biking takes place intentionally on trails sometimes no wider than the width of your front tire, over rocks and tree roots, through mud, across narrow bridges, around and between trees, up relentless climbs, and down swoopy hills with high curved berms propelling you around tight turns at ever-increasing speeds.
In the eleven years since I began mountain biking – first on an inexpensive hard-tail (no rear suspension) and platform pedals (no special shoes required) and riding a month’s salary dual-suspension mid-fat with clipless pedals – I’ve had my share of scrapes and bruises, tears of frustration, laughter, crippling fear, and exhilaration.
Life Lessons of Mountain Biking
In midlife, I am reliving the freedom and opportunity that biking provides. Sometimes I am fearless; mostly, I am scared as hell. But the more I bike, the more I realize the parallels to living a life with intention.
- Practice safety first | When biking, this means you always wear your helmet, maintain your equipment, and yield to uphill riders. In life, that means building your own financial, physical, and emotional security.
- Face obstacles at speed | Contrary to instinct, the gnarlier the terrain, the faster you must pedal. Let fear slow your roll and your momentum halts – tire wedged against root or rock; soul crushed. Don’t let anything get in your way.
- Focus on your path | Look at the tree, hit the tree – it’s practically guaranteed. Look at the route you want to follow, and the trees will stay out of your way.
- Be adaptable | You’ve worked so hard to get to this point; it seems fair to coast for a bit. But around the corner is a steep hill, a narrow bridge, a steaming pile of horse manure! Stay alert, be ready to accelerate, to find balance, or to change course quickly.
- Work hard | On the toughest of climbs, maintaining just enough momentum to stay upright is a worthy goal. Fail that, and you push the bike up the hill. That’s okay. Don’t quit.
- Get muddy | Ride through the muck, get your hands dirty. Let go of perfection and worrying about looking good.
- Practice kindness | Trail etiquette is non-negotiable. Though you are likely to encounter surliness, ignorance, or cluelessness, don’t be “that guy.”
- Tap the brakes | You can’t go fast 100% of the time. Stop. Rest. Hydrate.
- Appreciate the flow | One minute you are defying gravity, freely zipping down bermed switchbacks. The next you’re hugging the steep slope of a ridgeline, peddling, pumping, groaning – all for the opportunity to enjoy the ride again.
- Reflect | At the end of every ride, take stock – preferably over an icy cold beverage with friends. Talk about your progress, your failures, and your achievements. Remember why you do this.
I am not an expert mountain biker – or an expert on life – but I’ve improved a lot in the last ten years or so. I pedal my bike more often than I push it, glide across all but the narrowest of bridges, and navigate technical trails with greater confidence.
What I like most about the sport – other than being outside, and the beer at the end of a ride – is how Zen it is. There is no energy for negative self-talk. No room for solving the world’s problems. Whiners? Stay home.
When I am on the bike – particularly on a challenging trail – I only think about this moment, intuiting my next move. Pedal faster. Tap the brakes. Keep your eyes on the path. Enjoy the flow.