10 life lessons I learned on a mountain bike

You learn amazing stuff while dropping down steep hills through wild corners over big rocks.

The first year I started riding, it was not unusual for me to do three complete endos (front of the bike down, end of the bike going over your head) per ride. Flip yourself over on a stone wall a few times, and you begin to ask why it’s happening. Get enough answers, and riding starts to look like a series of life lessons. Here’s 10 worth sharing.

1. Let go over the bumps.

This is the big one. The reality is, a mountain bike is engineered to roll. If you are hitting the brakes, then the bike is not operating in its optimum state. As contrary as it seems, you have far more control if you trust the bike and let it roll over the inevitable roots, rocks, and holes.

Takeaway? When the going gets tough, don’t freeze. Instead, relax. Let yourself roll and flow over and through conflict, stress, and challenge. Yes, it takes practice, lots of it. But with practice, situations that once brought you to a screeching halt instead offer an opportunity to move with grace and assurance.

Corollary: If you feel out of control, check to see if you’re braking too hard. The chances are really good that your trouble starts there.

2. Slow down before the turns.

This is directly related to lesson number one. Because the bike is designed to roll, not stop, you will have far more control if you are moving at the speed you are comfortable with when you hit the turn, rock, or gully. It’s too late to hit the brakes when you are in the turn; by then you want to be flowing.

Translation? Be aware of your comfort level and keep your eyes open to challenges. Plan, rehearse, and anticipate what-ifs so that when they do happen, you can relax and just ride.

3. Take new ground during the easy times.

It’s during the easy times—the smooth straightaways—that you want to pour on the steam. This is not the time to slow down and relax. Quite the contrary, look ahead to see where the trail is going to even out and then push harder when you hit that section.

4. Lift your view up.

(Hey, these are all connected, aren’t they?) That bump you’re on? It’s over. Lift your gaze up away from that which is scaring you now and look ahead as far as you can. Look up to notice any unusual twists, turns, and changes ahead. Your brain tends to go where you look, and when you’re sailing through the woods at top speed it’s really important to look where you want to go, not where you are.

In mountain biking (and in cross-country skiing) this important skill is called “picking your line.” You scan the upcoming terrain and then decide how you’re going to navigate it, all while moving at top speed.

5. Don’t try to avoid the challenges.

In most cases it makes more sense to roll over an obstacle than to try to avoid it. If you try to avoid every nook and cranny, you’re going to be wobbling all over the trail. If you are wobbling, you are certainly not in control. Mountain biking is a sport of flow, and the easiest and most graceful way to find the flow is to just roll right up and over your hurdles.

On a mountain bike, as in life, there are bumps, big and small. They are inevitable. You cannot avoid them. Embrace them. Roll with them.

6. Don’t sit (except on the hills).

Mountain biking, like business, is not a ride in the park. It’s a challenging sport that requires your full attention. The proper stance on a mountain bike is a low crouch. You are standing with bent knees and bent, loose, and relaxed arms. You should be able to feel the seat between your thighs, but not on your crotch. In most cases you are treating the seat as a gauge to sense where the bike is relative to your body. (Remember, you’re relaxing and letting the bike roll.)

Your limbs are flexible and responsive. You treat them as shock absorbers, letting them take the brunt of the rough terrain while keeping your core centered and calm. In business your limbs are your relationships with your team, your communications with your customers, your tests and your plans. Keep them limber, let them bounce with the terrain. They should be flexible enough to adjust to changing circumstances. But keep your core—your primary reason for being in business—clear, centered, and consistent.

7. Stay seated on the hills.

When faced with a daunting hill (or challenge), the natural tendency is to stand up for the extra oomph your brain tells you need. But know what? When the going gets tough, it’s not brute strength you need, but practiced smarts. On a mountain bike, when you stand up you do get extra strength from your legs, but at the same time you pull your center of gravity forward, away from the rear wheel, which is where you need the extra push right now.

Experienced riders (and businesspeople) know that the object of getting through difficulty is getting through it, not getting through it quickly. Like when you’re on a bump or tricky turn, this is, in fact, the time to drop back into flow mode. On a really steep hill the best strategy is to shift down, stay seated, bring your core parallel to the bike (or your plan), and just pedal. It’s unlikely you’re going to gain any ground during this climb, but if you relax, stay focused, and just keep pedaling, you won’t lose any, either.

Bob Perry, one of my biking mentors, likes to say, “Uphills are the time to relax and regain energy so that you can really gain ground when it’s easier.”

8. Pace yourself from the start.

It is all too tempting to start a ride at full tilt, especially when riding with a group. You might start out keeping up with stronger and faster riders, but before you know it, you are out of juice. Few things are more disheartening than starting out in the front of the pack only to find yourself behind less experienced riders two hours later.

Slow and steady tends to win the race. Start at the pace you know you can hold. If you’ve got extra energy later in the ride, burn it then, when you know you’ve got it to spare.

9. It’s all in your head.

There’s a trail in the Wendell State Forest here in Massachusetts called Nipmunk. It starts with a steep climb over two consecutive rock gardens (fields of littered stones). I’ve never been able to make it up the bottom part of the trail without getting off my bike. Typically I give up at the start of the first rock field.

One day in the fall we entered the trail from a different direction. There were leaves covering the ground, and I didn’t recognize where we were until we started to descend from the top of the trail. “Wait a minute,” my little monkey mind said, “we just came up Nipmunk, and I did fine.” I hadn’t even noticed anything unusually challenging.

It wasn’t my technical ability or my fitness level that was keeping me from riding the trail, it was my mind. What else am I not doing because I don’t believe I can?

10. Feel the fear, then do it anyway.

Mountain biking is really challenging. Descending a steep hill of sharp switchbacks that bottoms out on a narrow bridge six feet over the water can be really scary. This is one of the reasons I prefer to ride with a group. If you are riding behind someone else who just did what you are afraid to do, it’s much easier to let go of the brakes and trust the bike. It’s not that you won’t fall off of the bridge, but you do know that someone else just didn’t.

Reach out to others—peers, mentors, suppliers, collaborators—and share with them how scary and challenging it is to try something you’ve never done before. And then do it. The next time you do it, it will come a little easier.

And then there will be another hill that’s even steeper, and even scarier.

(Photo of me with post-ride helmet head by Michael Akrep)

 

 

Comments

  1. At first I thought 6 & 8 were my fav. But then there is 10. Hmmm… great piece. Thank you for this!

  2. Spot on. Mountain Biking is a life challenge. “Feel the fear then do it anyway”.

  3. This is dead-on accurate concerning both better mountain biking and better living!

    • Mitch Anthony says:

      Thanks, Liam. I want to remind you that it was you who taught me lesson number 5: Don’t try to avoid the challenges. You were behind me one day while I was careening all over the trail trying to avoid every little rock. In a clear and gentle voice you said “You know, it’s easier to roll right over the rocks than it is to avoid them.” It changed the way I ride, and it changed the way I face life. Thank you.

  4. This is a great blog, Mitch. You can apply biking wisdoman to d the rest of life because you do it so well.

  5. I did my homework, Mitch. Fantastic piece. Keeping number 4 at the forefront of my mind in my life and my work is probably my biggest challenge, but fortunately I have you around to remind me when I have forgotten the importance of picking my line. I used to rock climb, and this was an essential skill there as well. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned for our benefit.

  6. Awesome piece! Shared broadly amongst my Friends. Re: #7, in my opinion: sometimes (in business, life, or on a single speed) you need to stand up and SPRINT the hills. Momentum is your friend and if you are fit enough for it (which I am definitely not yet again.. but once was), a sprint uses less energy (over the climb) than a sit!

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