After a long climb, I watched my friends disappear, one by one, down the trail. My turn. I gripped the handlebar, stood up on my pedals and accelerated. My bike careened forward, awkwardly wobbling over rocks and roots. A steep rollover sent my fingers slamming against the breaks and my body nearly over the handlebars.
I am learning how to ride a mountain bike in my mid-30s, and this was my first day on a ride. I had visions of myself tearing down the trail, flying around corners, sailing nimbly over rocks and roots. I borrowed a full-suspension bike, called up some friends and declared myself ready to ride. But the challenge of learning this new sport was becoming abundantly clear. The terrain was so difficult that I had to walk my bike halfway down the descent, with my tail between my legs. My first day proved it wouldn’t be that easy—mountain biking was a skill I’d have to learn.
(Illustrations by Kate Hourihan.)
After my first day, I was faced with a decision: accept my beginner status or walk away. I hadn’t taken up a new outdoor activity in a while. Skiing I’d learned at age 3 and spent my twenties devoted to excelling at. Now, in my thirties, my body and brain were incredibly afraid of falling, pain and injury. Within the context of skiing, “beginner” had always sounded like a dirty word. Now on a mountain bike, I was one.
If I was going to take this new sport seriously, I needed to invest in some of my own gear. I traded in my running shoes for a pair of stiff and sticky-soled bike shoes. Knee pads and gloves tempered my fear of crashing. And, carrying a spare tube and tire repair kit gave me the confidence to ride alone.
I found I learn best when I’m challenged little by little. Too easy? I won’t learn anything new. Too hard? I’m in survival mode. Terrain with a mix of challenge and ease provided the perfect foundation for learning.
Once I figured out which terrain suited me, I practiced. I rode over rocks, I cornered (rode around tight switchbacks in the trail), I dropped (launched by bike over small two- to three-foot drop-offs). The more I rode a feature, the easier it became. I took a skills course and practiced the basics over and over.
As I practiced, I progressed. Tricky corners grew friendlier. Mellow rock garden? No problem. But, some days I was humbly reminded of my beginner status. Chasing my better-than-me friends down a steep, technical trail always offered that experience. I could corner, handle steeps and little drops separately. Put them together, I fell apart. But, as long as I pushed myself little by little, I progressed.
A year later, while practicing skills at a nearby bike park, I noticed an intro-level mountain bike class full of first-time riders wobbling their way through cones and around corners. Only then did I realize how much I had progressed. I became a mountain biker, but not the way I’d originally imagined. Most days on a bike still come with a healthy dose of fear and doubt. But, they also come with the reward of beautiful views and adventure with friends. I’ve learned that being a beginner isn’t so bad, nor does it last long if you persevere.
Learning a new sport at 30 is extra-challenging, but I wouldn’t trade the struggle for a seat on the sidelines. As mountain biking becomes more natural, I’m already looking forward to what I’ll learn as a 40-something.