My flatmate, his work colleague, Chao, and I headed out with me as designated driver for our weekend in the Lochaber region. We were headed for Aonach Mor near Fort William, Scotland, the site of the Mountain Biking World Cup, for x-country mountain biking lessons.
The bike school informed us that full body armour for x-country lessons was overkill so we only had our bike helmets. (Given our experience, they might want to revise their protocol for the future.) I learned quickly that what you need to do for mountain biking flies in the face of what my instincts want to do to protect myself. I want to lean forward going over an obstacle but if I don’t balance or lean on my back tire I will land on my front tire and can flip myself off of my bike. I naturally want to avoid obstacles, find a way around instead of over or through. I want to slow down instead of speed up and learn that going slow means a greater chance of catching my tire on a rock instead of sailing over it… slowing down at the wrong time increases my chance of injury. I fought my fear for much of the day. I had to open my mind and ‘rewire’ it to learn and be truly safe, because what I thought would keep me safe put me in danger.
The instructor started us out with a brief lesson on the basics of braking, use of gears on ascents and descents, and other essentials. We began our practice on a relatively easy Blue course, which is two levels up from the easiest. It involved several boardwalks and a couple of bridges, and some ascents and descents with a few rocks but no significant obstacles. One of the descents required a sharp turn at the end to make it onto a bridge. My flatmate had his first crash as his bike didn’t turn (okay, he didn’t turn his bike) and he ran into the side of the bridge. Ouch. Pretty scratched up but alright. He persevered, taking on each challenge with calm determination, even after flying off the Red trail into the air and faceplanting about 15 feet down an embankment; fortunately his helmet saved him from serious harm and his body landed perfectly between a fallen log, a tree and some scattered rocks.
After we managed to make it through the remainder of the Blue course, we spent some time negotiating a simple obstacle, a log. We had to learn the proper body posture, timing and lift of our bike to safely and easily roll ourselves over the log. I made a mistake and instead of lifting my wheel over the log I hit one of my brakes. Not a good idea to hit your brakes as you encounter a log. After this lesson it was time to face the Red skill-building trail. Red trails have rock-strewn ascents and tricky descents with larger rocks and trees, tight turns, small drop-offs, rolling hills where you can get up speed and catch some air. There is one level up from Red and that’s the Black trail, which has huge boulders, large drop-offs and rock slabs, among other challenges… places that it seems no bike should ever go.
Our trail started with an ascent that took us up rocks and challenged our balance, turning, timing and fitness. At the top was a relatively steep descent with a difficult path requiring a slight turn, popping over some larger rocks and maintaining balance and position to make it over the next set of rocks and retain momentum for an immediate ascent up a rocky hill. Looking down the first descent I couldn’t see how I could do it. I had no skill, no confidence. But the instructor was completely calm and no nonsense—you’re here to learn, you learn by doing, so do it. You don’t learn and build up your confidence by staring at obstacles.
I took the first hill and did not do very well but I didn’t crash. I stopped on the way down. I have to say, even the smallest drop-offs, rocks or bundle of tree roots loom large when you’re going over them as a beginner; pair them with tight turns and it can feel overwhelming. When I got to the top of the second hill and saw the descent in front of me I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Had I had bitten off more than I could handle? It was a steep and twisting descent with rocky drop-offs and trees bordering one side of the skinny, singletrack, tight turns with the ground falling away on the other side, the embankment littered with logs, trees and rocks. Crashing or falling off was going to hurt.
I was the first one down again and caught my front tire in between the rocks on the first turn. I knew I was going down and I was scared to hit whatever I would hit so I reached out and grabbed hold of the nearest tree with my left arm, which ripped me off my seat. I wrapped my other arm around the tree to catch myself, hugging it now and somehow managing to keep hold of my bike with my legs. My immediate thought was that this might not be the best way to get down the trail, like ‘okay, you’ve used up that option. No more outs’… let alone how ridiculous I looked.
I was shaking badly at this point and knew that I now had to do this trail. I began to see that I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt as much as my fear was just talking loudly, telling me that the rocks and obstacles were too much for me; that I wouldn’t be able to successfully navigate them… that I didn’t have what it takes. I was heavy with a feeling that no matter how many times I did it, I wouldn’t succeed; that my fear was too strong for me this time. If you’re going to give mountain biking a go, fear is not your friend. You can’t afford it, so you have to face it or walk away.
The instructor kept telling me it’s all mental and requires confidence that it can, indeed, be done. He instructed me to review the obstacles and then pick my line and select focus points that were always beyond each set of obstacles. Once I had passed each set of obstacles, move my attention immediately to my next focus point in my line. Never focus on the obstacles or I’m a goner. Stay right on my line at all times.
It seemed to me that if I didn’t look at the obstacles as I approached them that I would be caught in them and crash. I also wanted to go slow but was informed that this would not help me. I needed speed to get over and through the obstacles, instead of getting caught in them, and momentum to get up the next rocky ascent. I was taking lessons for a reason. I didn’t know how to do this; he did. So I listened. I decided that I’d probably get hurt for sure doing it my way, so if I was going to get hurt, might as well be when I’m trying to do it the way he was teaching me.
I made it back up to the start of the trail and surveyed the first descent. It was a fairly wide trail. I picked my line with his advice. I stayed away from the ‘safer’ looking dirt on the sides and headed straight through and over the rocks, which required turning fast on the craggy jumble. My body was shaking harder by this time. I almost bought it on the first turn (if you don’t turn properly you run straight into a large boulder) but managed to stay on my bike and on my line, sailing over the tiny drop-off ahead and the next group of rocks and then up the next ascent, shaking but thrilled that I had made it through. Now to the bigger hill.
Do or die, I was taking this hill. Because the only thing that stood between me being able to have more freedom in mountain biking or being only able to do the simplest of trails, was fear. I needed to know that I could do it and stay on my bike and on my line, although it seemed certain that I would crash. Again the shaking worsened and I couldn’t get it to ease up. It wouldn’t stop and it was simply time to go. I picked my line and my focus points, forcing my mind and eyes to ignore how narrow the trail had become, the more numerous trees at the tight turns, the drop-offs and the other rocks in my way. There was little room for error on this trail. I was going to trust my instructor completely and do it exactly as he said and see what happened. I decided to accept whatever outcome–success or failure, staying on my bike or crashing. I pedaled into it picking up enough speed to either take me through it or… well… there was no point of return. My bike and my body were committed. I sailed through and over the first drop-off and landed safely, making it around the tree and setting up for the next larger drop-off and tight turn. Again through and over and around and I was zooming through the smaller obstacles to the final tunnel and the end, letting out loud whoops of triumph.
The feeling of accomplishment, the feeling of increased faith and confidence is the best. When you’ve conquered that place in yourself that tells you that you can’t, and then you do it… it’s as if you know people are born to feel this way. Not every moment, but for many, many more moments than we do.
What seemed like a skill challenge was just what the instructor said it was—a trust, belief and confidence challenge. Yes, I can get better at it but it requires trusting others’ wisdom who have been there and know what it takes, believing that I can do it and mustering up the confidence to give it a good ‘bash’ as our instructor would say.
What I learned that day applies to so much in my life. Many people have succeeded at something not because they were the most talented but because they found and clung to a belief that they could and mustered up the confidence, even if only a thread, to give it a serious go. Maybe someone else would have been better at it, more skilled in the end, but they may have let fear make them a spectator, or they couldn’t get their eyes off of the obstacles; they crashed and didn’t want to try again.
Whatever calls your heart, find a way to meet it. Look your obstacles square in the face. Choose your line and stay focused on it. Then give it a good ‘bash.’ And even if fear causes you to take your eyes off your line and you fly off the edge and faceplant in a ravine, tell your fear you’re giving it another go. It can come along for the ride but it doesn’t get to drive. And take that line like it’s all or nothing. Life is sweeter when we challenge ourselves and realize that who we are and what we do with our life is worth all or nothing.
Life… give it a good bash.
The instructor on the left, Chao and me as we head out at the beginning of our day of mountain biking lessons. The expressions on each of our faces… don’t you sometimes wonder what someone is thinking when you see a photo?