Does fear stop you in your tracks when you see a trail feature like this rock garden?

Riders my age might remember seeing “No Fear” t-shirts. They had great motivational sayings, and conveyed the message that you could erase fear from your life. Ask any mountain biker and they will tell you there is no such thing as being fearless. As Laird Hamilton put it, “if you aren’t able to be scared, you either haven’t been hurt or you’re completely ignorant.”

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Fear is a part of our DNA. It helps keep us alive. However, if left unchecked, fear can prevent us from reaching our full potential as riders. I have struggled with fear ever since I started mountain biking. I have not yet conquered it, but I have learned three things that can help control fear.

Determine the source of your fear

Even relatively tame descents like this one tend to scare me.

For me, my biggest fear when it comes to mountain biking is on descents and stems from two over-the-bars crashes I’ve had while descending. Those two crashes made me afraid to descend, and it has taken a while to overcome the fear of descending on a mountain bike. For others, it could be going through a rock garden, or riding over a wooden feature. Whatever the case may be, you must first pinpoint the source of your fear before you can learn how to control it.

Learn how to be a better rider

If you fear particular trail features, the best way to control that fear is by learning and mastering the fundamentals of mountain biking. Knowing how to balance yourself on a bike while climbing, descending, and cornering will give you the confidence you need to counteract your fear. I don’t dread tackling a particular trail feature when I know exactly what it will feel like when I ride over it, and how my bike will react to it.

Additionally, you need to know how to properly set up your bike, i.e., suspension, tire pressure, and saddle height, so that it performs at its best. You can’t learn these fundamentals overnight. I have spent a lot of time reading articles, watching videos, practicing basic skills, and taking notes on what tire pressures and shock pressures I used on different trails in different conditions. I still have a ways to go, but the knowledge I have gained so far has given me confidence, which helps me better control my fear.

Conquer fear one small step at a time


For wooden features, start with a little log pile, then work your way up.

I wish I could knock out all my fear in one swift stroke, but I can’t. Instead, I have gradually gained control over my fears through a series of small victories. Recently, I mastered a rocky descent that I had been afraid to ride down. I did it over the course of a few months in small steps.

I started by walking down it all the way. Each time I did, I studied the section, looking for possible lines. Next, I walked down part of the way and then tried riding down the rest of the way. That gave me a feel for how my bike would react to it, and I got to test out a couple of different lines. Finally, I followed my more experienced riding partner down it from the very top, making sure I rode exactly where he did. I made it down without incident, and we celebrated the victory together. Moments like that will do wonders for your confidence, and help you control your fear so that you are willing to tackle other obstacles.

You’ll never eliminate fear but you can control it

I keep riding because I love flying through the woods on 2 wheels more than I fear the consequences of doing so.

Fear will always be a part of mountain biking because it is a risky sport. Riders can get seriously injured. However, if you love mountain biking like I do, you learn to accept the risks and enjoy the rewards. I love continually pushing myself physically and mentally. Yes, I am afraid at times, and there are some trail features I will not attempt, but little by little I am gaining control over my fear and becoming a better rider.

How do you control your fear when riding? Please feel free to share in the comments section below.

# Comments

  • rmap01

    Great topic.I couldn’t agree more with Laird Hamilton’s comment in particular. Having sustained my fair share of injuries from riding, like you I have had to find ways to control my fear. Interestingly, there are two pieces of advice I hear constantly. (1) To get better you need to continue to challenge yourself and (2) Ride within your abilities. While I agree philosophically with both, sometimes it’s hard to find the right balance between pushing “just enough” vs “too far”. As you stated, it’s critical to build confidence which comes with practice. Over the last several years, here’s what I’ve learned:

    – unless you are following a rider you trust and whose skills are comparable don’t blindly take on an obstacle or drop if you don’t know the line or what’s on the other side. Take the time to stop, inspect, and determine a line.
    – learn and practice your technique on the easier stuff and feel comfortable doing that before tackling more challenging features.
    -Youtube videos are a great tool but you need to video yourself so you can see what your are actually doing.
    – if you can avoid it, don’t take on the higher risk sections at the very beginning of your ride. You want to be warmed up. And also, some days you just may not “have it”. That’s the day you take the ride around or walk.
    – don’t take on the higher risk sections at the end of a ride if you’re spent. Fatigue plays a huge role in how we perform. What’s doable when you’re feeling good and fresh may not be when you’re physically and mentally exhausted. Don’t be afraid to pass when your body and mind are not in the right place.
    – wear protection. In many ways, knee and elbow pads (and even body armor) can help ease your mind. It’s rare that you’ll probably really need them but their use could help put you in a better (more confident) frame of mind
    – use flat pedals. Not only will it force you to improve your technique but the extra split second or two you get from not having to unclip can be the difference between going down vs getting a foot down.
    – weigh the risk vs the reward. It’s this last one I can’t recommend highly enough. If you’re looking at something with very little risk then you should probably go ahead and give it a try. The more you do, the more you learn, the more confident you become, the better rider you will be. But if you’re looking at doing something you don’t have a lot of experience doing, like a huge drop or a large double where the consequences of failure can lead to serious injury you need to ask yourself “is the reward of doing it worth the risk if you fail?”

    • Greg Buhrow

      @map01 you make some really great points, especially recognizing days when you simply do not “have it” as you so aptly stated. You shred a feature and keep crashing or missing the turn or whatever … simply ride on, you’ll have plenty of time to conquer that feature tomorrow or the next day.

      However, I am going to disagree on one issue, which is the age-old “flats vs clips” controversy. I rode flats when I first started mountain biking but I think (at the behest of son-in-law) when I switched to riding clipped in I became a better and faster rider. Maybe it’s concentration knowing that I don’t have that extra second you mention or maybe it is simply staying in better contact with the bike and it feels more like a “part of me” is the key.

      Anyway, I really like road cycling and I do it every week but I really love mountain biking and ride as often as i can.

    • rmap01

      @Greg Buhrow, with regard to the “clips vs flats” I’ve done both. Both have +/-. Virtually everyone starts on flats and migrates to clips which is what I did. In fact, I ride clipped on my XC bike as I can ride faster and feel very much in control on the trails I ride that bike. But when I got a new trail bike I put flat pedals on and was immediately struck but how much I sucked trying to do bunnyhops realizing that I was obviously using my feet to pull up on the bike. Riding flats forced me to improve my technique which also carries over to my XC bike where I can jump much higher. And while I have kept the clips on my XC bike, I wear flats on the trail bike as I ride more technical terrain and take more risk. On those more technical trails I can tell you that there is a definite (time) difference – at least for me – in being able to get a foot down. Just last nite I rode with a seasoned rider who went down hard twice because he couldn’t unclip in time (and the sections were very sketchy to begin with). But to me, as it relates to this article, it’s the psychological impact of reducing a source of concern about the potential of injury which is why I recommended it. (FWIW, most tutorials suggest the same). But if anyone feels there’s no greater risk in riding clipped because of the sense of being one with the bike more power to ya!

  • vapidoscar

    Great topic. When I go to sleep at night, I like to visualize some of the more difficult features on my local trails that I either have yet to try or didn’t go well. And even safe in my bed, I will have some of that fear.
    Someday I am going to work up to them. Maybe on a different bike. I know they are doable as I have either seen photographic evidence or tire tracks in the snow.
    This year I have been working on several things to build up to those including: fitness, balance and technical climbing. Honestly, I am beyond shocked at what I can climb even compared to earlier this spring. Progress sure does feel good.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for your comments. Working on your fitness and balance will greatly improve your confidence on the bike. I have been doing more core and balance training this year and it has helped me.

  • ed.kelly

    Similarly to Richard, I ride the same course over and over. Each time trying different lines and going a little faster. Eventually, I know every aspect of the trail and can ride it even when bouncing enough that I cant see every feature in detail.

    I also use a GoPro a lot. Not to brag to the world, but to see where i had unnecessary fear. Sometimes, I even surprise myself that I’ve done better than I thought.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for your comments. GoPros are very handy tools for learning because they can help you see lines in a trail you wouldn’t otherwise notice. I use one myself for that purpose.

  • kangaldog

    Heres an idea on how to control your fear-
    Don’t ride your bike downhill at break neck speeds. Keep your tires on the ground where they belong and you should be just fine.

    • Richard Shoop

      But where’s the fun in that?

    • rmap01

      @Richard Shoop


    • Wh3373r

      I follow this advice most of the time. My fear stems from my tires leaving the ground from jumps, not from drops or anything else. However, every now and then I like to relive and remind myself why my body is to awkward to try and fly.

  • Grant Gaughf

    Really good article. I thought the obstacles look familiar and then I see Nessie. It is just past nessie that I have one of my fear points. It is a set of roots with a small wash out behind it. If it was flat I would not think twice but since it is a little steep I choke.

    • Richard Shoop

      Grant, that was a tough one for me as well. I conquered it by following a more experienced rider down it. He showed me a good line, and helped me with my body position. You’ll get it eventually. I hope to see you on the trails.

  • angela985

    One thing that really helped me with descending harder trails is getting a 27+. The fatter tires really help stability and ride down more safely. That and the dropper post has really changed my riding!! The one thing I still have a lot of trouble with is cornering going left to right. I do pretty well going right to left but just cant seem to do it the other way. It’s like my brain just cant make the switch. Anyone else have that problem? I have to say I would never go back to flat pedals. I would be more scared riding up and down even though I have had wrecks when I fell over or couldn’t get my foot out that fast. The key is to always check your pedals and make sure you can get out smoothly. Often I lube them up with bike lube.

    • Richard Shoop

      The flat vs. clip pedals comments are interesting. I am a flat pedal rider myself, but my riding partner is strictly clips. In regard to the cornering issue, we all have a dominant side. I tend to corner better on right turns than on left turns. I think you just have to work more on the weak side until you get better at it.

    • nico@mtbapprentice

      Thanks for the tip on the bike lube – I did not think about it.

  • nico@mtbapprentice

    What a nice article – I like the comments too.
    Would you ride a formula 1 full speed on your first day? Probably not.
    The technique is everything in the building of your confidence. And, It will also keep you safe.
    Now the question is more, how do you consistently improve your technique and do you measure it?
    That’s what I’m obsessed with these days. A go-pro helps but it is not all.
    Any tips on this?

    • Richard Shoop

      For me, the key to improvement is practice, practice, practice. If you are struggling with a certain feature, or in a certain area, doing sessions and drills is the best way to improve yourself. In terms of measuring your improvement, there are different ways to do it. If you ride the same trails consistently, using Strava or just a regular bike computer to track your time is one way. The drawback to that is that times do not reflect everything about a ride. There are a number of variables at play during a ride, such as trail conditions, weather, how you feel, your bike set-up, etc. So times may not always be the best measurement tool. Another way is through progress. Like the picture collage above, you keep progressing to ride bigger and bigger trail features. Additionally, I’ve started seeing if I can use less braking during my rides and roll through the corners. Improvement is always going to be somewhat subjective, so you have to find the best measuring tool for yourself.

  • Brad the Dad

    I agree with the small steps and building confidence. There are some black and red sections of trails around me that I never felt like I could do. I went on them…I fell, I failed to clear features, I got frustrated…but I learned. Now that I can clear 80% of the stuff in my neck of the woods, my enjoyment of mountain biking has increased dramatically.

    With a wife and kids that depend on me, my fear always came out of the catastrophic “what if…” scenario. I had to be smart in my progression, while still pushing myself a little harder each time out.

    And @kangaldog …some people like to conquer their fears of getting tires off the ground. I’m one of the ones who likes keeping the tires on the dirt, but a little airtime every now and again is good for the soul.

    • Richard Shoop

      Thanks for the comments. I have the same fear as you since I am the sole provider for my family. I definitely go through a cost/benefit analysis every time I think about trying a more difficult feature. A slow, methodical progression really helps in that aspect. I also like to catch some air every now and then, but I don’t see gap jumps in my future.

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