The Things that Hold us Back from Progressing as a Mountain Biker

Progressing as a mountain biker in your 30s isn't the same as a teen. What do you find holds you back the most from pushing yourself?
Photo: Chris Hornbecker

After a fifteen-year hiatus, I found my way back to mountain biking in 2021. After relocating to my hometown, it wasn’t long until I was itching to get back on a bike. I found that a lot changed in those fifteen years.

When I first left mountain biking, twenty-six-inch wheels were running strong. If you had a 29er, you rode XC and likely wore lycra, which was still cooler than road biking. Carbon fiber would probably break, but it was out of our price range anyway. 

And there certainly wasn’t a lever to make our seat posts go up and down.

Geometry changed a lot as well. Where there was once a mountain bike that was good for riding down and a bike for riding up, we now had this new category, the trail bike. Whether at the bike park or a 30-mile XC ride, trail bikes were the new all-arounder. 

The bike itself wasn’t the only thing that changed. I was no longer the invincible, high-school-aged kid who could walk anything off. With the addition of a partner and two kids, not to mention a few years added to my age, life drastically changed over those fifteen years.

A few months after moving back, I began bike shopping. Convincing my partner that I would need to spend a few thousand on a bike wasn’t the problematic part—convincing her I wasn’t going to kill myself was.

“I just want to get out into the woods,” I told her. “I don’t care about jumping or anything too risky. Hell, I’ll be happy just riding my bike on forest roads.” 

Forest roads quickly became singletrack. I found a loop that had a bit of everything and focused on the descent, pushing myself to ride a bit faster each time. Soon, I looked for steeper and more technical trails. Soon, I was riding jumps and drops again.

Exploring from behind my handlebars became a reason to wake up early. Exploring the same trails got boring, so I set off for new adventures. Greens turned blue, then black. Soon, there were trails to explore at bike parks. 

I wanted the focus of these rides to be fully experiencing a new trail—hearing the dirt and the rock under my tires, finding side features and lines, taking in a stunning landscape. I didn’t want my time to be spent white-knuckle surviving the descent. 

Exploring more trails meant learning to ride them safely, which meant progression.

With progression comes safer riding. Initially, this sentiment sounded like a good line to feed my wife, but I found in many instances, faster and more aggressive riding was safer. This may mean I stayed on top of a rooty, chunky bit better because I was faster. Or, maybe I skipped that bit altogether, popping off one of the early roots in the section.

Being a “better” rider usually equates to being a safer rider. To get better at mountain biking, I had to take greater risks. Managing these risks and working on them ultimately lead to safer riding. 

Take risks to be safe. It seems counterintuitive, but it is the path of progression for mountain biking. 

Aside from a broken pinky finger, I’ve managed to stay relatively unscathed. I have progressed as a rider, yet things still hold me back. Let’s call them life’s “realities.” Identifying those realities, which ones to push beyond, which ones not to touch, and how to progress has been a journey.

Life’s realities

Re-catching the mountain bike bug in my mid-30s was much different than when I was a teenager. Of course, I didn’t want to get hurt when I was a teenager, but I never took the time to consider the impacts of a broken limb on my daily life. 

Life was going to high school, heading to my after-school job, and meeting up at the dirt jumps after work. School and work were okay if I showed up with a cast on. I’m a kid; it’s what happens to us, right?

This doesn’t ring true when you are 35. I constantly consider the ramifications of a significant crash and injury at this point in life. The things holding me back—my realities—may be some of the things holding you back from progression. If they aren’t on your list, I sincerely hope I didn’t just add to yours.

Putting money in the bank

One of the greatest life realities holding me, and many of us, back from significant progress as a rider is occupation. This can be especially true, depending on what you do for a living.

Let’s say you have a big crash, break your foot, and show up to work on Monday in a cast. If you sell insurance, it’s probably not a big deal. If you build houses, I imagine your boss won’t be pleased. A cast that got you excused from high-school PE now may have you looking for a new job.

And that is at least half true for me. Before pursuing mountain bike journalism, I was an elementary school teacher. Technically, I still am an elementary school teacher.

Working as a full-time teacher and full-time writer wasn’t a reality. I focused my efforts on a writing career, substitute teaching a couple of days a week. If I break my arm mountain biking, I think my journalism career will survive—I can always use speech-to-text.

This idea doesn’t translate into the teaching world. Schools do not like it when a substitute teacher comes crutch-ing in, cast on a leg. Teaching, especially elementary school, is an active occupation.

Knock on wood; hopefully, my progression doesn’t leave me with a broken limb. If it does, I hope they need subs bad enough to look past the cast.

I’m worried about more than myself

In 2017, I became a parent. Kid number two followed in 2019. Without a doubt, becoming a dad is the absolute best thing that has ever happened to me. However, fatherhood put restraints on my progression.

We are a pretty active family. We’re fortunate enough to live in a city surrounded by outdoor activities. And while the entire family doesn’t ride bikes as much as I do, we still take advantage of any opportunities. 

I would be disappointed to take an extended break from getting outside with my kids due to an injury. Not being able to participate in my family’s life is on my mind as I ride out from the trailhead. 

Also, our oldest is a bit of a worrier. He loves to go on rides with me but, even at the age of six, understands the risks involved when we hit the trails. We take it slow, pausing to look at and discuss features that may be new to him.

If I constantly returned from rides banged up, I knew he would worry while I was out. Worse, he’d become hesitant and stop progressing as a young rider. 

I want him and his younger sister to understand that crashing is a part of mountain biking and, to stretch a metaphor, a part of life. We crash, we learn, and we grow. However, knowing my kids, especially my son, that can’t be the lesson for every ride. I know my son will be discouraged from riding if I am constantly injured because I am pushing the limits.

Getting old sucks

I crashed over a year ago and broke my pinky finger. While my finger certainly hurt, especially if I bumped it up against something, what surprised me was my soreness in general.

Age is just a number. But that number means different things to our bodies as it increases. Taking a tumble at the dirt jumps at age 18 vastly differs from the same tumble at 35. What would not have been sore the next day is now sore for many days.

Pushing through soreness and pain is now much more of a reality. But what scares me isn’t riding with pain. It’s the stories where people’s mountain bike journeys are drastically altered due to an injury.

One of the things I love about mountain biking is seeing people of all ages on the trails. I plan on being the 70-year-old mountain biker still finding singletrack. Perhaps I won’t be riding the same types of trails as I do now, but I will be riding nonetheless. Messing up that future now because there is a feature I want to tackle isn’t in the cards.

Working toward progression…reasonably

My son had a pretty good crash this past summer. He was going down a rocky part at a new skills area in town and didn’t have his feet set on the pedals but rolled in any way, trying to adjust on the fly. He clipped a rock and tried to recover, but tumbled into a bush.

His first response as I ran over was, “I didn’t have level pedals, Dad.” He brushed himself off and asked me to help take his bike back up. To my surprise, he wanted to immediately try again. He was confident in his ability to ride this section. 

We talked about starting further back on the trail for a bit of extra room to have his feet set. We talked about stopping if he wasn’t ready and that multiple run-ins were okay. He moved back a bit, got his feet set, and rode the same chunky bit he just crashed on perfectly—fist bumps were in order. 

Next to the feature he had just completed was a series of rock drops, ranging from rollable to about two feet. With a little speed, I could see him doing the smallest of these drops. So I asked.

“Um, I don’t think I want to try that one right now,” he told me as I stood over the drop in question. His response was perfectly reasonable.

I can learn a lot from my son in this situation. He came to a new feature, evaluated it, and realized that he could absolutely ride the feature. His resolve was so absolute that he even tried again after a crash. He progressed but was unashamed to say no to the next challenge that was thrown out.

His irrational, 6-year-old child brain told him that he didn’t need to try that rock drop this time. He will continue to ride, continue to progress, and start attempting features to work toward that rock drop.