“It’s OK that you’re slow.”
Maybe I’m saying that about myself, not you. Maybe I wrote that to make myself feel better, and make you feel better, too. Or maybe, just maybe, I wrote that because it’s true.
Being slow on a mountain bike doesn’t make you a lesser person, just a slower one. Your family still loves you (assuming you’re not an asshole), your spouse probably won’t hold it against you, your friends will still invite you out for a beer, and your dog will still be excited when you get home.
Being slow just means you can’t make the pedals go round and round as fast as other guys and gals. It means every pack or peleton (if you’re into that kind of thing) has riders in the back, and you’re one of them.
I know this from experience. I recently set a PR on my favorite Strava segment. It’s a 4.2-mile segment, mostly downhill, and it’s my personal test track. If I buy a new bike part and wonder if it makes me faster, I go ride Junkyard and find out. Legs feeling extra strong today? Go ride Junkyard and see how I rank. Got a new set of tires? Go ride Junkyard and see how they hook up.
Want to know where my recent PR on Junkyard ranked among the wonderful world of Strava riders? Try 131st, and here’s the kicker–downhill riding is my stronger suit.
Want to talk climbing? I’m slower than a Russian novel. Slower than refrigerated maple syrup. Slower than the clock on the last day of school.
This isn’t the whining of a newby rider. I’ve been riding mountain bikes since 1989, and I raced motorcycles as a kid and won a shelf full of trophies, so speed on two wheels doesn’t scare me.
I can’t blame it on the bike. My Santa Cruz Bronson rocks, and it has excellent components. My other bike is a race-grade carbon hardtail, even though I’ve only raced once, which is another story, but you can guess how I fared on an XC course.
I also can’t blame my speed of sludge on my overall fitness level (sort of). On the ride I set my Junkyard PR, I pedaled 14.5 miles, including 1,300 vertical feet of climbing. Not an Olympic effort, but not a couch-potato cruise, either… and that’s a pretty typical ride for me.
So what’s my problem? I’m slow and fairly competitive, so every time I see the pack pulling away from me on a climb, the self loathing kicks in. Why don’t I ride more and get better? Why don’t I train instead of just riding?
In reality, I don’t have a problem. I ride because it’s fun and I enjoy it. Riding mountain bikes lets a 50-something guy whose salt and pepper hair is getting saltier by the day be transported back about 38 years and feel like 12-year-old bombing downhill on a yellow Schwinn with ape-hanger handlebars (which was the original mountain bike, if you grew up in the 1970s).
But as we’ve gotten older and dropped thousands of dollars on high-tech uber bikes, we tend to attach too much ego to the simple act of riding a bike. That inevitably leads to comparing ourselves to other riders, and the easiest comparison is who’s fastest.
Some of us have more fast-twitch muscle fibers that propel us up a mountain quicker than the next guy, and some just have God-given talent. (Trying not to hate here.)
But some us simply aren’t fast, and I cop that part of my slowness is because I don’t dedicate myself as thoroughly as others, push myself as hard or (gasp) train because I don’t race.
And that’s OK, because the valuable lesson I’ve learned in more than 25+ years of mountain biking is that obsessing in my head over losing a race that doesn’t exist and letting my ego wreck the sheer joy of riding an amazing machine in beautiful country with great people is stupid and self-defeating.
If you’re struggling at the back of the pack, I have a simple piece of advice: quit struggling. Mountain biking is challenging. At times it’s painful, both mentally and physically, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what keeps it interesting.
The challenge is what makes me pause at the bottom a long hill, spit, curse, and tell myself “this bike ain’t gonna climb itself up there” before telling my riding partners “you guys go ahead, I will meet you at the top.”