Don't let trailing the pack detract from your enjoyment of the ride.

Don’t let trailing the pack detract from your enjoyment of the ride.

“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).

If your ride isn't a race, don't treat it like one.

If your ride isn’t a race, don’t treat it like one.

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.”

# Comments

  • John Bruno

    I’m in my late fifties and love mtbing in the desert! Especially like seeing others out enjoying and not worried about speed! Plenty of competition trails offered for that type of riding! Ride on, ride safe!!

  • arkinet

    I too am slow, and I’m the fastest among my friends of weekend riders. The reason being I spent more saddle time than them. I ride according to my limits, and my mid 40s knees will sometimes tell me to slow down, or take a break. Many times I thought of joining another group that’s faster than me, so I could add more zip to my ride. But then I have to remind myself what really my goal is for riding, is it to be faster, or to have fun and be healthy?…
    I chose to be with my slower friends, they made me feel good about myself and have fun at the same time 🙂

    • Shane Kweens

      Mid 40’s and bad knees also but I ride alone so don’t know if I’m slow and don’t really care. I’ll start riding with groups more when I move to Norcal next month but probably won’t worry if I’m slow or fast just as long as I get to ride a lot!

  • Mark Suggitt

    Im slow too . .i started late (50) im 54 now and love being out on my bike . I ride to work every day and ride alone when i go riding trails and bridleways, like Cat says, im self conscious too . . .worry bout holding people back and not being as fit as others seem to be.

  • victoriaparkbarry

    Great article , I ride because I love riding and love been in the outdoors , mid fifties and average speed I have nothing to prove esp to myself , I’m so great full that I can still ride and live in a beautiful country ( New Zealand).

  • velo99

    I’m mid fifties and ride weekly with a pretty diverse group of riders. Mostly it’s a fast group and a not quite so fast group.
    They call me the leader of the back. It’s appropriate because I’m the fastest of the second group. I have to admit riding “with” the faster guys has made me faster. Occasionally we session a tough section and try to improve our skills. Most generally we just ride. It’s a great group of guys who are there just to have fun. We encourage each other and it’s a no drop ride.
    Most of us race locally. That number has climbed since we started riding together. I think it was the stories and camaraderie of being part of a larger group but still having our group participating has pushed some of us out of our comfort zone and into racing.
    Racing gives you motivation to be more skillful and consequently a faster rider. In turn that heightens the enjoyment of mountain bike riding.
    I wouldn’t trade any of it away. I’m in good shape, good standing with the local community and made a bunch of good friends. Life is good.

  • allg33k

    I’m 39…and even in my best shape am slow. I’ve just come to the conclusion it is what it is. As long as I’m having fun out there it doesn’t matter how fast I’m going. I’ve had awesome rides when I was overweight and out of shape as well as thin and killing it. Either way it’s about getting outside, enjoying the scenery, and a little bit of pain and determination mixed with a grin from ear to ear. Over the years I’ve come up with a whole bag of jokes about why I’m in the back. “I’m just checking to make sure nobody dropped anything.”

  • lstukenberg

    Great article! Like some others I got into mountain biking later in life! Why you ask? My wife and I were blessed with a baby girl when I turned 51 and I want to be healthy for her!
    Anyway I enter races like the Epic Off Road series and the True Grit Epic and I know I am not the hare but rather the tortoise! Slow and steady, help others along the way and at the same time push my limits. In the end all that matters to me is have fun, finish the race and beat at least one person.. so far every race completed!
    Long live the tortoise!

  • mongwolf

    Great write Roger. I am slow and getting slower. =) I think I could comment with concurrence on every single paragraph of this article. Maybe that’s not a good thing. LOL. The “50-something guy whose salt and pepper hair is getting saltier by the day be transported back about 38 years …” paragraph hits a little too close to home. There is so much to gain and to enjoy about mountain biking I couldn’t give a **** about how fast one is. Maybe I’m just past the competitive part of my life, but I’m just fine about that.

  • Greg Lytton

    Great article. I’ve always been a bit slower than other guys but at 54 so what. Number one is to get rid of Strava. I use map my ride and keep my account private so it’s only me who sees the dismal times. I too have a 4.5 mile section of trail I use as my “measuring stick.” Every year I do three personal time trials- one at the beginning of the season (March here) one in the middle and one near the end in November. I compare those times to my times in the previous years. I do this to see if I am getting slower. Only me. I now could care less what the 20 something does. I’ve now been doing it for nine years and I have not gotten any slower. It still takes me around 26-28 minutes just like last year and just like eight years ago. So for me, I am only competing with myself… and age. The feeling of checking your time and finding you are just as slow as last year and no slower is a good feeling. I also know that I am faster than 99% of the people who never ride!

    I ride with other guys some. Nowadays my favorite ride is when I can take a new mountain bike rider out and pass what knowledge I have on to them.

    Good article!

  • Luke Snyder

    I just like being outside in the woods.. I don’t crush it riding cross country… unfortunately, all my friends do and i don’t have much fun. I have a better time by myself.

  • C-Lo

    Two thumb up for this article. I often wondered if I was the only person that would go out and put in a great effort on a trail only to have strava rank me in the triple digits. I have gotten to the point where I don’t even look at the rank anymore. I just upload it so it will populate on Singletracks. As long as I have fun on my rides that is all that matters.

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