Saddle Up for Success: Trading Self-Help for Mountain Biking Adventures

While traveling throughout the country after uprooting her life in Utah, Melissa discovers that her mountain bike is her most effective teacher.
Photo: Matt Miller

The sun shines through the lush greenery along the sides of singletrack, and the air is warm but not humid. Cardinals are flying back and forth in front of me, as I ascend the flowy switchbacks that Northwest Arkansas offers in plenty. Coming from the snowiest winter on record in Utah, this feels more like a dream than reality. 

I bike along behind my boyfriend, not a care in the world, when my stomach starts to grumble. I don’t need food, we’re probably almost there, I think to myself. I am suddenly conscious of how long we had been riding and start scrolling through the stats on my Garmin. Heart rate 193?! My legs suddenly feel exhausted, the sun feels like it is boiling my skin, and my eyes start to well up. 

I’ve been known to cry (always on the uphill) when mountain biking. I’m not slow (that could mean anything, right?!), although I always trail behind on a group ride or out with friends. This year I knew it was going to be different. My boyfriend and I had left our home in Utah in the spring, to embark on a mountain and gravel bike adventure across the United States. With no responsibilities at this point in our lives and the opportunity to work from home, we decided it was now or never. 

My automatic reaction when I hit this tipping point (thanks Malcolm Gladwell), was to stop wherever I was on the trail. Then I would cry, feel better, and keep going. Props to my boyfriend for continuing to ride with me, but I wasn’t trying to cry my way across the country for a full year. It was time for a change. 

I started to reflect on why I was doing this, and began to notice a pattern. Everytime I hit the wall, there was a leadup of negative thoughts going through my head. I’m too slow, it’s too hot out, I’m tired. It wasn’t my body that was slowing me down, it was my mind. 

I decided to be more observant of my thoughts while riding. What was I thinking about before dropping into one of my favorite trails? What about before hitting a new drop? These thoughts were very different from those leading up to my defeating climbs. All were filled with confidence and commitment, or even just being in a state of flow. I might have a song running through my mind while I take the first pedal strikes into a trail, and then my mind is filled with nothing but the present and the trail ahead. 

A busy bike trail usually reduces my odds of a breakdown. I’ll notice other riders puffing up the hill and feel less pathetic, and those who pedal right by or stop at the breaking point where I am, usually have a smile and uplifting attitude to pull me out of Oscar’s trash can. The trails where I am alone with my thoughts are the culprits. 

The trail networks in Bentonville, Arkansas are filled with shorter trails and usually are fairly lively all days of the week with vacationers, retirees, and people who generally are addicted to mountain biking. Unfortunately, this one was one of the lesser traveled trails and people were scarce in the last 18 miles. Coming from a long winter and opting out of the trainer this year, I knew going into this trip that there would be a fitness adjustment and wasn’t surprised that I was already starting to bonk.

I recognized the flood of doubt instantly and reached for some water as I continued pedaling. My boyfriend’s aunt recently told a story where she was riding with her kids in southern Utah and her 6-year-old was struggling more than usual to pedal. She kept telling her kid, “you can do hard things.” I actually thought that to myself to pull me out of my rut. You can do hard things. It turned out that her 6-year-old had ridden all of Bearclaw Poppy with her brakes rubbing. Now THAT is a reason to cry. 

These trail networks are unlike most of the riding in Utah where there is one big uphill and one big downhill. Instead, you can pack many laps into one ride. For this reason, I had no idea where we were, but decided to embrace my leg fatigue and power through the next few switchbacks. You can do hard things. I didn’t have to cry. I wasn’t hurt. I was slightly uncomfortable, and I knew that I had complete control over my emotions. In no time at all, I recognized that we were at the top of something. Finally, downhill! Knowing that this would be the last one of the day, I flowed the whole way down. 

There was one final steep climb up a paved road to where we were staying. It seemed easy enough yesterday, but this time my frustration started to escalate. Not wanting to end a great ride on a bad note, I thought back to the second lap of the day and remembered the song in my head when I dropped into the trail. I started playing it in my mind as I kept grinding up the pavement and into the driveway. That was the best lap of the day. I was flowing through the trail, hitting every berm with ease and dropping new features. At the end, I was absolutely stoked. That feeling is why I love to mountain bike.

“Nice work,” said my boyfriend as he reached out for a high-five. 

When we commited to this adventure, I told myself that it would be a good time to reflect on myself and embrace new perspectives outside of my usual day to day life. What I didn’t realize, was that biking could actually teach me quite a bit about my personality and my emotions. I confess I’ve never actually read a self-help book, but I imagine it’s a lot like mountain biking.