Mountain biking, as it turns out, is quite a technical thing! After having spent most of the winter bruised and battered, falling off in prickly bushes or muddy ditches, I decided it was high time to have some tuition.
To learn the art of tearing effortlessly downhill, the tricks and skills of the trail, and of course, how to fall off properly.
After joining my local mountain bike club (Dorset Rough Riders) I’m now regularly cycling off road, tackling bigger obstacles and more technical trails yet I’m also clueless when it comes to technique.
Yes I’ve been flying down bigger and steeper drops, jumping off banks, descending root filled trails, crashing over ditches. But getting to the bottom in one piece has always been a matter of luck rather than skill.
A blinding triumph of hope over technique, I reach the end of every trail thanking whatever deity got me through unscathed.
Unwilling however, to continue to rely on the mountain bike gods for my safe delivery I decided to sign up to a skills course in the hope of gaining some much needed confidence and control over both the bike and my handling of it.
Thus I spent the weekend in the depths of Wareham Forest with 3 other like-minded souls, who’d also adopted the hang-on and curse approach to trails, as well as a very patient Skills and Trails instructor for my first MTB tutorial.
Assuming a level of basic fitness (which I have from my road biking) and basic competence (which I have from blagging), the day-long course covered everything from technical descents and drop offs to cornering and track stands.
I was positively gleeful jumping over log piles and down drop-offs, whizzing round berms (banked corners) and nipping up hills.
And, I have to say, I was disproportionately proud to be learning to wheelie like a teenager in my late thirties.
Mountain biking I’ve noticed is pretty gender-biased, towards the male of the species when it comes to participants. I’m not entirely sure why, although my best guess would be to do with the allure of the rough and tumble of a sport appealing to more testosterone-driven organisms unconcerned (or unheeding) of injury to life or limb.
In short, I think women value their necks far more than their male counterparts. Women are also possibly more cautious by nature and, when cycling, less inclined to throw themselves down vertical inclines at breakneck speeds. They may have a point!
Despite this gender skew, conversely, the course participants consisted of 3 women and 1 man (+ a male instructor).
Whilst fitness, experience and general bike handling were variable amongst the group it was noticeable the men did have an easier time when it comes to physically manoeuvring the bike, especially through wheelies, manuals and jumps. A combination of physical strength and weight helping, along with maybe a general lack of inhibition (or an outward show of).
This was especially evident in the second half of the day when we tackled some steep down-hills. Several times my little bike skidded out of control and I found myself flying over the handlebars and crashing to the ground. The conclusion proffered, some cautious braking on my part and, being of smaller build, a lack of weight to anchor the bike?
Resolving the weight issue is maybe just a question of increasing donut consumption. The remainder however is more complex.
Having travelled thousands of road miles on various bikes across the world I would say I have a fairly hardened attitude to danger, but approach is one of calculated risk.
For example, the main danger arising from road-riding is other traffic – something beyond my control. I follow the highway-code, I can do little else. I certainly wouldn’t choose to ride mid-carriageway on a busy highway.
However, throwing myself and the bike down a steep hill is both in my choice and control. And, having known and spent time with fellow mountain bikers who’ve received serious, life changing injuries from bike accidents, I have an innate fear of what is possible, maybe probable from those choices. Something not helped by the general fondness of MTB riders for discussing their grisly injuries!
It’s predominantly this that both informs and inhibits my riding.
Great for self-preservation but limiting also, as it means I may always lack the ability needed for the serious mountain bike trail riding which requires a level of commitment (and lack of fear of consequences) curtailed through the above.
I’m unsure whether this is totally a gender issue or more a life experience one. I love the adrenaline rush of mountain biking, of flying down trails, though sand, mud, over roots and trees and drops but I also have enough knowledge of potential outcomes which will forever temper the more advanced elements of the sport.
Being taught the basic techniques does help though, and at my level it’s enough though, for now. A ride on the wild side, a flirtation with danger and the adrenalin hit that brings, along with some impressive bruising, makes me feel entirely alive.
As for embracing that complete abandonment to the whims and mercies of the trail – well, maybe next week….!