Technical climbs, tough obstacles, switchbacks—multitasking on a mountain bike builds up more than just riding skills

By Molly Ritterbeck
September 02, 2015
Molly Ritterbeck

The first time I went mountain biking, I ended up on trails that far exceeded my skill level. Needless to say, I spent more time in the dirt than on the bike. Dusty and defeated, I made a quiet mental goal to-despite living in the not-so-mountainous city of New York-somehow, someway learn to ride a mountain bike.

When my scrapes and ego healed, I decided I would need some professional help, so I flew across the country on a refuse-to-fail quest to learn how to successfully shred at the Trek Dirt Series skills camp in Santa Cruz, CA.

Trek Dirt Series is an instructional mountain bike program and offers two-day female-specific and co-ed mountain bike camps throughout the U.S. and Canada. The camps are open to beginner, intermediate, and advanced riders-all of the skill sessions and rides are catered specifically to your level, and the focus is on developing the technical skills necessary to have as much fun as possible on your bike.

The passionate and dedicated coaches adequately equipped me with the basic skills needed to handle technical climbs, gnarly obstacles, and tight switchbacks. But what surprised me the most? How much I learned about life along the way. I never imagined that some of the key fundamentals of mountain biking would translate so easily to challenges off the bike as well.

I walked away from camp feeling way more confident on a mountain bike and, surprisingly, a little bit wiser as well, thanks to these five life lessons I picked up on the trail. (Need an excuse to get your butt back on a bike? We have 14 Reasons Why Bike Riding Is Seriously Badass.)


1. Learn the Dance, Not the Stance

One of the first things you'll learn on a mountain bike is the "ready" position. Standing up on even pedals, your knees and elbows are slightly bent, index fingers resting on brake levers, and eyes scanning ahead. "This is an athletic, active position that lets you anticipate what's coming and adapt to the terrain, moving the bike around underneath you and your body around over the bike," explains Candace Shadley, Dirt Series founder, director, and coach. In this strong yet soft position, your body acts as "suspension" on the terrain, "dancing" over the bike-rather than remaining rigid-for maximum control.

When you're riding, you don't always end up on the line (mountain bike speak for the path in the trail that you aim to take) you want, but you need to be prepared to ride through it and be ready to take a new line. The same goes for life. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, young people who were able to adjust to new and changing situations were more likely to report greater life satisfaction and a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Things don't always turn out the way you want or plan, but you have to be flexible. When the path gets rocky, assume a metaphorical "ready" position so you can shred through life.


2. Look Where You Want to Go

The key to choosing the best line? Scanning the trail ahead. "It's easier said than done," says Lena Larsson, Dirt Series coach and downhill/all-mountain rider. "Even experienced riders find themselves sometimes losing focus, freezing in the moment, and not looking ahead," she says. This is extra important when turning or trying to avoid a dangerous section of the trail. "Luckily, if we let our bodies do what they really want to do, which is follow our heads and follow our gaze, then we're set up quite right," adds Shadley.

When it comes to life, there's no use focusing on where you don't want to be, whether it be with your weight, your career, or your relationships. Instead, set your sights on where you want to get to and aim there, especially mentally. Several studies have shown that visualization can lead to success, and a survey of 235 Canadian Olympic athletes preparing for the Games found that 99 percent of them were using imagery, which could mean mentally practicing a routine or imagining yourself crossing the finish line. Looking forward toward your goals and envisioning success helps you accomplish them much faster than if you waste time looking back. (Check out these 31 Biking Tips from Elite Female Cyclists.)


3. Don't Try to Do It All At Once

At camp, you'll learn an arsenal of skills in a very short period of time. It's easy to overthink everything and get bogged down with information. But on a mountain bike, overthinking things can be detrimental because, oftentimes, you don't have enough time to mull everything over-you want it to become instinctual and just allow your body to react. "Figure out the most important thing for you for now and put your energy into it until it happens more naturally. Then move on to something else," advises Shadley.

In life too, it's easy to get caught up in the big picture. But just like you should take it one skill at a time on your bike, you should try to take it one step at a time in life, especially during times of change or adversity. Studies-like this one published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes-have shown that multitasking is less productive than focusing on one task. So rather than getting overwhelmed by trying to do everything at once, break down what needs to happen, zero in on one thing at a time, and take small steps toward the big goal. (In fact, science has proven that Too Much Mutltitasking May Ruin Your Speed and Endurance.)


4. Think Happy Thoughts

When you have a tough day on the bike, are feeling intimidated by a certain trail feature, or you've taken a few spills, it's easy to get down on yourself and let negativity sneak in, but staying positive is the key to success. "Think about what you want to have happen, think about how you want things to turn out, and there's a lot more of a chance that you'll be successful," says Shadley. It's okay to fall. Everyone does. It's okay to know what you are and what you are not capable of. It's okay to hike your bike sometimes. "Use your skills, and your knowledge of your skills, to remind yourself of what you can do," advises Shadley. "Compare what you have in front of you to something similar that you have successfully managed in the past. Envision yourself riding it well. And if you can't, just leave it for another time." No biggie.

It's easier said than done, but a positive attitude can take you far on the bike and in life. After all, while you might not always be able to change the circumstances, you can change your attitude. Maintain an optimistic outlook by mentally pushing out feelings of doubt, sadness, anger, defeat, or failure. If you feel a gloomy thought coming on, try reversing it into a positive and repeating it over and over. Doing so can actually affect you physically and mentally. Studies have shown that positive thinking can lead to better immunity, lower cholesterol, and can even help you live longer. So from here on out, good vibes only. (Try these Therapist-Approved Tricks for Perpetual Positivity if you need an extra boost.)


5. Open Up-That's When the Fun Happens

As a woman, your mom may have told you to keep your knees together when you were a kid. When it comes to riding a mountain bike? "Forget about that, because you actually have to open up to let the fun begin!" laughs Larson. "Opening up your legs allows you to let the bike move around underneath you both back and forth and from side to side," she says. If you keep your knees together, your bike has nowhere to go, and you'll end up feeling really unstable.

In life, it's important to keep an open mind about new experiences and head into them without preconceived notions. Whether it's a new workout, a new job, moving to a new city-whatever the case-each situation will offer you something you've never yet experienced, and with it, an opporunity to learn something new. And by the way, as for your legs, a study published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality shows that regular exercisers had higher levels of self-confidence, perceived themselves as more sexually desirable, and had higher levels of sexual satisfaction than non-exercisers. So you get the picture. (Who knew? Check out 8 Surprising Things Affecting Your Sex Life.)