The ABC’s of Mountain Biking
Over the years, I’ve created an alphabet for a good ride: “The ABC’s of MTB”. Each letter represents a quality or characteristic that I find helpful for a positive mountain biking experience. In particular, Flow and Grace are my two favorite letters of that alphabet, and were the impetus for starting this blog. I began mountain biking as a college student at UC Santa Cruz. I lived in Bonny Doon, and rode Woodcutter’s Trail to upper UCSC on my hardtail Cannondale Delta v400. I continued riding over the years, but felt limited by my suspension and didn’t ride very often. About four years ago, I finally took the plunge and got a proper full suspension mountain bike: a Specialized Camber Comp 29’er. It has been an addiction ever since, and this alphabet has materialized in my heart and soul over many long rides. I don’t consider myself the top expert on mountain biking, but I have found a few things that work for me, and am always learning more.
Read on, and get your ride on! Maybe you’ll find something you relate to in this alphabet soup.
The ABC’s of MTB
A: Awareness. This is the number one most important factor in flying by trees and rocks at high speed. “Awareness” spans everything from overall trail safety, to body awareness, to spiritual. Awareness of the trail, its users, and one’s own body movements are all crucial to a safe mountain biking experience. Knowing the trail and weather conditions, and being cognizant of your energy level, mood, and ability level are fundamental to a safe ride. Looking ahead down the trail, not down at the trail, helps you anticipate and adapt. Moreover, try to take in the entire experience and its details: the way the ridgeline curves; the way a certain tree stands out among the others. Notice as much as you can about your surroundings. You might notice something extra cool – like an owl perched on a limb just above you. Admittedly, this is best practiced on long climbs or flats; when you’re going downhill, you’re usually not birdwatching. It’s important to focus on the trail, but also appreciate the beauty of your surroundings.
It’s equally important to be aware of other people, especially in high-traffic areas. I’m a huge fan of good etiquette and a good attitude. Mountain biking has grown a lot in popularity over the years in Santa Cruz, and I don’t mind sharing the trails with others, as I am just another one in the crowd, no better than anyone else. It just requires awareness and communication. Keeping alert of upcoming riders (you hear the buzz of someone coming up on you), communicating clearly with conviction (“Go ahead and pass on my left!”), and moving out of the way (safely pulling off trail where there’s enough space to be passed) help the trails keep flowing. Likewise, announce yourself if you’re going to pass. We all share the trail – hikers, riders, and equestrians alike.
B: Balance. Balance is necessary to command a bike through and over nature’s obstacles. Split-second, minute corrections to body-weight distribution can make all the difference between a bad fall and pulling through a gnarly section. Balance is something you must be constantly aware of; if out of it, the consequences can be dire. You must dynamically respond and adapt in small ways that make a huge difference. Keeping your weight appropriately distributed is crucial to staying in control.
It depends on the dirt you’re riding as well: Santa Cruz dirt is definitely not like what you find at Northstar at Tahoe, or Toro Park in Salinas. That’s the fun part about riding new places: learning its geology, and the best settings for its conditions. Your tire pressure, shock pressure, and seat set-up are key elements of maintaining balance. When something’s out of balance on your bike, you’ll know it right away. Keep both yourself and your bike in balance.
C: Confidence. Confidence is surefooted, committed action; unwavering follow-through. You need to believe that you can ride something well, but also know your limits. It’s not about being cocky; rather, it’s having faith in your abilities. Confidence is muscle-memory that you develop after riding a familiar trail many times. Confidence is faith to try something that scares you. It’s what gets you over that scary section in one piece, not timidly front-braking mid-drop. Confidence is knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and playing up your strengths. We all bring different skill sets to the trail, and focusing on yours will help you excel.
D: Discipline. It takes discipline to keep your body fit enough to charge trails. Eat well, sleep well, drink lots of water, and take excellent care of your body. Have the discipline to balance mountain biking with other activities; yoga, rock-climbing, trail running, and surfing are all great examples of balancing activities. As fun as it may be, it’s hard on your body to mountain bike everyday, and I don’t recommend it. Rotate activities and save your rotors. You also need to have mental discipline; I know when I shouldn’t ride something. If I’m totally fatigued, I may not ride that day.
E: Endurance. Fatigue is the #1 enemy in mountain biking. An exhausted, physically worn out rider is in no shape to respond safely to the challenges of riding, and thereby increases the risk of injury or accident. It’s okay to ride when you’re tired, but not exhausted. You know your body best and when you’re so tired you can hardly focus on reading a sentence. Mountain biking requires a lot of endurance – physical and mental – and is key to pulling you through your ride. Don’t leave home without it! I’ve been racing the California Enduro Series races this year, and I know why they call it Enduro – it’s all about endurance. I’ve realized how much mental endurance it takes, beyond the obvious physical. Believing you can do the race in the first place, visualizing that completion, and then manifesting it calls for a sustained focus and positive attitude from start to finish. Sometimes I think racing is more mental than physical!
F: Flow. Flow is the overarching goal of mountain biking in the first place, what it all comes down to, motivating us to ride at all. Flowing among beautiful natural environments, often in the blanketed silence of being totally alone, is tapping into the pulse of life. A rider wants to flow as efficiently and smoothly with the earth it’s riding upon. The challenge of a trail is finding its hidden flow, its unwritten map to enjoying all its magical bounty. Flowing is also better for the body; jerking is prone to cause aches and pains. Your body is your shock absorber, responding to changing conditions constantly. Finding the path of least resistance is all about applying physics to maximize or minimize inertia at the right time, like gathering momentum to propel up a hill, and shifting body weight to change your center of gravity. It’s all about the flow.
G: Grace. Flow’s partner in crime is Grace. Grace is the bridge between Flow and Humility, another important characteristic every mountain biker should have. Grace is an awareness of your surroundings, and being conscientious about your interaction with those around you. It’s remembering you’re not the only one out enjoying what nature has to offer; having good trail etiquette is an example of being gracious. Be gracious to the animals and plants you are riding with, trying to avoid causing any harm. Try not to cause trail erosion by overbraking, skidding, or going off-trail on a “social” trail. Aim to be graceful in your riding – smooth, fluid body movements, smooth shifting and braking, the right speed for the right conditions. Find the best line possible through a section, being graceful and fluid. Have your own style, and express it in your riding. Flow and Grace are the true elements of style.
H: Humility. No matter how hard you charge, how high you jump, or how good of a rider you are, Humility is essential to not only being a cool rider, but recovering from setbacks. If you ride challenging trails that push your limits, you are going to fall. It’s a fact. It might be a light fall if you’re lucky, but most of us will have an over-the-bars, face-planting WHAM! of a fall that scares the begeezies out of us. And you may have more than one of these, maybe throw in a separated shoulder or cracked rib. Worse, we all know what the worst possibility is. So be confident, but not cocky. Don’t forget that for all the “Control” we try to maintain while riding, life is unpredictable, and mountain biking is inherently dangerous. Be humble. When you do have a bad fall, learn the lesson from it. Every fall I’ve ever had has taught me some kind of lesson.
It’s also important to just do you, as in take care of yourself without worrying too much about others. Who cares how other people are riding? You can always find someone faster or slower than you if you look for it. There’s no need to compare ourselves to others (unless we want to through official competition), or judge each other’s riding capabilities and preferences. Whether someone’s on a beach cruiser, a comfort e-bike, a hardtail, or the gnarliest full-suspension downhill bike around, we’re all moving on two wheels. We all do it for the same love and pure, simple joy of it. So ride to the best of your ability, and try not to compare yourself too much.
That also means not getting too big of an ego. Confidence is good, but arrogance is just obnoxious; it can also get you into trouble on the trail by trying something you aren’t quite ready for, and then hurting yourself. If you can rip a good downhill, that’s great, but you don’t need to bomb past the sweet old couple hiking up the trail to prove it. Be humble. We’re all just people at the end of the day. I’ve had complete strangers question my set-up before (“Are you sure you’re big enough for that bike?! Are those yoga pants?!”), and I wish they would just take care of themselves instead of questioning me. I don’t feel it’s my place to question other people’s bikes, gear, or doubt their skills. There is no “right” way to dress, just what works for you. Sometimes I’d like to say to the people who question me: Just do you; I got this.
I: Instinct. When you’re flowing with grace, aware and in control, balanced and energized, Instinct is what’s driving you along. You’re in touch with your Animal Self in this state; not overthinking, just responding instinctively. You also know when something is right or wrong, when to take a rest, slow it down, check your gear, or tend to an overuse injury. Listen to your instincts – make sure you can hear them loud and clear. Sometimes it takes a few minutes to hear your Instinct when riding, but once you do, it’s muscle-memory. Riding is all about living in that dynamic, adaptive, instinctual state of being, where you just know what to do. It’s getting out of your head, and into your body. One of my favorite aspects of going for a ride is this state of being, where I am completely in my body, and out of my mind (in the best way possible).
J: Joy. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. (Most of) the experience should be enjoyable from start to finish – gearing up, the relentless labor of climbing, and the reward of the downhill. Riding provides not only a physical reward of a challenging whole-body cardio workout, but it buoys the spirit, clears the mind, and strengthens the mettle. Barring a bad fall, no matter what I always feel better after going for a ride. I’m happier to the core. The joy of blending gravity, motion, and force into a vector of controlled borderline chaos provides a thrill and joy like no other. It is the real reason I ride, and when I don’t get in enough of it, I’m cranky. Biologically, it makes sense to feel some joy after a ride from all the endorphins your body has produced in its dynamic efforts. It’s a “runner’s high”.
K: Knowledge. The World of Mountain Biking is like a language, although a language that you really only excel at through experience over a long period of time. Most people cannot become fluent in the subtle nuances of truly efficient, flowing riding styles in a short period of time; you only get better over lots of practice over lots of time. That isn’t to say you cannot learn a great deal from talking with experienced riders, reading books and anecdotes on mtb forums online, and watching YouTube videos of the pros, instructional or otherwise. The knowledge you need for riding is partly mental, but mostly it’s a physical muscle-memory that only comes with experience. Like most things in life, the more experience you have, the more you know.
L: Labor. Joy and flow and grace aside, mountain biking boils down to quite a bit of pure labor. Labor on the uphill, and even labor on the downhill. The pure labor of riding is inherent in the design of a bike, clearly, in that a constant pedal is usually required. But on downhill, you cannot just sit down on the bike and passively hold on. Your body becomes your shock, namely your arms and legs, while your weight needs to be shifted back and a squat-like position maintained. I’ll never forget the first time I rode a challenging downhill and felt my arms rattling like wet noodles. It was in that moment I realized I was in a dancer’s hold frame position with my bike, and needed to keep my arms and upper body stiff and responsive to whatever my bike threw at me. It’s an active hold that requires flexion of the entire body. And it’s laborious. When I’m climbing hills, I often think of four L’s: Lower, Lock, Lean, Labor. Lower your gears, lock your shocks, lean in, and labor up that climb steadily.
M: Magic. Sometimes you have an indescribable feeling of pure magic when riding. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re hurling past trees, over boulders and log-drops with precision. Or the fox you see run out of the way of the trail. There’s a real magic to being in the forest, in nature, and moving through the landscape on a bike; to a good ride coming together, every factor working in tandem. It can be the way the sunlight filters through the redwood trees before sunset; the way a bat flies alongside you for a moment. Being outside, the further from cities the better, opens the door for magic to happen.
It’s especially magical when you see animals, like the time I rode up on a mountain lion on Mailboxes trail in Santa Cruz. It quickly turned and ran, its long tail advertising its irritation as it flicked, and I stopped on the trail as my husband stopped behind me, barely catching a glimpse of the puma as it ran off. It was absolutely magical. It was my second time seeing a mountain lion; I had seen one a few years before while running the Zane Gray trail at Wilder Ranch. I realized it was kind of magical to see a mountain lion twice; your odds of seeing one are pretty low. They’re elusive animals who don’t want to see us any more than we want to surprise them. I have a great respect and fascination for mountain lions, and on a side note, I’ve had recurring dreams about them for years, in which I’m not attacked, but am sometimes in fear of it. Whatever the case, I love seeing any kind of animal when I’m out on the trails. It elevates the whole experience.
N: Nurture. Mountain biking is hard on the body, no matter how strong you are. From pedals smacking your shins, to getting scratched by a tree branch, or just being sore from overexertion, riding takes a lot out of you. It’s important to nurture yourself in your down-time. Taking excellent care of your whole self – mind, body, and soul – helps keep your ride flowing smoothly. Eat well and hydrate often. Stretch; do yoga. Take a hot bath or shower to relax your muscles (and be sure to wash your helmet while you’re in there, or risk getting “strapne” – acne from a dirty helmet strap. Yay!). Sleep well so your body can recharge itself. And by all means, if you’re injured, let yourself heal before riding again. When I got my first full-suspension bike over four years ago, I rode it every single day for a year. I loved all of those rides, but I learned over time it wasn’t good for my body to push that hard everyday. It was important to have rest days between rides, even if I go for a run, do yoga, or cut bamboo in my garden. Cross-training with different activities keeps you strong and balanced, and hopefully, avoiding overuse injuries.
O: Obstinance. Sometimes sheer stubbornness is needed to make a ride happen. Weather, traffic, and mechanical issues with our bikes or cars can slow us down and threaten to derail even the tightest of plans. I’ll never forget when part of Highland Way was closed in the Santa Cruz Mountains from landslides, and we had to drive around the long way via Eureka Canyon Road to get to Demo (Soquel State Demonstration Forest, one of the best places for riding around here). It took some real commitment and obstinance to keep going despite the longer detour. Social commitments can also bite into our riding time. There are multiple “excuses” to keep us from riding should we let them; this is where obstinance comes in. Sometimes we just have to declare that we are going. This applies to the act of cycling itself: you just have to keep on pedaling, despite being exhausted and wanting to stop. You’re going to get to the top of the hill no matter what.
P: Preparedness. Whether you’re riding through your local trails, or heading out for an epic ride in the wilderness, it’s important to be prepared for many different variables: bike issues (like flat tires), weather changes, and food and water. Preparation can spell the difference between an emergency and an inconvenience. Trust me; I know. My husband Ron and I spent the night on the Third Divide trail in Downieville, among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with no food, water, or protection like extra clothing. Though Ron had a patch kit, circumstances combined to render it futile in the long run. It proved that you have to be prepared for the unforeseen random thing going awry. Most of the time, things go according to plan. I’ve always been pretty good about knowing the weather forecast, local topography of where I’m riding, and I have an excellent sense of direction. But that 1% of the time when your husband gets six flat tires is when you want to be prepared to hike out or spend the night. From now on, whenever we go on “epic rides” in the mountains, we come prepared to spend the night or hike out (flashlights, extra layers, food, and of course, about 6 tubes to be on the safe side!).
The funny thing is I was a Girl Scout as a kid. What’s our motto? Be prepared…
Q: Quickness. There’s no getting around it: you need to be quick in your reaction times, decisions, and movements to safely mountain bike. You don’t have to be the quickest rider in terms of downhill speed, but it’s helpful to be quick in your action. Hitting a rock, root, rut, or otherwise at the wrong angle can forcibly launch you over the bars if you’re not quick to pull up on your bars, sit back as far as you can, and keep off your front brake. You need to be ready at all times to change what you’re doing as the conditions around you change, and the quicker you adapt, the better.
R: Resilience. If I were to count up all the times I’ve fallen off my bike, I might stop riding altogether. How many scrapes, bruises, concussions, and road rash have there been? Whatever the number, this is where resilience comes in. Every time you get back on your bike, you learn from your fall and don’t let it stop you from progressing. Every time you go for a ride despite the cold weather, traffic detour, or sore body, you are showing resilience.
S: Stoke. It’s all about being stoked! Stoke is the fire, passion, contagious enthusiasm, life breath that keeps mountain biking fun. Stoke is what makes us want to go ride again after a long, hard ride we didn’t think we could accomplish. Stoke is the whole reason we ride at all. If you’re not stoked, something’s wrong – check your shock pressure, your seat set-up, or maybe just your attitude. Mountain biking should be fun, and make you smile like a child on a roller coaster. It’s not something to endure, but something to enjoy. Be stoked and spread the stoke!
T: Tenacity. Much like obstinance and determination, Tenacity is that never-give-up, I’m getting to the top, bull-headed mindset that can make the difference between giving up and pushing on. It’s also how we improve. Say you try something a little beyond your skill-level, and fall the first time. But you go back another day, and watch some people go down it from the side of the trail. Then you try it yourself. Maybe you fall again. But you keep trying, each time getting closer, until you send that line. Tenacity is the follow-through of Obstinance. It’s very mental, believing you can do it, and not giving up until you achieve it. They say it’s not the size of the dog, but the size of its fight, and that totally applies to mountain biking.
U: Understanding. Mountain biking is based upon many universal truths, and understanding those fundamentals is key to finding your flow and grace. Everything from keeping your weight back, lowering your seat on the downhill, and mastering the art of braking are essential. I’m a huge fan of watching tutorial mountain bike videos, especially from Global Mountain Bike Network, where the physics of riding specific features are explained in vivid detail. I also watch GoPro footage of trails before riding them (I did this for my mountain bike races with the California Enduro Series this year). Understanding your bike’s geometry – whether you’re rolling 26”, 27.5” (650B), or a 29” like me – is crucial. When I first got my 29’er, I’ll never forget asking the salesman why the handlebars were so wide. He explained how the bigger wheel necessitated a wider bar, which helped maintain control as you went downhill. He also added in how I was going to find myself rolling over things like I wouldn’t have on my old 26’er hardtail. Once I went on my first ride with my new steed, I knew what he was talking about: flying down the trail, making drops I would’ve gone around before, smile jumping off my face. Understanding the design of your particular bike helps you understand how to ride it to its fullest potential.
V: Vitality. Mountain biking is a vigorous sport, and it helps to approach it with energy, vitality, and a positive attitude. Staying in the moment, enjoying the ride, and keeping up your energy are all essential elements of a good ride. A good ride, in turn, rewards with you vitality. During and after a ride, I feel energized, powerful, and exuberant. Riding makes your entire body strong; not a single muscle is left untouched, it seems. On days when I’m feeling tired, a ride will charge me up again, getting me out of a funk. A good ride is good medicine, and hopefully, will help me to live a long, healthy life.
W: Wisdom. Every experience you have out riding builds up your knowledge and expertise. More importantly, reflecting upon those experiences offers opportunities for tidbits of wisdom to emerge. The longer I’ve ridden, surely the wiser I’ve gotten on the trail; but I’ll never assume I’m “done” growing, learning, and getting wiser. The moment you decide that you’ve figured it all out and are done improving is the moment you learn just how much further you have to go. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging mastery of a skill; if you’re good at something, celebrate it. But I think we should always aspire to grow, improve, and learn the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lessons along the way. It’s like teaching: I’m a seventh grade Math and Science teacher, currently in my twelfth year as a teacher. I’ve grown leaps and bounds in my profession during that time, and consider myself a “good” teacher; however, I’ll never assume that I’m done growing, reflecting, and edifying myself to be even better. The same attitude goes for mountain biking: although I feel I’m pretty good at it, I’m always trying to get better, and that means getting wiser. I’ve learned how to ride within my boundaries while simultaneously pushing, redefining, and often obliterating, them. I know when to back off something, and scope it out before hurling myself over it blindly. Everyone has their own comfort zone with pushing their limits, and we should always respect whatever those are, including when we limit ourselves. It’s better to leave in one piece than leave in no peace (as in hurt with your tail between your legs).
X: Xactitude. Precision and exactitude are paramount to keeping some semblance of control on a ride. Having good physical technique while riding, dynamically adapting to your conditions, requires you to be exact in your actions. Braking, pedaling, and shifting techniques can help keep you flowing smoothly with less jerks and stops. When I shift gears, I try to make it as quiet as possible (this isn’t always the case, inevitably); if my brake pads start wailing on the downhill, I replace them. Keeping your bike properly maintained to its exact specifications keeps your ride fun and flowing. When things aren’t precisely aligned, you’ll know it. Anything rubbing, dragging, clicking, or otherwise being noticed needs to be addressed. Keeping your bike set up exactly as it’s designed will help keep it on-point for a smoother ride with less chance for issues.
Y: Yen. No, not Japanese currency. Yen is the intense desire and passion for something; a need, a must, a mandatory activity. Always itching to ride somewhere new, try a daunting feature you haven’t yet sent, and wanting to get in even better shape is yen. Mountain biking isn’t always easy or convenient. It often calls for early mornings, grueling climbs, and logistical challenges. The excitement and anticipation of doing something you love to do keeps your spirit up despite the inconveniences you may face. Having a fire lit under you to go out and ride can spell the difference between staying home and having the ride of your life. Yen’s relative is Zeal.
Z: Zeal. At the end of the day, there is nothing like zooming down a trail with the wind in your face, scents of the landscape perfuming the air, beautiful scenery unfolding at every turn; loving the entire experience of a ride, not just the moving on two wheels part. Having a deep zeal to do something, a true passion, is the driving force behind why we ride at all. Over the years, I’ve developed a somewhat spiritual relationship with mountain biking. It’s been my escape, a catalyst for self-improvement and growth, and downright hella fun. I love nature and being outside, and riding through the forest is an idyllic way to relish the great outdoors. I’d like to think of myself as a “soul rider”.
Whether you’re riding on two wheels, walking on two feet, or otherwise moving over the landscape, the important part is to get outside and enjoy it. The time we spend in nature buoys our spirits, motivates us, and calms us, making us feel part of something so much bigger. We are meant to be outside in natural settings; we are animals. I am passionate about spending time outside, and that includes protecting the environment.
As mountain bikers, we sometimes get a bad rap as being bad environmentalists, causing erosion of trails, sediment loading of fish-habitats, and contributing to the deaths of plants and animals we supposedly run over. It’s not the case for all of the mountain bikers I know, and our local organization Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz continues to be stewards of our local trails, employing environmentally sustainable methods of trail building and maintenance. As an Environmental Studies major myself from UC Santa Cruz, I also feel misunderstood when I read letters to the editor about how awful mountain biking is for the environment. Though there are undoubtedly a small contingent of riders who may cut irresponsible lines, the majority of us care passionately about the environment. We pick up trash on our rides that we find on the trails. We stay on established trails; we look out for endangered species like the Ohlone Tiger Beetle when we ride through Wilder Ranch. We donate and volunteer. We walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
It is possible to be an environmentalist mountain biker; they are not mutually exclusive. Rather, mountain biking can actually foster environmentalism, as the more time we spend in beautiful, natural places, the more we want to protect them. We are passionate not just about mountain biking, but appreciate the land that we ride. Our passion for riding permeates to all facets of our lives. We can be better friends, spouses, employees, and people when we are doing what we love to do.
May we all Flow with Grace…and lots of Stoke!