Riding Mantras and the Fallacy of Every Day Biking Bliss
Cover photography courtesy of Laura Heisinger
Inspired by ShredWorthy rider, Ann H. If you’d like to contribute or make a suggestion, please navigate to our community page and become a part of the discussion.
Learning how to ride is both mentally and physically exhausting. Everyone knows this on an intellectual level, but once we experience how fatiguing mountain biking (or anything worth pursuing) can be, it can be difficult to stay positive. This is especially true at the beginning of the learning curve, when you don’t have a wealth of great experiences and triumphs to pool from. Down the line, these memories will serve as reminders that all of the awkwardness and skinned knees was worth it. But until then…
Maybe you’re just dipping your toes into the sport; feeling it out. You’re uncertain and unsteady. Maybe you’re preparing for your first 5+ hour ride. Maybe your mouse is hovering over that “sign up” button for your first race—maybe it’s an ultra endurance. Maybe you’re considering switching from road to gravel or from gravel to MTB. Maybe you’ve recently had your first thoughts of putting your foot on the pedal. Hell, maybe you’re an experienced rider who is frustrated by the mental fatigue when trying to break out of a performance plateau. Either way, we’ve got a message for you:
Some days are hard. Some days just plain suck. And that’s okay. It’s all a part of the process of getting stronger.
Riding isn’t always F-U-N. Every second in the saddle isn’t always bliss, no matter what your local 7-day-a-week-never-takes-off-her-chamois rider tells you. We’re here to level with you: that rider has put in some really hard, shitty days on her bike to get to where she is now. And here’s another secret: she’s still putting in those days.
Michelle: When my interest in riding first piqued, I was initially inspired by all the “over-stokers” out there. You know the ones. You ask them about their favorite trail and their eyes glaze over and they answer you with a big, dreamy grin. They recount their most excruciating rides with a tone that suggests, “It was horrible, and I loved every minute of it.” I wanted that experience. I coveted it.
After a while, those messages stopped inspiring me and instead had the opposite effect. I didn’t understand how they could be so excited to get on their bike everyday. I had been out on my bike for months, and it was hard. I was constantly covered in bruises because I couldn’t unclip from my pedals, I was covered in blood from skinning my knees on rocks, and I was frustrated. Meanwhile, all these overstokers were wheelie-ing past me, flashing a big toothy smile, saying, “Isn’t this the best day ever?”
No. Not really. I’d flash them a grin in return, but at that point I was faking it, saying things and reacting in the way I thought I was “supposed” to. In my head I was thinking, What am I doing wrong? Why are they having more fun than me? Am I ever going to love riding the way that they do? I had significant doubt as to whether biking was the right sport for me.
Molly: All of my first riding experiences were with said overstokers, and I have to say, there’s something to chasing those people around the forest. Their huge smiles and seemingly endless reserve of energy was what provided me a light at the end of the suffer tunnel when I was first starting out and a total newb on mountain bike trail.
Michelle: In preparation for this article, I spent a lot of time thinking about my first few rides. I looked back on them fondly. I remembered my first time trying to corner the switchbacks on Dakota Ridge and that one time I puked an egg sandwich after riding 30 miles of single track for my brother’s birthday. However, when I took off my rose-colored glasses and set my cognitive bias to the side, I realized that I was only viewing those memories fondly because of how much I’ve grown as a rider. Those memories are only fun in juxtaposition to where I am today. They are only fun because I’ve improved, and because I’m excited by the idea of continuing to improve. I can see a clear line from point A to point B, and can envision point C in my future. In actuality, those first few months were terrible. There were really cool moments in there (obviously, or I wouldn’t still be riding), but overall I experienced a lot of embarrassment, physical pain, jealousy, and negativity.
I think the first few months (and into the first year) were so difficult because like most beginner riders, I was struggling on two axes: I was super out of shape and could hardly ride my bike off the curb. A lack of fitness combined with zero talent made for a pretty sobering start.
When you're first building fitness, riding can be really disheartening and uncomfortable. I can’t tell you how many beer bellies zoomed past me in those first few months, up and down the trail, bouncing past with little effort (okay, if I’m being honest some of them still pass me). My fitness was so low that I couldn’t imagine myself ever being able to keep up with them. Furthermore, I was so lousy on a bike that I didn’t see myself ever clearing beginner trail, let alone taking drops or learning to wheelie (still working on those).
My point is, as a beginner I was so critical of myself that I didn’t think I’d ever become what I considered “acceptable” at mountain biking. My newbie-ness was like being at the bottom of a valley and trying to stare out over a vista. Until I started to progress and climb that metaphorical (and literal) hill, I didn’t have the perspective to realize that I would inevitably progress. I didn’t understand that I would get into shape, and I would get to place where I loved to bike…as long as I kept on riding.
To our ShredWorthy beginner riders: You will get to a place where you love to bike.
The key to cresting that hill is progression. I didn’t start enjoying biking until I saw myself getting better at it. Suddenly and seemingly inexplicably, I cleared a section of trail I had never cleared before. After a while, I cleared entire trails. I started cornering confidently and taking faster lines. As I got better at riding, I got into better shape. Eventually, I didn’t feel like my sides were going to unstitch or like I was going to hurl my lunch. After about a season of riding, I could go for a 20 mile MTB ride. That was a really big deal for me. Seeing myself progress inspired me to keep on getting better. I set bigger and bigger milestones, and signed up for more and more races. The more pain and sweat and shitty days I put into the sport, the more exciting and rewarding the experience became.
I learned that to get a lot out of riding bikes, I had to put a lot into it.
I fell so hard for riding that I got to a point where I realized that I had become the overstoker I’d idolized when I started riding. I was zooming up the trail and grinning at everyone, talking about how the “slight drizzle” was just making the trail tacky and more fun to ride. New riders looked at me with the same raised eyebrows I used to give. I found myself thinking, Sure, it’s raining, but at least I’m on my bike. That just so happens to be the phrase that used to drive me nuts when I picked up the sport. It’d be 90 degrees F or 40 degrees F and raining—arguably miserable—and people would fly by me shouting, “At least we’re on our bikes!” or “Beats sitting on the couch!” I had turned into one of those assholes, and I couldn’t be more pleased about it.
I’ve come to realize that when you commit to a sport, hobby, or interest, you have to make yourself get out and do it even when you really don’t want to. That involves a lot of mental tricks. I had “tricked” myself to get out and ride in the rain and snow through a solid year of mental training. I told myself, “At least you’re on a bike.” Eventually, I believed it.
My point is, anyone who tells you every day on a bike is bliss is likely just repeating their own mantra. It’s the mantra they tell themselves when they would rather be on the couch than in the saddle...and that’s okay!
We want to tell you that you’re going to have bad days on your bike. You’re going to wreck. You’re going to feel sick. You’re going to feel tired and you’re going to feel like you can’t make another pedal stroke. We’re here to tell you that it’s okay if every day on your bike isn’t bliss. We’re here to tell you that it’s normal to not love every second of a ride. It’s okay to struggle. The most important thing is that you always get back on your bike again tomorrow (or the next day, or the day after that).
Sometimes it can be a rewarding experience to give yourself permission not to love every second.
Actually, once I stopped telling myself that every minute in the saddle had to be pure joy and was more realistic about my experience, I started having more fun. Today, that realism has manifested into a pretty mentally tough disposition. It’s carried me through courses and conditions that just six months ago I didn’t think were possible.
When that isn’t enough to get me through the day, I repeat my mantras.
“Just keep turning the cranks”
This one is particularly effective for me as it breaks down the whole act of riding a bike, to something as simple as keeping your legs in motion. If my entire being is focused on turning the cranks, all of my small aches and pains seem to melt away and my one task suddenly seems manageable.
It also plays into the importance of staying present. That bit of advice was given to me at the riders meeting before the Fat Pursuit by Jay Petervary (Salsa Cycles endurance rider). It proved to be good advice. Focusing on what you’re doing, like turning the cranks, can help keep you from entering the space where all you can think about is the end-point beer.
“After every low, there is a high”
Eventually, you’ll get to a place where a “short ride” is almost always fun. For a new rider that might be a half hour, for Lael Wilcox that might be 10. You’ll get into shape and you’ll get better technique and your body will normalize it. However, whatever a “long day in the saddle” means to you, it will always be a roller-coaster of ups and downs. One moment you’re on cloud nine, charging corners and clearing climbs, the next you feel like crap, falling behind the group or dealing with cramps. During those moments, I remind myself that after every low is a high. Maybe it’s a break from the headwind or a flowy bit of downhill, maybe it’s a snack at a checkpoint or a dry pair of socks. Maybe it’s the finish line, when you almost immediately forget how shitty you just felt and are instead filled with accomplishment and stoke. I often find myself thinking, I’m low right now, so I’m going to eat a Nutty Buddy, drink some Gatorade, and listen to Girlpool until I’m on a high again. That combo is magic—just sayin’.
“Just make it to the next milestone”
When I’m really uncomfortable, my mantra becomes making it to the next checkpoint or milestone. I’ll say, “8 miles to the aid station,” or even, “Just get to the top of this hill.” I’ll even break down hills, if I have to. When you chunk up long rides you can trick your mind into thinking they are smaller than they really are. On one particularly harrowing bikepacking trip, I checked off every 0.1 mile. Yes, I mean 0.1 mile, not 1 mile. Progress is progress.
“This is temporary”
Whether I’m doing an intense 40 minute sprint or a multi-day slog, when I get really low I gently remind myself that this feeling is temporary. What is 40 minutes in the grand scheme of your life? What is 6 hours? What is 6 days?
However, reminding yourself that what you’re experiencing is temporary is a lot different than fixating on the finish line. If you spend the entire ride (especially if it’s a long event) imagining how good a hot shower will feel or how good a greasy burger will taste, I guarantee that your ride will start to feel overwhelmingly difficult—maybe even impossible.
Instead, remind yourself that the feeling is temporary, and ask yourself what you can do to make yourself feel better in the moment, not in the future. Focus on the present. Address your needs. Am I hungry? Thirsty? Am I too hot or too cold? Taking the time to take care of yourself will always pay off in the end.
“It was my choice to be here”
This is my mantra for really gloomy days. I haven’t had to use it much, but I anticipate using it a lot more as I branch out into longer and longer rides. When mental, physical, and emotional fatigue combine for an all out war on your positive mindset, it can be near impossible to not start to feel sorry for yourself. The last time I said this was just after the photo on the right was taken. It was 97 degrees F, mile 30-something of a 45 mile course with 7k feet of climbing, I was 45 entire minutes behind 1st and 2nd place with no chance of catching up, and I had just realized I was out of water. (Luckily for me, Randy was there to document the moment! Seriously, this guy is out in every kind of weather!) That was a low point. Since then, I’ve put a lot of effort into denying my own self-pity. It’s a destroyer of mindset, and has no place on trail. It’s where I draw the line. The second I feel sorry for myself, I sternly say, “This was your choice, make the most of it.” I’m still working on it.
We want to know how you stay positive on trail. What’s your mantra? What are your tricks and tips? How do you keep your brain occupied on long rides? Tell us in the comments!
ShredWorthy Contributor Mantras:
“Put your head down and pedal!” - Marjorie R.