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Bespoken Word: It’s not supposed to be easy….

MTB rider tired out on trail
(Image credit: Ryan Stockton)

I’m slumped over the handlebars again. Furious. Frustrated. Feeble. Staring at a boulder I should be beyond, still pedaling. Attacking the next section. Buzzing at a fight going my way. 

But not today. 

Today this boulder had me beaten before it even sucked my vision down onto it, no doubt chuckling with megalithic mirth as my wheel bounced awkwardly on it and slid off, my foot only barely beating my face to the floor.

To be fair, this section is always a grunt not a take-for-granted but it comes at the start of a long, switchbacking, problem-studded climb where committed confidence is as important as fitness and finesse. The last place you want to wobble, dab and give the sharks of doubt all the blood they need to start a feeding frenzy of self-hate. 

When nothing seems to be going right

I’ve been feeding those pride predators well this past month, too. My legs have repeatedly been more flammable than normal on climbs, burning and begging me to drop a gear when I’d normally stand and stamp them back into a reluctant response. The one Zwift session I’ve done recently saw a suppressed heart rate matched with power well below expectation to the point where I almost took a PCR test in the hope of a twin line explanation. However bitter biking tasted as I did my post-ride autopsy, though, I could still tell other flavors fine. 

I’ve been etch-a-sketching round corners at awkward angles when I should be slingshotting from berm to berm like a singletrack simian. Even in the kids’ practice area I’ve “lumped” when I should have “pumped” and in the rare moments when I do luck a dive and drive, I hang up on the next hump, multiplying the raging obscenities of a toxic internal monologue. Even on trails I could do in my sleep old bad habits are running riot, fattening themselves on sodden leg-sapping trails laced with treacherous wet roots and greasy geological trip-and-slip hazards. Sections I’ve never dabbed before are now impossible, and I’ve no idea why my front wheel is over there or how my back tire has slipped again. Actually I do know, it’s because I’m riding like crap and when it comes to the psychology of preparing to fail, I most certainly haven’t failed to prepare.

When it comes to personal evolution we’re the capability-curious fish who’ve flapped onto the beach hoping adaptation kicks in before extinction.

Guy Kesteven

But then, mountain biking is, by its definition, a deliberately masochistic enterprise. Yes, we all croon over the latest long-travel components or slack, long and low mountain bike geometry that makes it easier and safer to go faster. But if we really wanted the easy option we’d be pottering between tea shops or riding on the road where your watts get you much further and faster and performance is much more predictable. Instead we bang our heads against the most technical climbs we might be able to manage or maximize the adrenaline rush by shaving as close as we can to disaster on descents. And while I might have previously pretended it was for the joy of simplicity that I occasionally risk my knees and spine on a rigid single speed, the truth is that I just do it for the purest hit of hardcore self-abuse available – just as others race best hardtail mountain bikes downhill or pick a shorter-travel trail bike, risking their neck in a wreck to amplify and enrich the sense of achievement when things go right. When it comes to personal evolution we’re the capability-curious fish who’ve flapped onto the beach hoping adaptation kicks in before extinction. 

So next time you find yourself raging at your own incompetence, embarrassed at your lack of bravery or disgusted at the impotence of your legs, what should you do? 

Pushing bikes up a slope

Remember the good times to come… (Image credit: Ryan Stockton)

At this point, I’m certain I should probably say something like “be kind to yourself” because any mum or millennial will tell you that’s the reasonable, healthy and healing way to react. To maybe acknowledge that when your heart won’t race and your watts are missing, smashing yourself with haphazard circuits at past midnight before working until 2am for the fourth night in a row might not be the best policy. To do an honest audit of all the other stressors and sappers in your life and reset your targets and expectations more realistically. To back off, recover and come back fresher with a training plan for your fitness goals or a progression plan to polish your technique. Or maybe just remember that this is supposed to be fun and laugh at yourself when you mess up because you’re a human enjoying yourself not some kind of deeply delusional, self-styled Terminator.

Platitude vs attitude

But “be kind to yourself” is what it says on the handwritten label of a house plant that someone truly lovely gave me and which hung in our kitchen on rainbow shoelaces. A house plant that died from neglect within a week and has been replaced by my wife who quietly keeps this successor alive because she knows I can’t be trusted. The same long-suffering Mrs K who’s had to endure rants about why there are no Now That’s What I Call Violently Angry music compilations, just millions of chill-out mixes. And while she’s grown bored of pointing out the bloody obvious lack of planning, time, talent or sleep that always see me fall short of my ridiculous expectations I’m lucky to have other carers I can trust on the trail.

Like Ryan, who’s rolling back down the hill to me now. Wise enough not to get too close just yet, but just wanting to be sure I haven’t hurt anything more than my pride. Who didn’t say anything immediately after my pump track meltdown last week but WhatsApp’d a selection of random images from happier, sunnier rides to me when I woke up the next day to remind me why sucking it up and pushing through is worth it. Who can judge when it’s time to swerve the ride to a simpler level for everyone’s safety or goad me into a third lap when I’m already dry heaving after the second, and then somehow lure me into laps four and five. Leaving me ruined in a fetal full-body failure but knowing that pain is nothing compared to the torment I’d twist myself up with had I bailed two laps into the first “power hour” of the year. 

Post crash bike and rider in foetal position

Sometimes you need to die a lot to live a bit more (Image credit: Ryan Stockton)

And while my muscles and mind might fail me again tomorrow, I’ll try to remember that, as much as the triumphs taste like nectar, it’s the trying and trying again that’s the real nutrition for growing confidence and capability.

Oh, and it goes without saying that if you ride in a group, keep a careful eye on each other. And if somebody else needs a bit of sympathetic trail therapy, a check-in the day after a nightmare ride – or a timely kick up the arse – then be that mate. Because trust me, things like that really make a difference.

Mountain biker holding bike aloft

The highs are worth the lows (Image credit: Ryan Stockton)

Guy Kesteven is Bike Perfect and Cyclingnews’ contributing tech editor. Hatched in Yorkshire he's been hardened by riding round it in all weathers since he was a kid. He spent a few years working in bike shops and warehouses before starting writing and testing for bike mags in 1996. Since then he’s written several million words about several thousand test bikes and a ridiculous amount of riding gear. To make sure he rarely sleeps and to fund his custom tandem habit, he’s also penned a handful of bike-related books and talks to a GoPro for YouTube, too.


Rides: Pace RC295, Cotic FlareMax, Specialized Chisel, Vielo V+1 gravel bike, Nicolai FS Enduro, Landescape custom gravel tandem

Height: 180cm

Weight: 69kg