Bespoken Word - why mountain biking is balm for the soul

Giant Trance X E
(Image credit: Giant)

I spoke with Chris on the Downtime podcast (opens in new tab) the other day and we covered a whole load of stuff as usual. We avoided politics, potential imminent world wars, climate shifts, cost of living and all the really worrying stuff going on. But even in mountain biking increased pricing that’s probably only going to get worse, poor availability, delayed deliveries/product launches and access/overuse conflicts could paint a grim picture. And that’s before any developments with Covid, that we’re conveniently ignoring because we've had enough of the precautions, get brought into the equation.

It’s perhaps a surprise then that rather than being a really gloomy chat, it actually turned out to be a super positive one. Perhaps even more surprisingly, it’s Covid that’s really bought home just how great mountain biking is for us on a basic level.

Smelling the Covid roses

Rewind two years and mountain biking in the UK was arguably the best it’s ever been. Sure we were riding under ‘not far, no car, no gnar’ restrictions, but even if you just grabbed a local hour loop it was literally a get-out-of-jail card. A lot of people had extra hours to fill because they weren’t sat in cars/trains/buses going to work and back either. The weather was fantastic, the kids who weren’t at school were building awesome tracks and because there were no cars/trucks/buses, the air was clean and for once you could literally smell the roses. 

And while other people ate their six months' worth of panic buying in a couple of weeks of Netflix bingeing, we got faster, fitter and most importantly happier. There’s nothing like the potential death of you or loved ones from a pandemic you can’t even see to appreciate every moment you’re alive much more. But turns out that there’s nothing better to relieve the stress of that terror than getting out on a bike and playing in the woods.

And it wasn’t just us fanatics who rediscovered the simple joy of being out on a bike in nature with enough coming at you on the trail to take your mind away from the rest of the world for a bit. It was everyone who dragged a bike out of the shed, or every enthusiast who dragged a partner or friend out with them to share the stoke. 

And this has to be one of the most positive parts of a pretty grim period. Not only did I see a far bigger diversity of people – ages, colors, couples – on the trail than ever before but that seems to have stuck. The potential utopia of cars being banned from streets forever and skies full of scents and sense, not toxic, planet-choking fumes, lasted a depressingly short time. Most of the people who waddled out into the woods, expanding their worlds because the pub was shut have defaulted to drinking and expanding themselves again. Although to be honest, that’s actually a good thing because they generally treated the countryside like a pub garden anyway.

A MTB-er riding in a rocky environment

Rad lasses are definitely changing mountain biking for the better (Image credit: Endura)

"Girls just do mountain biking better…"

But – trying to get back on track here – the people that have carried on mountain biking at least seem to be a slightly different population, particularly when it comes to the amount of lasses [Yorkshire-speak for women – Ed] riding. I don’t mean for a minute that there haven’t always been some awesome women mixing with the men in the media, industry, racing and on the trails, and they've been incredibly important for creating the jump-off point that I really feel we're at now. 

Because while we’re still an embarrassingly, frustratingly long, long way from gender parity, the trails now seem to be less of a sausage-fest than they were before. And because they’re lasses not blokes with prehistoric competitive, not collaborative wiring, they’re making a difference far beyond the statistical size in the MTB population. I’ve yet to have a moment to chat to Becci Skelton and the rest of the crew behind Project_Evolve at Revolution Bike Park (opens in new tab) the other week, but I’ve never seen such a universally positive outpouring of good-time vibes from an event than the social shockwaves that went out from that day. Although the content from last weekend’s Sisters of Send seems to be running it close. 

And at the risk of a massive, dumb generalization, it seems that women are far more engaged in the really important parts of mountain biking too. Community, camaraderie and supporting each other seem to be the focus, not getting obsessed with compression damping and mid stroke support. Or to quote Bike Perfect contributor and Union DH team member Jim Bland after he came back from Project_Evolve, "Girls just do mountain biking better don’t they…”.

Even at the cutting-edge of XC racing, which is possibly the most overtly hate your neighbor (for an hour at least) segment of our sport, top female riders hug and exchange banter after the line like genuine friends, while the blokes just exchange a surly fist bump and make a mental note of faces to fire up their next interval training session. In fact, the only part of male MTB where I see blokes genuinely stoked when someone levels up and does something incredible to take the win are slopestyle and freeride. Perhaps because they’ve crushed their nuts so many times on bad landings they’ve kick-started some kind of emotional evolution.  

Women riding gravel bikes

Learner riders can often teach us the most when it comes to reminding us how great riding off-road can feel (Image credit: GuyKesTV)

Learning from the learners

The other thing that’s making me feel super positive at the moment is a couple of rides I’ve had with completely novice, beginner off-roaders. Twice in the past month I’ve been lucky enough to get a reminder of the incredible sense of achievement and freedom mountain biking can bring. I’ve been hugged hard enough to crack ribs after helping someone successfully rattle their basic Carrera down a handful of steps. Heard someone who’s normally ultra-polite swear like a sailor at the sheer joy of rolling down a slightly rocky slope and up and over a root on the far side when an hour before they’d stop and scoot for anything over two inches high. Watched wonder on people's faces when that cunning cut through the woods brings them out somewhere they weren’t expecting or takes them through brilliant carpets of bluebells under dappled sunlight in places they didn’t even know existed. I’ve also seen the shock and horror on those same faces when we’ve had to cross a busy road of the potentially lethal nose to tail traffic that’s their normal riding environment.

Even from just a couple of rides the list of positives piles up. Massive measurable progression and the euphoric sense of achievement that brings in a world where work skills or health gains seem geologically slow to gain. Positive affirmation from every pedal pressed hard enough or every second a brake lever is left untouched. Hard climbs taking the guilt out of halfway bacon butties. Stressful weeks rinsed away by sluicing through puddles like a seven-year-old. Stopping to take a minute at a silent wood at dusk, then realizing it’s way less silent than you thought and legging it off down the trail like there’s every horror movie monster ever after you and howling with laughter about it afterwards. 

In short, the properly wonderful, life-changing core stuff that we all too often take for granted because we’re going to have to get the chain that matches our brake bolts from somewhere in Germany and it’ll take two months. Or because we’re sure we’d have enjoyed that last corner more with a different tire/fork click/hip twist/entry line. Well not enjoyed it, but maybe done it faster, because somewhere along the line we've let the constant battle between fast and frustration become the dominant emotion we take to the dirt. 

But the wonderful take to heart from all of this is while everything else in the world is in a state of flux and fear, mountain biking is an incredible medicine that can cure a whole lot of ills. So let's take some inspiration from the people who are currently bringing more energy to the future of riding than all the e-bikes in the world are and get involved with growing the sport ourselves in any way we can.

BTW if you want to hear my chat with Chris in full then click here or look for Downtime Podcast wherever you normally get your podcasts. And don’t worry, if you are still more concerned with damping than diversity, there’s plenty of that chat in there too. But maybe just open your mind a bit too, not just your low-speed oil flow…                                                                                                                                                              

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