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So, your boyfriend wants to get you into mountain biking!

Your boyfriend’s into mountain biking, and thinks you should try it. Maybe you’re stoked, and maybe you’re a little bit nervous. No matter how you’re feeling, you should know this: if you want to be successful at biking, you have to take responsibility for your own experience… don’t let him be the driver!

Last year, I stood where you stand now. I’ve just wrapped up the end of my second season of mountain biking, and I’m happy to say that I finally feel comfortable calling myself a “mountain biker.”

My story is one you’ve heard before, I’m sure: Will, my now-fiancé, quickly fell in love with mountain biking. Knowing that sharing a sport means more opportunities to get out and do said sport, he was excited when I showed an interested in getting on a bike as well. Just like that, I became the cliche: the girl who followed her boyfriend into mountain biking.

Will was “all in” from day one, dropping a couple grand on a sweet full suspension Yeti and other high end gear. I was more cautious, opting to buy a cheaper used hardtail in case I didn’t end up liking biking after all.

This is how Will & friends ride.

This is how Will & friends ride. | Brooks Bostick on The Whole Enchilada, Utah

This is how I ride. | Monarch Crest Trail, Colorado

This is how I ride – both wheels firmly on the ground, thank you very much. | Monarch Crest Trail, Colorado

My first season gave me a taste of what mountain biking could be, but many rides ended in frustration. Hell, a lot of rides tipped the scales into argument territory! Now, at the end of my second season, I’m riding confidently and I feel like we’ve made it through most of the growing pains that couples experience when a dude tries to get his gal into mountain biking.

It took me two years to embrace mountain biking, with a lot of wrong turns and grumpy rides. Here’s what I did, why it sucked, and how you can do better.

1. Make sure your gear fits the bill.

What I did: My first few rides were on a friend’s ancient, squeaky hardtail with weird gearing. On one of those rides my front wheel actually fell off while I was riding – not a recipe for confidence. Once I decided I liked biking enough to invest a few bucks, Will helped me find a used hardtail for a good price. As it turns out: a good price isn’t worth anything if the bike doesn’t fit. I could just baaaarely stand over my top tube, making for some uncomfortable (and sometimes downright painful) dismounts. Not to mention – we were riding trails that maximized his full suspension, and I was really feeling the bumps on the hardtail.

My third bike, a new, professionally fitted Santa Cruz Bantam, was a much better choice, but the seat didn’t go down far enough for my height. It wasn’t until I got a dropper post a full year later that I ever experienced the feeling of riding downhill without a seat jammed firmly up my ass.

Bike #1: old and creaky. Gears that used the backs of your fingers on the brakes. Weird.

Bike #1: old and creaky. Gears that used the backs of your fingers on the brakes. Weird.

Why it sucked: It’s impossible to work on technique and skill building when you’re constantly fighting your gear. On bike #2 I was so afraid of banging my lady bits that I never worked on any skills, because I was always looking for the next place I might need to bail. Before I got the dropper for my Santa Cruz (side note – I now know that seat posts can be trimmed! If your seat doesn’t go all the way down, take it to your local bike shop to see what they can do.) I knew that going faster on the downhills would help me ride out the bumpy bits, but I kept going over my bars because I couldn’t get my body in the right position with my seat so high. Will, on the other hand, had a perfectly dialed setup and couldn’t understand why I was having such a hard time adjusting. Of course he was progressing faster than I – he wasn’t waging war on his gear every time we hit the trail.

Bike #3 – that's about as far down as the seat goes!

Bike #3 – that’s about as far down as the seat goes!

What you should do: You need to insist that you get the best gear available to you – you shouldn’t be riding an ancient bike while he’s on the latest and greatest! That might mean demoing a bike for a few rides, and investing in a more expensive bike down the line. Check in with your local shop, some places will give you credit towards buying a new bike for each demo ride you take.

The bottom line is this: riding with ill-fitting gear won’t make you enjoy biking. If, like me, you still likes biking even with shitty gear, you’ll want to upgrade ASAP, and you’ll probably lose money when you try to resell the cheap stuff (I know I did.) Though it is a bigger initial investment, it’s much better to get decent gear up front. That way, if you end up hating it (unlikely, especially if you follow the rest of my tips!) you can sell it all, and you won’t have lost any more money than you would’ve if you had to replace a bunch of sub-par gear mid-way through your first season. Bonus, less tears! 

2. Take a lesson!

Post-fall in Jackson Hole, WY

Post-fall in Jackson Hole, WY

What I did: When I started biking, my thought process went something like this: I’m pretty athletic, and I learned how to ride a bike when I was 5. Will didn’t take any lessons, and neither did anyone else that we rode with. Surely, lessons are for noobs!

Why it sucked: While the basics of biking came easily to Will, they eluded me. Having previously only ridden a townie, I knew little more than “point and pedal” – which only gets you so far. I spent months trying different things, falling a LOT, and getting frustrated, simply because I didn’t know what I should be doing. Eventually, I got in over my head and supermanned down a loose rock garden in Jackson Hole, which resulted in some mega confidence issues and finally pushed me to get some professional help.

What you should do: Bite the bullet and take a lesson. It can be one on one or a group clinic, but don’t take the lesson with your dude. No matter how well you two get along, you won’t learn as much if he’s there. A lesson (or two, or more!) will give you the foundation you need to build the skills that will make you an awesome mountain biker.

I finally got around to taking a real lesson a few weeks ago (at the end of my second season) and now I kick myself for not looking for help earlier. I took two three-hour lessons from the wonderfully talented ladies at Moab Mountain Bike Instruction. The first was taught by Sylvi, an instructor who has been teaching mountain biking for over six years. With the calm, measured voice of a yoga instructor, she showed me how I should sit on my bike, where my body should be, and what I should expect different moves to feel like. The second lesson, with Ashley, focused on “getting after it” – something I wasn’t thinking about at all before my lessons. After taking these lessons I was relaxed, confident, and crushing it – a 180º difference from the terrified post-crash rider I was before.  

One unexpected benefit of taking the lessons was seeing how other people approach mountain biking. Before my lessons, I had only ever ridden with – and compared myself to – Will and a handful of friends, even though they were way more experienced and conditioned than I. Riding with different people gave me some new perspectives that made me feel much more confident in my skills. I couldn’t ride as hard and fast as Will, but I definitely wasn’t lame!

Riding with new people is fun!

Riding with new people is fun!

3. Don’t be afraid to session!

What I did: I desperately, desperately didn’t want Will and friends to think I was a loser. So, for every ride I put on my game face and tried my hardest to keep up. Any time I rode up to something that was scary or seemingly above my level, I hopped off my bike and walked around it as fast as I could.

Why it sucked: By treating every ride like a race to the finish line, I was preventing myself from getting better and maybe even making myself worse – I was skipping things without even trying! Now, I believe that there’s no shame in walking sections, but it’s not acceptable to skip part of the trail before giving it a shot.

What you should do: Go on session rides! Tell your guy that you want to ride in front, and stop to repeat any sections that give you trouble. More often than not, you’ll get it after a few tries and your confidence will increase tremendously – think of it as a little investment now that will pay off big on your future rides.

If your dude complains that riding this way will be boring and awful, he’s absolutely wrong. Will has spent some time sessioning sections with me over the last few months and has really enjoyed it – forcing yourself to ride things differently has huge benefits.

Of course, not every ride needs to be a session ride, and you should also be careful about pushing the limits. When you go out for your first few rides, make sure your time and place goals are appropriate. Don’t start a long loop so close to sunset that you have to power through. Don’t jump from 5 mile rides to a 20 mile ride. 

Biking the Bangtail Divide in Bozeman, MT

Biking the Bangtail Divide in Bozeman, MT

4. Finally, have him read this:

I’ve generally accepted the fact that Will is naturally better at most sports than I am. However, this knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to be the one struggling! Oftentimes when he sees me floundering he’ll try to offer some helpful advice. Sometimes it’s just what I need, but other times (even when I know he means the best) it sends me into a fit of rage. As the receiver of lots of this advice, I’ve come up with some general guidelines for advice givers. Have your dude read this section before you guys go out together.

Boyfriends/Husbands/Anybody trying to get someone new to like biking:
I know that your helpful comments always come from a place of love, but sometimes it doesn’t come off that way. Here’s how to get your point across without offending us:

  1. Eliminate the word “just.” You know – “You just need to ride faster!” “Just keep pedaling!” “Just pick your front wheel up and you’ll make it over that rock, no problem!” (Side note – that last one resulted in my most painful bike fall, ever. Turns out there’s a lot more to it than “just pick your front wheel up” as is evidenced by my crotch getting super intimate with my headset. Ouch.) I get it – by prefacing your advice with “just,” you’re trying to make it sound like something reasonable. From our perspective, it sounds more like “this is so easy for me, why are you having a hard time with it?” Any time you want to use the word just, try to rephrase it in a way that sounds more like a suggestion. For example, if she says “I feel like I’m going to crash on these rocks” you might say “Sometimes, I feel more comfortable on bumpy sections with a little extra speed.”  If you can’t think of an alternative without using the word “just” – just keep that comment to your damn self. You’ll thank me later.
  2. If you’re going to cheer her on (which you totally should!) make sure it’s something that deserves praise. If she’s looking great, tell her so. If she’s looking wobbly, don’t tell her she’s looking great – find something you can genuinely compliment her on and focus on that instead. Things I like to hear when I’m riding:
    – You were right behind me on that climb!
    – You looked way more relaxed on that section.
    – It took me forever to finally get that section!  
    – You never would have gotten that section last ride/week/year!
    Bonus points if she’s frustrated and you can point out something else that she’s crushing instead.
  3. Listen. Sometimes, we just want to gripe. Biking is hard and can be frustrating! Let her talk before you jump in with your life altering tips – she might get there on her own without you!

That’s it!

Look how happy we are!

Look how happy we are!

Disclaimer: Poor Will has gotten the short end of the stick in this post. I don’t mean to make him out to be the bad guy – really! Without Will, there’s no way that I would be anywhere near the biker I am today. Me learning how to mountain bike has been a huge growing process for both of us, and I’m forever grateful that he’s willing to share his favorite sport with me.

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  • Great advice! As a new biker it’s always great to hear I’m not alone in some of my frustrations in trying a sport your significant other is already really good at. I’ve found a ladies group that meets once a week, and the gals that coordinate it are instructors in a neighboring town, and it’s been great to go out will all levels of experience and see how everyone else approaches the trail.

    • Right?! I love connecting with other female bikers just to know that I’m not alone out there! I love the number of women’s focused groups that are popping up these days. Every one I’ve seen has been such a supportive, engaging environment. One of the downsides to traveling so much is not getting to participate in a local group… someday! 🙂

  • I’ve never been mountain biking before, but your post makes me really curious to try! I really appreciate your advice for getting started. I feel like any time I read a “how to start doing something” post, it skips so many first steps and tries to make it seem so easy. I’m less afraid to try knowing that it’s not something that you just pick up naturally right away. More like, cautiously intrigued! And props to you for not getting discouraged, and for getting back on the bike after that fall! Yikes!

    • This comment just made my day! I didn’t mention it in my post, but there are a TON of women’s mountain bike clinics popping up all over the place these days. They are super beginner friendly and sometimes even provide demo bikes – perfect if you want to try it out! I’ve heard great things about the Ladies Allride organization (http://www.ladiesallride.com/) maybe they have a clinic in your area? Everyone I’ve talked to who has been to one of their events just raves about what an amazing experience it was.

  • Elizabeth

    As a fellow lady with a totally-in-to-it mountain biking dude, this is a godsend to read. My husband sent this to me (probably as a, “see, it’s not so bad” kind of deal) and wanted to get my thoughts on it. Would I like to try mountain biking so we have another activity to share? Sure! Am I barely competent on a “rail trail” bike and scared out of my wits to go mountain biking (envisioning a fall just like you had, no less)? You betcha! But reading your post… I feel like I might be able to give it a shot without wimping out before I even try it. And I’m so, so glad you bring up the more experienced person giving well-meaning advice to the newbie – I can’t tell you how many times new activities for us end in tears for me because I’m overwhelmed by what he thinks is a helpful tip and what I take as a harsh criticism of my hiking/biking/athleticism in general. This is a great read for guys and gals alike, so thanks a million!

  • RW

    I’m a dude and this resonates with me, because I’ve been through everything that you mentioned here, but with my friends instead of my spouse (although, she does ride, she’s better than me in many ways and we learn very similarly). I ended up being really frustrated starting out (still am, TBH), because I couldn’t find a coach, couldn’t find a clinic, mountain biking doesn’t come naturally to me, and most of my friends had natural tendencies towards it and looked at me funny when I talked about taking lessons. There is something about men and feeling like they need to figure it out for themselves, but I tried that and it hurts!!

    I also found the “Just pick your front wheel thing up” enormously frustrating. I watched youtube video after youtube video on how to do it and never got it down until I worked with a coach. That is an art into itself and something many people just figure out over time and forget how difficult it can be. I hear the word “just” and really start beating myself up, because it’s so harmful, but people don’t realize it. It simplifies things that are so much more complicated.

    The hard part for me, being a dude, is that 90% of the clinics are for women only! I want to ask to attend, because I learn the same way a lot of women seem to pick up new skills and feel much more comfortable in an environment without a bunch of dudes that it all comes natural to judging me. Of course, this would be creepy, so I just work with a private coach whenever I can, but I do find it really frustrating how there are so few clinics that dudes can attend (most are very expensive and few/far between, in contrast, the women’s clinics are frequent and inexpensive where we are). To be clear, I totally understand why women seem to feel more comfortable around other women without men around, for many reasons, so there is no judgement on my part, I just wish there were more options available for men.

    Mountain biking for me is an exercise in patience with myself and trying to restrain how much I care about what people think of me and learning to be confident where I am, not where my friends are. It’s always really encouraging to read other people’s journey, regardless of gender, and not feel so discouraged with myself, so thanks for that!

    • You are so right. The more I chew on this post, the more I feel like it should actually be titled something like “So, you’re getting into a new outdoor sport!!” The concepts aren’t really gender specific – or even mountain biking specific. Thanks for helping to point that out, I love your perspective and I’m going to keep that in mind.

      I just looked at some festival schedules and you’re totally right… the number of non-women’s only clinics is seriously lacking. If you find yourself in Moab definitely check out Moab Mountain Bike Instruction (http://mmtbi.com/) – they run a co-ed camp 3x a year that looks great.

      To illustrate how talented their team is… one of my favorite memories of my lessons was coming upon Wendy, the owner of the school, mid-ride with my instructor. Wendy was coaching her husband on a gnarly line for their (non-gender specific) enduro clinic that weekend. He was flying, but she knew there was a better line… and she was really pushing him. The only reason she wasn’t practicing that line herself? She was 8 months pregnant!

      Anyway, thanks for writing in, I really appreciate your perspective. Have a great summer!

  • I love mountain biking! My dad’s favorite hobby is mountain biking, so I kind of grew up biking. It’s fun that my dad and I share a hobby. I definitely agree that having the right gear can make a big difference. At one point in time I was riding an extra small frame. At first I loved it because I had switched from a small frame, and the shorter wheelbase allowed me to zip around turns much faster. However, after about a year of riding, I gave up on that bike. Despite trying different adjustments to the set up, my knees would hurt after riding. I never found a configuration that worked for me. Instead I went back to riding my other bike, which was actually one of my dad’s first bikes (free bikes are the best, but only if they fit you!). It is super old and mismatched, but it fits and I love riding it.

    Another thought for those giving advice, sometimes the rider knows theoretically what to do to achieve the desired results, but lacks the physical capability to do so. For example, too many times to count when I’ve failed to get up over a short steep section with a technical feature, my dad tells me that “its all about speed” to get up and over. Usually, I just laugh and tell him, “I know, but my legs are too tired!” because really I do know. I see the hill, see the root or rock that I must get over, and try to muster up some speed. However, sometimes my legs don’t cooperate. They are not strong enough or are too tired from the rest of the ride. I’m much more of a granny gear and spin type of rider that one who pushes big gears.

  • My boyfriend got me to finally try mountain biking last year. Let’s just say, I managed the easy trails on my no-suspension bike, and enjoyed myself throughout Cali, Oregon, and Idaho trails. There was a bit of an issue on a way too difficult trail in Wyoming, and I spent most of the ride bawling my eyes out. But now that I’ve finally hopped on a hard-tail bike (for tours in Mexico and Thailand) I realize what I was missing. At first, I always stopped and walked around sections that I deemed “too hard,” now, I fly down them with a bit of fear, but haven’t gone OTB.

    Angel loves any biking. I think once I finally upgrade to a nicer bike (maybe not a full-suspension, but at least a hard tail), I’m gonna love mountain biking a little bit more. I love the suggestion to take a clinic, and that’s definitely something on my mind now.

  • Lori

    “just keep that comment to your damn self” … OMG, that made me laugh so hard. There have been so many times I have thought something similar about my dear husband, that is so much more naturally athletically inclined than I am…

  • Spot on article.

    Two nice takeaways for me. The first is that we can all get so caught up in the moment simply riding, that we forget to take the time out to focus on skills. Sessioning is such a great technique and can bring on massive improvements – we all need to push ‘a little’ out of our comfort zones to improve. This really came home to me this year when Rach, my partner, and I spent the summer in the Alps. As a mellow cross country rider the change of scene and terrain, when faced with downhill pistes, was immense for Rach. The first day out we had tears, yelling and plenty of walking sections….all on a green piste! As the season progressed, she nailed the greens…then the blues…then rode every red in resort. And the reason why? She sessioned over and over again…sometimes leaving a section for another day, but always returning to finally get it done.

    The second takeaway is that, perhaps, we men simply can’t help using the word ‘just’. I hold my hands up and confess that I may have used (on many occasions) the terms ‘just roll over it’, ‘just one more hill’, just a little detour’ and ‘just go for it and follow me’. Alas, after this season I think that Rach might be the one telling me to…’just man up!’.