After a long climb, I saw my friends disappear, one after the other, along the path. My turn. I grabbed the handlebars, got up on the pedals and accelerated. My bike moved forward, staggering awkwardly on rocks and roots. A steep rollover sent my fingers bumping into the pauses and my body almost above the handlebars.
I'm learning how to ride a mountain bike in the middle of the 30s, and this was my first day of racing. I had visions of myself cutting down the path, flying around corners, navigating easily over rocks and roots. I borrowed a bike with full suspension, called some friends and I declared myself ready to drive. But the the challenge of learning this new sport was becoming abundantly clear. The terrain was so difficult that I had to walk with the bike in the middle of the descent, with the tail between the legs. My first day showed that it would not be so easy to go mountain biking I would have to learn.
(Illustrations by Kate Hourihan.)
After my first day, I found myself faced with a decision: accept my beginner status or leave. I had not undertaken a new business open for a while. Skiing I learned at the age of 3 and spent my twenty years dedicated to excelling in. Now, in my thirties, my body and brain were incredibly scared of falling, pain and wounds. In the context of skiing, "beginner" had always sounded like a dirty word. Now on a mountain bike, I was one.
If I was about to take this new sport seriously, I needed to invest in some of my tools. I exchanged my running shoes with a pair of rigid bike shoes and adhesive soles. Knee-pads and gloves have tempered my fear of crashing. And, carrying a spare tube and tire repair kit gave me the confidence to drive alone.
I discovered that I learn best when I am challenged little by little. Too easy? I will not learn anything new. Too difficult? I'm in survival mode. The terrain with a mix of challenge and ease has provided the perfect foundation for learning.
Once I discovered the terrain suitable for me, I practiced. I climbed over the rocks, I took the corner (I turned around tight bends in the path), I fell (launched by bike on small drop-offs from two to three feet). The more I have guided a function, the easier it is to become one. I followed a skill class and practiced the basics over and over again.
As I practiced, I progressed. Difficult corners have become more friendly. Sweet rock garden? No problem. But, some days I was humbly reminded of my beginner status. Chasing my best friends on a steep trail and technique has always offered it Experience. I could do the corner, handle the footrests and the small drops separately. Put them together, I fell apart. But as long as I pushed a little at a time, I progressed.
A year later, while practicing the skills at a nearby bike park, I noticed an intro level mountain bike course full of riders for the first time advancing between cones and corners. Only then did I realize how much I had progressed. I became a mountain biker, but not as I initially imagined. Most days on a bike still comes with a fair amount of fear and doubt. But they also come with the reward of beautiful views and adventures with friends. I learned that being a beginner is not so bad, nor long lasting if you persevere.
Learning a new sport at 30 is extremely challenging, but I would not trade the fight for a place on the sidelines. While mountain biking becomes more natural, I do not see the moment you learn something like 40-something.