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How to Stop Fighting and Enjoy Mountain Biking Together

with Jen Hudak  

At the end of two weeks on a solo, soul-searching mountain bike road trip in April 2014, I met a man on the trail who would later become my husband. If any couple should know how to get along while mountain biking, it’s us – after all, it's how we met. But after the initial allure and romance of our long-distance relationship, mountain biking together became harder and led to unnecessary arguments, disappointments and frustrations on the trail.  Now, three years later and after much work, we have truly become allies on the trail – and you can too!

Mountain biking is a great activity to do with your significant other and further down the line, an activity the whole family can enjoy together. But it can also be extremely taxing on a relationship; especially, if there is any significant difference in ability or fitness level between you. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve coached women who, after I explain a skill, exclaim, “Wow, that makes so much sense! My [insert significant other here] always says ‘just do it.’” That phrase certainly has its uses, but it can also be extremely frustrating to hear when you need something more than motivation.  So, why is it a stranger can help us when our life-partner cannot? Read on for my tips about how to turn your significant other into your trail ally. The answer to how this can happen may surprise you!

#1: Communicate

If you went to couple’s therapy, they’d tell you that a breakdown in communication is the most common source of difficulties in a relationship. The same is true with mountain biking. It seems like a simple conversation to have.

Him: “Hey, do you want to go for a ride?”

You: “Yeah, sounds like fun.”

But oh, how quickly this can unravel…

You (in your head): “Ugh, why is he always on my tail? Stop talking, I’m dyyyyiiiing up here while your heart rate is at like 60 bpm! Why doesn’t he just go in front?”

You: “Babe, do you want to go in front?”

Him: “Are you sure?”

You: “Yes, you should go.”

Him: “Okay.”

15 minutes later…

You (in your head): “Ugh, why doesn’t he ever wait for wait for me???”  

Maybe it’s the other way around and maybe this doesn’t happen every ride, but I know I’ve been there before. In this scenario, we’re setting our partner up for failure – it’s a lose-lose situation. By taking a few steps we can avoid this interaction.

First, set expectations about the ride by asking the right questions. How long and hard do you each want to ride? Does one of you want to take it easy after a long day, but the other needs to blow off steam? If so, then know that you’ll be riding different paces on the way up, but perhaps you can sync up at the top of the trail and descend together. Do you or your partner want instruction today? Talk about it. If you or your partner doesn’t clean a challenging section of trail, is either of you interested in trying it again to practice skills or are you cool with just moving on? Will you stop to take breaks or pound out some distance without stopping? If you don’t talk about it before, you could easily have different expectations of how the ride will go which leads to unnecessary arguments.

Next, be sure to express what bothers you! One of my triggers is when my husband, Chris, sits on the back of my wheel chit-chatting away while I struggle to get enough air in my lungs to simply breathe. I truly thought he was a mind reader, but I’m learning otherwise. If I don’t let Chris know that bothers me, then he thinks he’s being nice by finding a way to ride with me instead of going in front and leaving me in the dust.  Nine times out of 10, my preference is to be left in the dust so that I can simply ride at my own pace, but everyone is different.

Lastly, say what you mean and mean what you say. If you tell him/her to go in front, you can’t get mad if he/she drops you. If you don’t want to be dropped, but don’t want them riding on your rear wheel, then discuss it. Remember, your partner loves you and isn’t judging your speed. They likely came on this ride because they want to be with you, not because they need to be impressed by you.

#2: Check-In with Yourself

When you’re feeling frustrated, ask yourself why you’re feeling that way. Did you make a story up in your head? If your partner is sitting on your wheel chatting, did you automatically think he/she wanted you to be riding faster? Does this make you feel bad about your speed and then make you mad about him/her riding your tail? Well sister, I’m sorry to say, but that’s on us. My husband has a hard time with pacing when he’s in front, so he likes to ride behind me, like right behind me. It used to make me so uncomfortable and I always felt like I was letting him down or “ruining his ride.” As it turns out, he likes to ride behind me so that we can spend some quality time together. He’s totally content riding my speed.

#3: Forgive

This is a challenging, but important tip! You husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/partner IS NOT A TRAINED COACH. Perhaps they’re a more skilled or experienced rider and can navigate obstacles that look impossible to you, but the ability to articulate how they’re executing a specific move is a skill in itself. Sometimes we need to take a step back and remember this. Furthermore, when your partner gives you advice on the trail, remember that it is not a criticism. Maybe they want you to succeed and see your potential; they think you’re ready for advice – be flattered! When your significant other says the ‘wrong thing’ at the ‘wrong time,’ take a step back and forgive them – they’re only human.

#4: Remember and Honor Your “Why”

Sometimes I fail to communicate and forgive effectively and find myself down in the dumps during a ride with my husband. It’s easy to start blaming him for the way I feel:

“You didn’t wait for me.”

“You’re running me over.”

“Stop telling me what to do.”

“I wish you would get out of my way and let me ride… I could have totally crushed a QOM today!”

In these moments, I try to remind myself why I ride my mountain bike. I ride for many reasons: fitness, aesthetics, fun, quality time with people I love. If you’re feeling insecure about your speed, miserable from trying to keep up with your more experienced partner, or frustrated that you and you’re partner aren’t perfectly in sync, remind yourself WHY you got into the sport and focus on that alone. Every ride is different and no matter what I’m still lucky to be outside doing an activity that I enjoy.

#5: Set Personal Riding Times

This is particularly true for those individuals who got into riding because of their significant other. You can’t expect to go on every ride with him or her. In fact, it’s unhealthy and is a breeding ground for resentment. The fact is, everyone needs time to ride alone and with other friends. No matter how close in speed you are to your significant other, solo trail time gives you the opportunity to connect with this amazing sport in the manner that suits you. Also, branching out beyond rides with your partner gives you both the opportunity to ride with people that will push you both to be better riders. This way, riding together becomes something special where you will both be a little more empathetic to one another’s shortcomings on the trail, so you can just enjoy spending time together.

#6: Take a Clinic or Join a Group Ride

Perhaps learning to ride from your partner is just not the right approach at all. Fortunately, there are more opportunities for women to connect through mountain biking than ever before! You can join a women’s clinic, like Ladies All Ride, to improve your skills, or you can find a local group ride (some are women only) to diversify the group that you typically ride with. Riding with people who are more skilled than you will help your riding simply by observing and mirroring what they do. If you spend a little time honing your skills away from your partner, your time spent on the trails together will be much more enjoyable. Your significant other can become your trail ally, ride-or-die partner for life.

As you may have realized, turning your significant other into your trail ally has as much (if not more) to do with you than it does him/her. My husband and I still have occasional disagreements on the trail, but we’re not likely to stay upset for long. We’ve also realized that there is no one set way to ride together. Every time we go out, we need to make a clear plan about the ride. Some days he rides up front and I go my own pace, other days I try to keep up with him until my lungs bleed, and sometimes he rides behind me chatting my ear off while I struggle to breathe, but I remind myself that he’s doing that of his own volition, he loves me and wants to spend some quality time together. My husband is my number one trail ally these days and I’ll do all I can to keep it that way.

Looking for another perspective and a few training tips for active couples? Check out these tips from Radka and Brad Kahlefeldt, professional triathletes.

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