How to Overcome Fear When Mountain Biking

with SANDRA WALTER, Liv Racing Collective

If you’ve ever tried riding your bike on trails, chances are you have come across an obstacle – like a seemingly unnavigable pile of rocks, jump, drop or tricky descent – that scares you. Even though your brain is telling you the most prudent thing to do is dismount and walk the section in question, if you’re anything like me, you will spend the next several hours, days or weeks itching to go back and try riding it. The great thing is, by approaching and walking the scary bit, you’ve already taken the first step!

Over my many years of mountain biking, I have developed (by trial and error) a system to overcome fear while mountain biking and I’m sharing it with you now, so you can avoid the hard lessons I learned in the process!

1. Choose the right time.

Okay, that scary part of the trail is haunting you and you want to go back and try riding it. Give yourself the best chance at success by making sure the conditions are right. Not only is it important to pick a day when the weather is favourable and trail conditions are optimal (i.e. traction is good), make sure you have someone with you for moral and safety support. Also ensure that you are feeling rested and alert and have lots of time, so you’re not feeling pressured or rushed. Basically, don’t leave it until the end of your ride.

2.Choose the right riding buddy.

It’s important to have company when you start your fear-busting process and teaming up with the right person or people will really help. Not only do you need someone on hand to witness your badassness, it’s best if that person has experience successfully and confidently riding the feature. Ideally, you have ridden with this person before and are confident in their skills because you will be using them as a visual learning aid.

3. Gather info.

Ask your buddy to demonstrate the feature so you can analyze things like speed of approach, line and gear choices, braking zones, and body position as they successfully and confidently ride the section. Get them to re-ride it as many times as you need and watch from different vantage points. Ask them lots of questions to accumulate as much relevant info as possible, even if your questions may seem silly.

4. Choose visual cues.

Part of the information gathering process should be to pick visual cues based on your walk of the section, what you observed from your friend’s demo and the questions you asked. For example: Is your front tire going to the left or the right of the rock when you roll up to the feature? Where are you looking on approach, in the middle and at the exit? What are you aiming for with your front tire? At what point should you start or stop pedaling or braking? At what point should you initiate your ‘pop’? The best visual cues are permanent parts of the trail or landscape, like a prominent rock, root, or tree, that you can always refer back to on future rides.

5. Visualize yourself riding the feature successfully.

You’ve heard of pro athletes doing it, but visualization is not just for professionals! Conjure a mental video of yourself correctly executing all the things you’ve determined are key to effectively riding the section. Strengthen your confidence and prove you have the skills required by delving into your bank of experience and comparing it to similar things you have ridden with success in the past. At this point, check in with yourself and verify you do actually possess the required skills – your trusted riding buddies should be able to help with this.

6. Give yourself lots of time to set up.

Allow for a long run-in to the feature, even if you have to hike or ride back quite a ways. Make sure you have all the time you need to clip into your pedals, get balanced, shift into the correct gear, and get up to the optimal speed, so you’re completely ready once you reach the entrance to the section or feature. I usually look for a flattish spot with good traction.

7. Practice a few “false approaches”.

To get a sense of what the ride up to the feature or section looks and feels like without the pressure of having to commit, I recommend that you try a couple of what I call “false approaches”. Basically, ride up to the entrance or take-off with a clear plan to stop right before the point of no return. This exercise will help you focus on all of the things you’ve determined are important to navigate the section minus the distraction of fear or worry of taking on the actual scary part. If it’s a drop or jump, I usually roll right up to the edge and stop safely, so I can see what the take-off actually looks like from atop the saddle and behind the handlebars. It’s an important difference in perspective from walking.

8. Get psyched.

Now it’s time to psych yourself up for the real deal. Do whatever you need to ensure you’re feeling confident and ready. It may help to get your friend to demo it again or have them spot you by standing in a place that makes you feel safer knowing they’re there. You could review the “evidence” that proves you possess all the information, skills and tools required to be successful. Finish your prep with another visualization of success, make sure your body and bike are ready, take a deep breath and tell yourself that this time you’re going to apply your plan and commit.

9a. Success!

If you do clean it on your first fully committed attempt, that’s awesome! High fives! Now go back and ride it again. You probably learned a couple of things from your first pass that you can apply to making your second one even better. Riding a feature (such as a drop or jump) three times with good technique and feeling confident helps you solidify the skill. It will ensure that you’ll be more confident the next time you ride that section. Riding something scary for the first time leaves me feeling shaky and filled with adrenaline. If I take some deep, calming breaths and do it again, that feeling is diminished.

9b. Be gentle with yourself.

If you freeze up and stop at the top, that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up. Go back, psych yourself up once more and try again. If you freeze up multiple times in a row (I usually give myself a set number of attempts), it’s okay to let it go and move on. It’s easy to get frustrated and beat yourself up, but after a while, you can get tired, overwhelmed and reach a point of diminishing returns. Remember that even if you don’t nail it in your first recon session, you have done a ton of valuable work. You have made yourself a better mountain biker already! I often actually need to go away from the task for a while so my brain can process all the info I’ve been bombarded with. Then when I go back the next time, I can finally put it all together. Regardless, it’s important to stay positive and maintain self-belief, even if you haven’t achieved your goal quite yet.

10. Don’t fake it.

One thing to be wary of is committing before you’re ready. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t actually have the skills required to ride the feature, don’t think you can fake it. Find a similar, less intimidating feature that requires the same skills and master that before revisiting the bigger one. Working with a professional skills coach can also be really helpful to ensure you’re learning the fundamentals correctly.

Now you have a step-by-step plan to help you work through your fears and take your riding to a new level!

Check out our mountain bike skills 101 & 201 videos to get tips from Ladies AllRide!