How To Not Ruin Your Relationship With Mountain Biking
My girlfriend is getting into mountain biking and every day is either a breakthrough-dance-on-the-tables success, or it’s a total disaster. The problem is that there is virtually no way to simultaneously try new trails and destinations, and at the same time predict if it’s going to be just the right incremental step up in difficulty. I try to keep it reasonable in length and technical ability, while still getting some scenery and new destinations on the roster, but man oh man does it stress me out to get it wrong. Is there a step by step guide to not ruining your relationship with mountain biking?
—Between a Rock And a Muddy Place
I feel for you. I’ve been in your shoes. And I’ve been in your girlfriend’s shoes. I only started mountain biking about 8 years ago, after a few haphazard attempts in my late 20s. I was very sure I hated mountain biking. I had a boyfriend a few years back who had a ranch in southern Washington. He was putting trails on the land for mountain biking. I’d go out and help build, because I loved the guy, but I really hated mountain biking. I tried to go out with him but most rides ended with me being either mad or frustrated or both. Eventually I just stopped trying, and we still went road riding together, but it didn’t last. A couple years ago I randomly ran into ex-boyfriend during a trip to Bend and I very much enjoyed shredding past him…on my hardtail singlespeed. He couldn’t even get near me as I hammered down the trail, carving beautiful serpentine curves in the dirt. My how things change.
How I got from hating mountain biking has everything to do with meeting another guy who made it very easy to mountain bike successfully. This guy was a 24-hour solo singlespeed racer. He was a FAST guy—very strong. But when we went riding he rode with me. He met me exactly where I was, didn’t offer unsolicited advice, and let me set the pace and distance markers. He saw my perfectionistic streak and wisely made it easy for me to feel successful. For the first time ever I started to actually like mountain biking. It didn’t take many rides before I fell in love—with mountain biking—and began to seek out more difficult trails and longer rides.
Think back to when you were a beginner. Granted, it may have been 10, 20, 30 years or more. As we progress in skill and ability we sometimes lose sight of how thin the line is between fun and traumatic experience. Your idea of success and your girlfriend’s idea of it may be as vastly different as the theories of general relativity and quantum field theory. Both attempt to describe the physical universe, but they go about it in very different ways. Both theories are positively epic in their scope, but the difference lies in who is measuring the data and is it quantifiable or qualifiable or both?
To prevent your relationship from falling into a black hole no-win situation, I humbly offer the following for consideration:
1. Whiskey is your yoga.
Flasks of bourbon (or peppermint schnapps or brandy) can save your life. Seriously. Not only do these magical elixirs have instant calming anxiolytic properties, they also can be used as first aid in the event of the inevitable cuts and scrapes a rookie rider is bound to encounter. As with airline travel, it is best to put on your own oxygen mask—or in this case, take a pull of whiskey—before offering flask to others. This does two things: It offers you a spot of comfort so you can keep your cool, first, and it engages your mouth briefly, before you say something you might regret. For maximum conflict resolution, be sure flask is filled with your girlfriend’s drink of choice.A word of caution: While it may be tempting to become drunk or to get your girlfriend drunk while out riding, don’t. This is a contingency plan to be used on the battlefield of love and riding. Use strategically, not liberally.
Please be sure to upgrade your compassion settings before each and every ride. As experienced riders we can often forget how frustrating it is to not be able to successfully negotiate riding challenges with grace. Try to remember that your girlfriend sees your joy and enthusiasm and wants not only to keep up, but also to experience that euphoria you exude. Also, she’s a woman with womanly hormones. Which means, it’s complicated.You’re not responsible for her feelings or even her ride experience, but try to keep in mind that everything she does is filtered through these infernal hormones. Remember that at any moment those hormones could transform your woman from the calm, smiling, peace-loving sweetheart you fell in love with into a snarling, fire-breathing venomous hellion who will make you wither and crawl home—tail between your legs—with just a single, wordless look. That look. You know the one. Don’t coddle her, keep your expectations in check. Offer advice when it’s asked for. Better yet: Ask her if she wants any advice. Just as she is learning how to gain new skills, this is an opportunity for you to also learn new skills; learn to read her nonverbal clues as well as you read the trail.
A friend recently told me about her first mountain bike ride. She was a very strong cyclist, having ridden road bikes, and done some cyclocross racing. Her boyfriend loved Alpine trail in Oakridge. What’s not to love, right? 15+ miles of sweet, loamy, sweeping bermed mostly downhill singletrack, with just a few short climbing stretches. For someone who’s never mountain biked before 15 miles of singletrack is a long ride. It’s especially long when you start the singletrack after a 12 mile gravel road climb. Sure, my girlfriend could mash out a 27 mile ride on a road bike, but tackling singletrack after a long, hot, dusty, dry climb on an unfamiliar bike was disastrous.What’s epic to a seasoned mountain biker is not what’s epic to a beginner. It’s not that beginner-level epic is less valid, or less awesome, or even less epic than yours. It’s that your version of epic might kill your girlfriend. You measure success by different yardsticks. It sounds like you love your girlfriend and would like her to want to continue riding with you. In which case, I think this is the most important piece of advice I offer: Use her yardstick. Meet her at her level of epic. Don’t be afraid to ride the same trails repeatedly to help instill confidence. When you’re bored and needing more challenge or want to scout a new challenge, head out with your buddies and push the envelope then. Maybe encourage her to get out and ride with others on her own as well, so her enjoyment of riding isn’t tied to your relationship.
Finally, take a cue from the book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. We speak different languages. As any good diplomat can tell you, knowing at least a few very important phrases can help defuse a volatile situation. Learn some Venutian. It won’t improve your girlfriend’s riding abilities, but I swear it will help your relationship—on and off the trail.
Send me your burning questions about life, love, and the pursuit of pedal-powered pleasure. I don’t claim to have all of life’s answers, but I definitely know how squeeze the crap out of the questions and make them squeal. Send me an email or use our High Security Top-Secret Form Thingie, here.