We all have reasons why we're compelled to ride bikes. Some ride for the A-line hoots and hollers, while others ride for fitness. Many ride to connect with a community or to feel the sense of achievement that comes with riding a bigger jump or climbing a steeper hill. And the bike world is becoming increasingly open about the ways some riders use mountain biking to improve mental health. For many of us, biking is a way to motivate ourselves to do something for our wellbeing, to take ourselves out of our heads and into the moment, to develop self-respect and personal agency, and to teach ourselves the art of getting back up when we fall down. Mountain biking – just the simple thing over dirt on two wheels – has changed and even saved countless lives.
February is 'Recreational Therapeutic Health Month' in Canada and the USA, and we wanted to recognize some people and organizations that are making a difference by promoting the benefits of mountain biking in clinical, recreational, and social settings. I reached out to a few of those people to learn what they’re up to.Note: This isn't an exhaustive list. We'd love to hear about more people and organizations doing great work. Please let us know in the comments!
Katie Marlow, MTB for Mental Health
When Katie Marlow started mountain biking, she noticed how being out on two wheels improved her depression. When she started to feel how much riding helped her, she started a blog
and began writing about her progression. She wanted to share the benefits she experienced with others, she said, and hoped to make the sport more accessible to people who were just taking the first steps.
Through the process of improving her own life with riding and writing about her experiences online, Katie started organizing group rides every two weeks and runs the Facebook group MTB for Mental Health
, where she has organized a supportive community to help people improve their situations, regardless of where they start.
Ride It Out MTB From Katie on the Cycling UK website:
Before I was cycling I was very depressed. It was a dark place. When I started cycling it gave me something to focus on. As I got fitter I also started smiling more. It got me out the door and became something I did with friends.
I had something to improve on, that I could see myself getting better at and so it changed how I thought about myself. I started thinking positively, from “I can’t” to “I can”.
It’s all thanks to mountain bikes, which is probably why I stare at them lovingly in the garage sometimes. Cycling makes you lighter. You stop worrying about family or life. It's just you, your bike, pedalling and tuning into your body.
In equal parts it excites and terrifies me. When you're not hurling yourself down something steep it's relaxing, when you are, all other thoughts disappear and you just wonder am I going to die? Your body is the last thing to give up. Your mind goes first. So if you can get your mind in the right place and keep pushing you'll discover how far your body can go and it will amaze you.
A lot of life is spent inside. You’re inside your car, an office, a shopping centre. People need to be outside, and cycling is a wonderful way to experience the outdoors. Has cycling become a wallet destroying obsession? Yes. I have three bikes and fight my dad for garage space. I’ve taken on 75 mile races and travelled coast to coast. I've crashed a couple of times, but you know, I’ve never regretted a ride.
Clayton Peterson is a US veteran who struggled deeply with his mental health before he started mountain biking. "I got into mountain biking and slowly started opening up and becoming a more open person and being happier," he said. "I think it was 2015 or something, while at Snowshoe Mountain Bike Park in West Virginia, I was taking a chairlift with a friend. He asked me a question and I openly shared an incident while deployed. I’d never share that type of stuff before, and I told him that. He was like, ‘Well it must be the bikes!’ I was like, 'It’s got to be.' Riding bikes has helped me process a lot of stuff I’ve seen and done, and helped me deal with a lot of PTSD. And he’s like, ‘Yeah man, you just gotta get on your bike and ride it out.’ And that’s how I got the idea for the name of Ride It Out, my nonprofit."
He’s built a network of riders around the US who meet up and ride, and has helped get lots more veterans on bikes. For Memorial Day, Ride It Out gave 25 Marin bikes, along with helmets and gift cards for clothing, to 25 veterans who applied and were hoping to start riding. In the future, he plans to partner with a local bike shop to contribute partial payment for veterans who come into the shop looking for bikes.
Ride It Out has created a community of veteran riders nationwide.MTB Vets
Another veteran-focused organization is MTB Vets
, which was started by Bill Langham in memory of a close friend. Bill recognized that transitioning back into civilian life from the military can be brutal for many veterans, who are suddenly without the community of people who have gone through the same traumatic experiences as them. MTB Vets aims to use mountain biking as a tool to make veterans feel less alone and give them a sense of community.
After Bill retired from the military, he hit a low point as he tried to relearn how to move through everyday life. He started working at a bike shop in his search for something to keep his mind occupied, and as he started to mountain bike more through the shop, he realized that he started to feel like he had a place in the community. "I know what the bike did for me, and I call it trail therapy," he said. "Getting out on the bike, putting everything on the back burner, being free and having fun – I know how it changed my demeanor and changed my outlook."
'Trail therapy' has been essential for Bill, and he started MTB Vets to share the benefits with others.Mike Ivanov, @luciddreamzbikeco on Instagram
Even though the individual experiences are different, the same feelings are echoed again and again in the stories I’ve heard. Mike Ivanov started mountain biking after he hit rock bottom. In 2019, he was celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife and he started crying uncontrollably. He told her he was going to kill himself because it was the only way he saw out of the way he felt. His wife helped him get help, and one day his therapist suggested he go ride a bike. That was the turning point, he said. After that, his life changed. “It was the first step to me becoming better, and it was so definable that it’s not even funny. I got on this bike and all the shit went away. I can’t explain it any other way.”
As he reclaimed his life, he decided to build a bike, so he put together a Joker-themed green and purple Evil. He wanted to figure out a way to give back to the community while raising awareness about suicide, so he auctioned off the bike and donated the proceeds to Mission 22, an organization that raises awareness about suicide among veterans. Mike chose a veteran-focused organization because watching some of his veteran friends experience mental health crises alerted him to the starkly disproportionate suicide rate among veterans. Now, he has auctioned his first bike and is working on the second, with help from Banshee and a handful of other companies. He plans to continue to build and auction as many bikes as he can for a variety of causes. “It can fix any issue,” he said about mountain biking. “It doesn’t have to be an issue that I’ve dealt with. It can fix anything.”Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS)
There is research accumulating on how exercise affects mental health and how being in nature affects mental health, but few studies have sought to quantify how the unique mix of factors in mountain biking – being outside in the woods, exercising, and engaging in a sport that improves feelings of resilience, achievement, and personal agency – can affect a person’s wellbeing. A group of Scottish researchers started the ball rolling on research specific to mountain biking with a 2018 pilot program that incorporated mountain biking into treatment programs for mental health.
Now, DMBinS is diving deeper into the topic and will be hiring someone full-time to lead initiatives around mental health. Building upon the success of the 2018 program, DMBinS is now launching a set of two programs in partnership with Scotland's national health service to integrate mountain biking into mental health treatments in very real ways that could have massive effects.
More information about the Mountain Bike Trail Therapy Leader job is available here
, and detailed information about the programs is available here
Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard’s path into the mental health advocacy world started when he realized he didn’t struggle as much from his ADHD when riding a bike. In 2012, he partnered with the Harvard-affiliated RTSG Neuroscience Consultants and later with the Stanford Medical School to research how biking affects brain function. Sinyard’s research program found quantifiable cognitive, emotional, and social benefits associated with biking, and The Specialized Foundation was launched in 2015 to further that research. In 2019, the foundation separated from Specialized and became Outride, a 501c3 nonprofit specifically dedicated to supporting original scientific research, school cycling program, and riding community development.
Outride funds grants for schools to develop PE programs that incorporate biking and for communities to develop youth riding opportunities through education, youth rider development, bike cooperatives, earn-a-bike programs, and trail, bike park, and pump track projects.Bike-Adjacent Bonus: Mike Sinyard and Project New Day
After Outride grew beyond Specialized, Sinyard continued his mental health advocacy and started Project New Day
, an organization that aims to help people overcome addiction and other mental health struggles through the therapeutic use of psychedelics.