Words: Alicia LeggettThis summer was a hectic one for the mountain bike world, with more riders on the trails than ever. While no one loves crowded parking at the local trailhead, I wanted to know: Who are these new riders and what was it like to start mountain biking in 2020?
I set out to talk to the people who started riding last year (or returned after a long hiatus) with some questions about how their inaugural mountain bike season went. I asked why they started riding and what they hope for in the future, and I learned something from each person I spoke with, even if I couldn't fit every conversation into the article. It's refreshing to hear new voices recognize the simple joy of spending time outside on two wheels.
I need to see mountain biking through fresh eyes once in a while. Hearing these riders' gratitude for the sport was contagious and was a reminder not to take any biking opportunities for granted.
I learned that many people started riding because their go-to sports became unfeasible, with gyms, climbing walls and skate parks shutting down. I learned that others started riding because they finally had the time. Some, like me, value mountain biking as a way to relieve stress and take perpetual satisfaction out of learning new skills. Many of the riders I talked to were surprised by the warmth of the riding community, and by how many ways there are to find connection with people in the bike world. What resonated most was the way these new riders' thoughts echoed my own feelings about the community, the rewards that come from trying and failing and trying again, and the difference a mountain bike can make during a tough year.
Why did you decide to start mountain biking?
My husband has been an avid mountain biker for years. He rides most weekends and I usually stay at home with the kids. When all of the lockdowns started happening in the spring of 2020 my husband decided to buy our three older kids bikes so that they could still be outdoors and exercise, even though their organized sports were canceled. I have a major sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) and asked my husband if he could get me a bike too! They know him at our local bike shop and laughed when he called them up asking for four Specialized Rockhoppers of varying sizes and colors.- Elise, California, USA
I decided to get back into mountain biking because I got laid off from my job in March due to COVID. So naturally, living in Sedona I took advantage of my new found time and explored every single trail here on my old hardtail, and eventually upgrading to a full suspension in May. Then I created a YouTube channel
to inform more people of our lesser known trails and have been getting a great response from riders looking for vacations in Sedona.- Drew, Arizona, USA
A week before the first UK lockdown, I came home from university to visit for the weekend. At the time, I was very unhappy and really struggled with my mental and physical health due to having a disease called Fibromyalgia that causes wide-spread chronic pain, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, depression and anxiety. That weekend, I reluctantly let my friend convince me to go mountain biking with her and a few of her biking friends. I was terrified. I hadn’t been on a bike for years and avoided any activity that would increase my symptoms and the thought of others seeing me in pain frightened me. I am so thankful she convinced me to go that day. For those few hours, I forgot about the Fibro. I remembered how happy I felt being outside, away from the city and in the sun.- Jodie, Fort William, Scotland
I started riding right when COVID hit because a nurse who works at the same hospital as me is an expert at mountain biking so she showed me the ropes and my boyfriend joined too! It just seemed like an outlet to get out of my head and finding a way not just to relax but to help my physical health.- Kathryn, California, USA
When the pandemic started, we had a very severe shutdown, and I really wanted to be in the middle of nowhere in nature. Basically, it was impossible to get away from people because there were so many people everywhere. Within 5 miles of every trailhead, it was like Highway 101. I was like, 'If I get a mountain bike, I can get away from all these people.'- Marina, California, USA
I've wanted to since I was a kid because it always looked so insanely fun to race around in the forest. But not being sports inclined, plus sized, and low income, I never had the opportunity and was scared to pursue it. It took me a lot of work to get myself confident enough to even try it. I also wanted a sport I could do on my own. I often end up quitting things due to severe social anxiety, so I wanted to find a sport that that wouldn't necessarily be a factor in.- Cas, Alberta, Canada
What has the most rewarding part of mountain biking so far?
I'm a perfectionist, so being able to get good and constantly learn to be better for me is what I look for, from nailing a jump to running over a trail or a section until I get it right. A massive part has also been the change in mental health for me. Getting out in the fresh air and having fun has been huge.
- Mark, Edinburgh, Scotland
The most rewarding part of riding has definitely been the way it makes me feel. As an almost 40-year-old mom, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to feel like a badass, but on the trail, I really have my moments. I have also struggled with anxiety and ADHD, and riding has been unexpected treatment for both of those conditions. I really challenge my ability to focus while I’m riding, and I think I’ve definitely gotten stronger because of that. It’s been almost like exposure therapy for my anxiety - before every ride I worry about what will happen, but then I get out on the trail, and those things just melt away. I’ve learned that trails love to defy you - things I think will be a problem end up being fine, and I end up crashing in spots I never would have expected it. I have no choice but to just breathe and go, and the best solution is almost always to just ride it out.
- Gail, Vermont, USA
It’s just been a huge stress reliever kind of in the current climate to get out and about. In the beginning of the pandemic, lots of skate parks were closed but trails were still open, so it was a way to get outside, learn something new, challenge my body… it’s been a huge challenge for me. That’s been rewarding – learning something new, particularly being a little more mature – I’m 47 now – and finding the community… everyone’s super stoked and super supportive. It’s been great for me to go out and be more gregarious.
- Christina, Colorado, USA
The most rewarding part of mountain biking for me is the community. The riders I have met through the university’s adventure school in town are some of the kindest, most genuine and selfless people I have come across. They didn’t care that I had only been biking for a few months or that some days I was sore and slow, all they cared about was that I was out there on two wheels and happy. Meeting the people I have through biking has been so beneficial for my mental and physical health. I found myself being more open about having Fibromyalgia and less afraid of showing people when I was struggling and allowing them to help. The people I have met have become some of my closest friends and have been there for me through being diagnosed and the tough times that have come from the pandemic.- Jodie, Fort William, Scotland
Being able to make so much progress in a year. If it hadn’t been for COVID, I would have had much less time to ride. With more time, I was able to work on foundational skills and get out riding pretty frequently. It has been fun going back to trails I struggled on early in the season to see how far I’ve come.
- Casey, Minnesota, USA
Hearing my brain tell me "you're going to fail at this" and proving it wrong. It's been the biggest tool to help me overcome my depression this past year. I've never had as much confidence as I've had this year, and that's mainly thanks to mountain biking. There were so many days this past season where I'd wake up and not want to get out of bed, but I made it a goal to ride the skills park once a day, five times a week. And having something I could rely on to kick my butt and change my mindset was a literal lifesaver. And eventually, it got easier. I started seeing the good in life because I could see the good in myself. I could see the progress I was making. I wasn't a failure like my depression told me. I'm now in the process of setting up my own business and going to school for a career I never anticipated, but that makes me insanely happy. I couldn't have done that when I was the depressed lump I was prior to getting into mountain biking. Mountain biking taught me discipline, perseverance, and getting back up when you fall. Having a life again has been the most rewarding thing to come from this.
- Cas, Alberta, Canada
What bike do you ride?
My old bike is a 1998 Cannondale f400. That should explain why I wanted a new bike. My new bike is a Commencal Meta HT. I wanted new geometry and new tech like a dropper post, 1x gearing, hydraulic disc brakes, etc.- Jonah, Arizona, USA
I’m currently riding a NS Snabb E2, LOVE IT! It was second hand to me and I have put a couple of my touches onto it now, but for the most part it’s stock.- Mark, Edinburgh, Scotland
2019 Trek Roscoe 7 in teal. I got it from The Bike Shop South in Calgary. It's been wicked to ride on, and the dropper seat has saved my butt so many times.- Cas, Alberta, Canada
Gail's new ride, which will help her accomplish her goal of learning to ride sendy trails.
I just bought a fatbike, actually. But my actual mountain bike is a 10-year-old Giant Trance 26er. It’s too small for me, so I’m working on getting another bike, but I’m just focusing on learning to ride because biking is expensive.
- Christina, Colorado, USA
I ride a Trek Roscoe 7 that I bought from Evans Cycles. It’s great but I wish I had something more rowdy sometimes.
- Ewan, Edinburgh, Scotland
One of the local students I knew worked in the bike shop. He helped me find the perfect bike and by May I owned my 2017 Production Privee OKA. I remember when I got it in the post, I put it together and nervously took it to the bike shop. I was so stoked that day I went straight over the bars from all the adrenaline. I still have the scars to this day!- Jodie, Fort William, Scotland
What surprised you about the bike world?
The bike world has surprised me in just how open and inviting it is. I’ve met some truly awesome people, and the vast majority of people are just out there to get stoked and share that with others. There’s very little hostility. Maybe this is because I ride with women almost exclusively, or maybe it’s a Vermont thing.- Gail, Vermont, USA
I think that the biggest thing that has surprised me is how technical and challenging trials can be, it’s so fun to try to challenge myself and try to clean different features and technical uphills as well as down.- Kathryn, Florida, USA
I’ve been into bikes for a while, but I guess I was surprised about a few things switching to off-road. The scene seems a bit more chilled out, and I was surprised about how you can have an intense day out without ever feeling like you’re out “training.” Also - how many different mechanical standards there are compared to road bikes!- Ewan, Edinburgh, Scotland
How inaccessible this sport is to plus sized people in terms of gear. I can't find a plus sized chamois that's well reviewed, durable, and not insanely expensive... And in stock! Honestly, this is a great sport for plus sized people to get into in my opinion, and the market and sport itself is missing out not encouraging more of us to get involved. Also, how welcoming the community can be. I've had my fair share of negative experiences, but a guy on Reddit actually gifted me my first 2 pairs of gloves and it was really touching. I can't wait to pay it forward in the future.- Cas, Alberta, Canada
How much effort it takes to maintain a bike! I didn’t realize how often you need to wash off and clean up the bike!- Casey, Minnesota, USA
What do you look forward to most with biking in the future?
Looking into the future and past COVID, I would love to combine my new love for bikes with my love for travelling and head further afield than Fort William and even Scotland. I really want to ride Coed y Brenin in Wales, Morzine in France and one day Rotorua in New Zealand. I would love to expand my knowledge of mechanics and properly wrap my head around how to fix my own bike. I am lucky enough to have made really good friends with a lovely bunch of mechanics who answer all my questions and pick up the pieces after my fixing fails but I would love to progress on that side of things as well as my actual riding. Riding natural trails is a big part of biking in the Highlands and something I would love to nail in the future.- Jodie, Fort William, Scotland
I also can't wait to shred with my little niece and nephews. They're all around ten and hyped to come from Saskatchewan to ride trails with me.- Cas, Alberta, Canada
In the future I’d love to get into more downhill stuff and get more comfortable in the air. I’d also love to coach kids mountain biking when my son gets old enough - I hope it’s a hobby I can share with him. I see myself going on mountain biking vacations, riding with my family, and I also have some plans to start an apparel brand based on women who mountain bike and other trail activities.- Gail, Vermont, USA
Right now I have a broken clavicle, which really sucks, so I’m hoping to get back on a bike. I broke my clavicle riding a bike, and that was disappointing, and I’m under a lift restriction until March. So I’m looking forward to just riding again.- Julie, Michigan, USA
What do you think the industry and communities can do to retain new riders?
I think the best thing to retain new riders is to continue to make trail systems really accessible and inclusive. Here in Vermont, we have amazing options and I’m so grateful for that.- Gail, Vermont, USA
I think maybe running more group rides (when allowed) so people can meet other people that are into the sport. It can be quite a lonely place if you're the only one from your friendship group that’s into it. Just bringing new and experienced riders together, really.
- Mark, Edinburgh, Scotland
It’s a similar thought that I have about the skateboard industry. You get written off if you’re over 35. You should be married with four children. People have a tendency to put their lives into these little boxes – you know, at this age I should be doing this. It would be great if the industry would focus on people that were a bit more mature. Now, more than ever, people are getting outside later in life. We’re living longer, we’re fitter than ever, and it would be great some marketing campaign could be a bit more inclusive.
- Christina, Colorado, USA
I’m five feet tall and this [Transition Scout] fits me, so Transition is obviously female-friendly enough to make a badass trail bike that fits a five-foot-tall woman. It’s more on my radar that the industry is not very friendly to very small people, as a five-foot-tall woman, as opposed to new riders. I guess if I were to think about your question of how the industry can retain new riders, I guess the challenge would be with them getting involved with developing new riders. I know that mountain biking gets exponentially more fun as you get more skills, and the skills are learned. It seems like if [the industry] found a way to invest in more rider development, I imagine people would stick to it more. Same thing with participating in trail development, because obviously there’s an insane increase in riders. If I were to talk to the mountain biking industry, I would ask them to accommodate small people more and also I think it would be in their best interest to encourage rider development and trail development.
- Marina, California, USA
Make plus sized gear accessible. Better variety, pricing, etc. I wish big brands like Fox and RaceFace carried women's sizes into 18-20+. Bike mechanic workshops. There's basically none offered in my city now (as far as I can tell). The Bike Shop used to offer them but stopped. I also wish there were more casual groups to ride with. Lots of intermediate groups, lots of beginner lessons. But not a lot of newbie groups out riding together.-Cas, Alberta, Canada
One thing that was critical to me sticking around was a community with welcoming leaders, accessible rides, and a strong female presence. I remember one group ride where I was concerned about holding people up, and one of the leaders really emphasized that everyone is welcome, whatever their skill level, and that I should stop apologizing. We also have one female group leader who gave me some early pointers and checked in on me during the first few rides. That really helped me feel like I could do this sport.- Casey, Minnesota, USA
I think developing more youth programs and spreading awareness about how easy it is to get out. I see a lot of kids roaming around car parks and streets in Edinburgh on full suspension bikes. Wouldn't it be great if someone pointed them in the direction of a trail, under the supervision of an experienced rider? Also - more signage and public transport capability for bikes. Scotrail and similar companies are not doing enough to promote younger folk who may not have cars getting out and amongst it. - Ewan, Edinburgh, Scotland