Words by Ryan Leech. Illustrations by @WAKIdesigns
We choose to mountain bike. It’s an awesome elective in life and it’s a risky sport on a spectrum from low to high. But, we can choose moment to moment where on the spectrum we ride.
Risk is a complex topic, it begs for respect, attention and honesty. How you experience and deal with risk is personal, and can be a powerful teacher not only for your approach to riding but for learning about yourself as a human navigating life.
If the signals that risk attempts to communicate are ignored then there is a big price to pay. In my experience, risk wanted me to wake up, not just for clearing a section of trail, but to understand who I was in a more intimate way. For me, I felt more real as a human taking risks, the social props and attention I received supported this but this appreciation [eventually] began to go against all the signs and signals my heart and body were giving.
All quotes are from students of my online skills coaching site."The risk drives a little nervousness before every ride and the associated excitement of being immersed in a zone where nothing else exists and all my stresses in the world fade away."
SB"Risk and MTB riding go together and risk is part of living and creating a meaningful life."
RW“I've realized that some risk makes you feel alive like you've accomplished something.”
CW“Can't help myself, apparently, I feel like I must prove myself."
If you’re ready to dig into this topic with me then please proceed with caution you risk having your perspective shifted. And, like any crash, there’s no going back!
Mountain biking is rewarding, and how we experience reward is also on a spectrum that evolves with many factors, a big one is risk. The memorable reward that comes from successfully riding a risky bit of trail can have an influence on future risk choices - we downplay risk in favor of reward, often unconsciously, and this pattern eventually ends with a crash.
For mountain bikers, it is common for risk and reward to become codependent on each other. Untangling this dynamic through self-observation is essential for a long-lasting mountain biking lifestyle. However, to be clear, risk cannot be eliminated - it is an intrinsic aspect of our sport.
“I actually wish I was a little more comfortable with risk as I feel that at times my innate caution holds me back.”
DT“For me risk is an essential part of my learning process.”
DG“A little bit of risk is a big part of what draws me to mountain biking.”
We evolved from needing to take risks to gain the reward of food and security. Risk was required to be alive. Our modern society has now, thankfully, decoupled our need to take physical risks to survive.
Risk-taking still has the power to make us feel alive, though. A risk above our ability levels makes us think ‘thank God I’m still alive’, whereas a risk that matches our ability level provides a steady flow of conscious awareness. Most people in our society aren’t willing to truly expose themselves to physical risk so they rely on controlled entertainment and experiences, such as watching YouTube or going to an amusement park.
These activities have an opposite effect on mountain bikers - they insulate and soften our experiences which is why it’s so painful for mountain bikers to deal with an injury. They’re thrown into this massive entertainment culture and can’t wait to get their blood flowing again. So why is this risk-reward dynamic such a compelling force in the lives of mountain bikers?
Let’s consider the reward - engaging risk can bring about a unique and powerful high. It’s a temporary state experience that brings us out of the daily routines and stress of life, out of our heads, and into the moment.
“When I feel that it's been a long time since I've had that 'thrilled to be alive' feeling, nothing else can scratch that itch than mountain biking, and it grows stronger the more I disregard it.”
ED“The paradox is that to make myself feel fully alive I have to risk life itself.”
The rewards from riding go beyond just a high of course, such as being in nature, with friends and getting fit, but that’s another topic. It does appear, after much consideration, that the depth of the rewards that are directly related to risk taking are limited. Even pro riders who gain financial reward, praise, and status eventually realize that these rewards fall short of their promise, so we must look beyond the trail for insight.
To what life challenges or problems, new, old or ongoing, might risk unknowingly be bringing you relief? It’s not always obvious. This stuck energy needs to flow, and riding releases it but it’s a temporary fix. For example, many riders, like myself, often feel they need to prove themselves, whether to others or to themselves. Once I discovered why I thought I needed to prove myself and worked with this, my enjoyment of mountain biking went way up and the need to risk went down. I didn’t think I could love mountain biking more than I already did!
“In my head... I want to do flips and massive jumps, but I don’t want the consequence. The reward is small and failure could mean not being able to do all the other things I love in life.”
JP“The risk of the line forced focus and freed me from life's stresses. Unfortunately, it only lasted the length of the line. A time of life that I was the most unbalanced mentally was when I was the most balanced on my bike.”
The flip side of risk-for-reward is hospitalization - a reality many of us experience over and over. According to the results of a recent survey I conducted on risk, age comes in as a massive factor and this is linked to responsibility in life.
You can’t take care of your family or earn money if you’re injured. Dealing with the yearning to ride-and-risk can be tricky for older people to navigate when the deeper lessons from risk are yet to be learnt. They’ll be caught in this dynamic where the attraction to risky riding is insatiable and impossible to moderate in line with life’s responsibilities.
“Because of a series of crippling concussions, I tend to avoid risks while riding. Yet because of this, I find it detracts from the joys of riding and reaping the rewards of conquering a challenge.”
GH“Risk is what reminds me that there is much more to life than mountain biking, and it's not worth risking those greater things for a momentary thrill.”
AM “Now that I have a family and a crap load more responsibility, I take risk and analyze it a lot more to assess if its worth it.”
KH“Anytime, anywhere..if you are not on it..poof..you broke something..With two kids, and a family to tend to, its always in the back of my head.“
It is common for many ageing riders to turn to fitness-oriented riding challenges, as it is more socially acceptable and provides a similar escape and feeling of aliveness and accomplishment with less risk. But again, this is often fueled by unresolved issues in life and may end up adding to them.
”I like to aim for low-risk scenarios in my riding as I have a job and a family, but sometimes I feel as though aversion to risk holds back my riding.”
RC“Injuries can easily cost me a full year of riding or more - let alone I have a family that relies on me. I can't imagine putting my wife and kids in a bind if I got injured badly.”
It is important to understand that stress can influence your ability to accurately assess and manage risk. However, the release of stress is one of the reasons that people love mountain biking so much. This paradox creates an internal division and battle that calls to be reckoned with, forcing us to learn about ourselves which ultimately allows us to continue riding mountain bikes safely well into the future. Thus mountain biking has the potential to play a big part in the healthy evolution of our existence in this word.
I run an online MTB skills coaching website which includes a section on mental fitness with practices and discussion relating to the topic of this article. In my pro career, I performed thousands of live MTB trials and stunt demonstrations and appeared in classic riding videos such as the Kranked series and The Collective. My passion for the sport lives strong through my coaching website and community which offers hundreds of step-by-step video progressions with personalised coach feedback.
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