9 Life Analogies Mountain Biking Taught Me
I wait at the top of the trail and let a couple other riders drop in ahead of me.
I wait and I watch them fly over the first jump, the second, then disappear around the turn into the forest. I’m still breathing heavily from my last run as I pause to prepare for what’s ahead. Gloved hands hold the grips. I can feel sweat run from my helmet, down the back of my neck, and under my jersey.
I’m waiting at the entrance to A-Line, a downhill mountain bike trail in Whistler, British Columbia. The summer sun is relentless but I’m in the shade of the tall evergreen forest. I can hear the soft rhythm of the chairlift cable.
A-Line is a long jump trail with high-banked turns and a scary drop. For me, the trail requires preparation and I’m visualizing the first six jumps. It’s a practice of meditation.
As I prepare for the run, I’m not thinking that this thing that I love doing so much, mountain biking, has so many lessons to teach me about life. I’m not thinking that the skills I’ve practiced over the past 10 years are really metaphors for how one can live a life.
Those thoughts are too big for this moment.
Right now, I’m meditating. I’m visualizing my line—fast around each curve, then straight into the jump. I’m visualizing my technique: upright and balanced, looking as far down the trail as I can. But, mainly, I’m visualizing my speed and I’m thinking that I need to ride fearlessly.
I know that if I’m fearless. I’ll fly like a bird, over and over, landing each time with enough momentum to clear the next jump and the one after that. I also know that if I’m tentative, I’ll land short, lose momentum, and hate myself for succumbing to my fear.
I say to myself, “Speed is your friend, speed is your friend,” silently, over and over. This is my mantra as my mind meditates on nothing but the trail before me.
What I realize now, sitting at home in Seattle, is that mountain biking has been a lesson on how I can make my life a richer experience.
Here are my thoughts:
1) You’re never too old, unskilled, or out of shape to start riding.
Limiting oneself because of age, I think, is the most pervasive limiting belief that we impose on ourselves. We impose it on others as well. Age is a lie that holds us back from realizing our potential. Believing that you’re too old (or too young) for anything will only keep you from experiencing something great.
How often do you hear, “My body can’t handle that anymore,” or, “You’re too old to be doing that!” The truth is that your body can handle almost anything—as long as you work at it and as long as you’re willing to deal with a little pain.
As far as being out of shape, every new endeavor starts somewhere. There’s no way around that. So suck it up and begin.
2) Your bike will go toward wherever you’re looking.
If there’s something you want to avoid (like a rock, tree, or cliff) then look past it and your bike will follow.
If you look at an obstacle in the trail, you’re probably going to ride into it. Skilled mountain bikers learn to take notice of it, then move their eyes further down the trail. The same applies to life.
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, thinking too hard about something unpleasant will only make that thing happen. Of course, you can’t avoid dealing with the difficult things in life, but if you focus on what comes after, you’ll soon find your bike, and yourself, moving on down the trail.
3) Keep your eyes as far down the trail as you can.
The more you focus on what’s two turns ahead, the more the trail will flow beneath you—and flow is the most enjoyable kind of riding.
Take the long view in life. Spend your energy on the things you need to do to achieve your big goals.
There are so many little things we do just to get through the day: Shower, eat, bathroom, work, eat, pay bills, walk the dog, eat again, clean, exercise, wash clothes, shop, read, and the list goes on, nearly the same every day. Sure, these things need to get done, but if we spend our day contemplating only how we’re going to accomplish these tasks, then we’ll find that there’s no room to think about the big things in life.
When we think big, our minds float over these daily tasks and we can move toward something truly meaningful. This is flow. It’s the most enjoyable kind of riding and the most enjoyable kind of living.
4) When you encounter a difficult section, attack it with speed.
The more momentum you carry into a difficult section, the easier your bike will float over it. Alternatively, go slow and you probably won’t make it through.
Speed is your friend. When you see a difficult section ahead, like a slippery tangle of tree roots or a rock garden, attack it fearlessly, with speed and determination. Take your problem head on and with a resolve to power through it. You’ll learn that if you’ve got momentum and you can pull your front wheel up, then you can ride over anything.
This is different than looking past an obstacle in the trail. Sometimes there’s no way around and, like with any major difficulty in life, the only way out of it is through it.
So if you encounter in your life something difficult and painful, more than just an obstacle to ride past, don’t avoid it. Attack it instead. Attack it with all the momentum you can get. Deal with the problem. Feel the pain—and hopefully, you will grow.
5) Ride neutral and balanced.
While your bike follows the contours of the trail, your body should be balanced and calm. That is, until you intentionally unbalance your body in order to make the bike do something special.
Think of your bike as your thoughts, and your body as the one observing those thoughts. As you move through the contours of life, your thoughts and emotions will change just as the bike position changes for the dips, drops, and turns in the trail. But as your body needs to stay neutral and balanced while riding, so does your deep self.
Here’s how I explain deep self: You must use your mind in order to get through the day. As a reaction to those thoughts, you’re going to experience a variety of emotions. The key is to recognize that these thoughts and emotions are actually external stimuli and that your true consciousness is neutral, balanced, and calm. It’s a hard practice, but it gets much easier with meditation.
Once you can consciously separate your deep self from your thoughts and emotions, then you can decide which emotions to embrace and which emotions to let pass. Rather than letting your thoughts and emotions control you, you can decide, for example, to embrace a feeling of attraction and, by doing so, be more aware and conscious in that experience. If I’m trail riding, I might decide that I want to unbalance myself and pump into a dip in order to get more speed. This is what I mean by doing something special and you can do it in your life as well.
6) So much depends on the hips.
So this is where the advice gets sexual. Let me first say that in order to ride well, you need to learn how to move your center of gravity and you do this mainly by changing the position of your hips with big and subtle movements. Like a skilled horseback rider, you learn to move your hips with the flow of the trail.
Obviously, good hip control figures into other skills, sexual skills, and I’ll leave the rest to imagination.
Next time you watch someone dance, almost any kind of dancing, watch how they control their hips. Master the hips and you will master a lot of things in life.
7) The lighter you are, the better the ride.
Get rid of unnecessary shit.
If you’re looking over the crowd at the base of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park, it’s easy to separate the beginners from the pros. The beginners are the ones wearing all the protective gear. You can tell that they haven’t learned just how hot and heavy it is to wear that stuff.
The pros, on the other hand, have made the tradeoff. They’ve chosen less protective gear for more comfort and speed. These guys and girls wear only the essentials: a helmet and t-shirt, and sometimes knee and elbow pads, or a neck brace. They understand that it’s better to have more protection for crashes, but also know that all that extra stuff will also keep them from enjoying the time between crashes.
The same holds true for your life. Think about how much energy you expend buying, carrying, and maintaining all the stuff you own. And it’s not just physical things we carry around. Think about all the emotional baggage: Our worries, regrets, all the things, people, and relationships to which we cling—like a drowning man clings to a life raft. Think about the weight of those things on your consciousness, how it sucks your energy, diverts your attention, day after day.
Non-attachment is a term for loving something or someone, but also allowing it or them to remain wild or free. It means loving him or her, yet not needing or wanting control. Non-attachment is a way of living light and practicing it is a way of shedding a lot of that stuff we haul around.
Happy people are generally lighter; they’re lighter in their physical lives and lighter in their emotional lives. Wouldn’t it be a relief to own fewer things? Wouldn’t you be happier if you could just love, instead of worrying if they might not love you back?
8) You will crash. Many times. You will get hurt. A few times.
You’re going down. Every mountain biker crashes and there’s no way around it. You’re going down and it’s going to happen quickly and when you’re not expecting it.
Maybe you’ll steer into a turn and slide out over a soft patch of dirt. Maybe you’ll panic on a steep slope, brake too hard and fly over your handle bars. Just like in life, sh*t is going to happen.
It’s going to hurt. But most of the time, you’re going to pick yourself up, walk off the pain, and get back on the bike. You might even ride a bit tentatively—that is until you get back into the flow. Later, you’ll wear that bloody gash on your shin as a badge of honor.
But there will also be times, and not too many I hope, where you going to hurt yourself. You might hurt yourself terribly.
I’ve had a bad crash. I’ve crashed hard and now I’ve got a tricky shoulder, scars on my legs, and a deep scar on my heart—none of which will ever heal back to the way they were before. But it’s a part of life. All you can do is accept it.
But consider this: If we didn’t crash, the ride wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling.
9) A cold beer is the best way to end a ride.
Few moments in life seem better than when you’re drinking a cold beer on the tailgate with friends after a long ride. Mud splattered across your jersey, and your face. A trickle of dried blood down your shin.
It’s important to recognize that there’s a time to ride and a time to celebrate the ride. The only thing as thrilling as the doing of the thing is the reliving of the thing through the retelling of it. Whether it’s riding or any other adventure in life, using that adventure to connect with people can make the adventure such a richer experience—even after it’s over.
So stop. Take a deep breath. Open a cold beer and tell a good story.
That’s my life advice told through the example of mountain biking.
I advise you to take it with a grain of salt. I’ve got no special license to dish out life advice. I’m as full of shit as the next guy—and trust me, the next guy is full of shit. (Yes, even him.)
So now I’m just waiting here, preparing to drop into my run. But as I visualize the first set of jumps and turns, I’m thinking that, on this mountain, there are better riders and worse riders and that it doesn’t matter because the next six minutes are just about me. Just as in life, the next six minutes are not about facing other riders but about facing my own challenges.
And so, I wait. I wait, and breathe and meditate until I feel something inside.
I wait until I feel a deep focus and a fearlessness.
Now I’m ready. Here I go.