Feeling I needed more motivation and a kick of fitness I did a 20 mile mountain bike race on Saturday. It was a short version of the USA Cycling Marathon National Championships that were happening at the same time on the same course. Our race did one lap (20 miles) and the Marathon did 2 (40 miles). It was at a ski resort so it was about 11 miles up and over 3,000 ft of climbing and 9 miles and 3,000 feet of descending.
At the start was a short teaser lap which involved a steep climb and short descent with 2 switchbacks. Then the real climb started and it was hard! Straight up, first on an access road and then onto singletrack. No flats or places to rest for 11 miles. I was hurting but holding a decent pace for myself. I also had a target.
In that teaser lap I was in fourth place, the three women in front of me were strong climbers but I held on because I knew the descent was coming up. As we started the descent I could not believe what I was seeing in front of me. The woman in third place that was so strong on the climbs, both physically and technically, who at the start was discussing her love and dedication to mountain biking was a horrible descender. This was not an overly technical descent either and I could tell she thought she was a good descender because at both of the switchbacks she got off her bike but would not let me pass. So I practiced my track stand and balance in the middle of the switchback waiting for her. Those 3-4 minutes of a ‘short descent’ seemed like an eternity. When it opened up at the bottom I was able to pass.
When we got to the next climb she was off again, climbing well. I climbed that hill for an hour and never saw her. Luckily I was fast enough to keep my fourth place on the climb. I was not sure whether I would see her on the descent and while part (ok most of me wanted to pass her for third place) another part of me was bothered by this scenario.
The descent is the reward; it’s the zen, the flow, the zone, the point of mountain biking. You put in a hard effort on the climbs to reap the reward. It just didn’t seem right to put 5-10 minutes on someone in the climb only to have them pass you on the descent.
But that is what happened. I passed her on the descent and got third by a significant margin.
My point is not that I’m a great descender or to judge her but I couldn’t stop being bothered by this. I think I figured it out today. I know what it feels like to be in that flow on a downhill, where you feel every turn yet time stands still. I could see riding behind her that she did not have that. And I wanted her to have that. I could tell that all she needed were some simple tips and a healthy dose of self-confidence and she would have caught the flow, the zen…the purpose of mountain biking.
I also realized it bothered me because I do this with surfing(and other things). I’m stuck in the beginner stage, afraid to get better. Because when you get better you overcome fears. For that woman it was probably the fear of going fast and being out of control while surrounded by trees. For me, in surfing, it’s getting good enough to catch a big wave (one actually worth riding) and losing control.
But is it worth being stuck on a plateau where we tell ourselves “this is good enough.” And why is it so hard to convince ourselves we can be better? I’m reminded of the quote by Billy Jean King, “A champion is afraid of losing, everyone else is afraid of winning.” This statement seems so wrong… whose afraid to win? But the steps we take or don’t take often show how afraid we are of ‘the win.’
Anyway back to the bike. If you want to be a mountain biker don’t ignore the basic skills of a proficient descender. This does not mean you have to launch off cliffs or zoom down technical rock gardens. But, trust me, you will be much happier on your bike if you can find the skills and confidence to at least get in the zone. Because while there are many factors that determine how fast you can climb (age, sex, weight, and genetics are my top 4) you can always learn to be better downhill. -Jen