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Zen and the Art of Mountain Bike Progression

By: Heather C. Burton

In April of 2023, I bought a $400 Schwinn hardtail mountain bike, which was more than I thought I would ever spend on a piece of sports equipment, but at the time, I just wanted to toddle around the Cherry Creek Trail with my partner. One day we tried a new direction and stumbled upon the Greenwood Village bike park. This park isn’t very well-known in the Mountain bike community, from what I can tell, but it’s a sizable area of various features, most of which I recognize now as more geared towards new riders. What caught my eye, though, were the dirt jumps. It had never dawned on me that riding a bike could be like riding a roller coaster or a water slide. I took my Schwinn with my upgraded big, cushioned seat for a slow ride around the track and was instantly smitten with slopestyle riding. From that day on, I visited the bike park as often as possible. The second my workday was over, I hopped on my bike and raced to the park with excitement I hadn’t felt in over a decade. I spent hours exploring all the features of the park from short but fairly steep, quite technical, rocky trails that looked impossible to ride unless you were an expert, to flat terrain most notable for the families of prairie dogs who call the park their home. Despite my enthusiasm and determination, I approached riding like I have most things in life, with my constant companion - Control. If life had taught me anything, it was that when you don’t have a safety net, you play it safe, proceed slowly with your hands on the

brakes. Fear of losing control was apparent in most areas of my life, including my career as a psychologist. When I’d hear a colleague say that they left the predictable security of working for another person or business, to go into private practice, I felt a pang of vicarious anxiety. Self- employment and starting a business on my own sounded way too risky. What if something happened that threw me off the rails and I couldn’t recover? So, for the better part of 10 years, I

stayed with my group practice, on the green trails, looking longingly at the blue and black trails, but holding back.

Then one day, out on the trails, after several falls onto pointy rocks and branches, I thought back to a tip I heard from a YouTube mountain biker. He said to let the bike buckle and bounce because that is what it’s meant to do. Trust the bike, trust yourself. By then I had upgraded to a full-suspension bike, which in and of itself was a significant deviation from the kind of money I typically spend on myself. I realized that almost every time I fell it was caused by going too slow and braking too much. My tight grasp on control sent me OTB and out of control. So, I gave this new philosophy a try by repeating the mantra “trust the bike, trust yourself.” The next time I came to a technical downhill section, I let go of the brakes. Lo and behold, I made it to the bottom without bruises and incurring more cuts on my hips and legs (I have always worn plenty of knee and elbow padding, but elbow pads don’t like to stay in place when you’re sliding down dirt and rocks). I was suddenly able to ride black lines I initially thought were way out of my wheelhouse. It really was exhilarating to triumph over fears that kept knocking me down and keeping me stuck. I also learned from my instructor that if you focus on the obstacles in front of you, you will inevitably run smack into them. This is an unnatural skill to learn because what do we do when we encounter an obstacle? We keep our eyes on it. If I keep watching that big root, it can’t jump out in front of me! If I look at the ground when I ride this skinny, I won’t fall off! In reality, however, when we focus on the potential dangers, we wind up heading right for them. Mountain biking, to me, is a psychological challenge. If I approach this jump/drop with confidence and trust that I’ll land safely, I usually do just that. It’s when I hesitate that things go awry. And just like that, mountain biking taught me a new philosophy, one built on trusting myself, loosening my grip on control, and approaching intimidating things with confidence. I don’t mean confidence that I will always succeed, but that I’ll be there to support myself no matter what happens. This month (e.g. March 2024) I quit working for other people and started my own practice. I don’t think I would have made it here without this sport teaching me a new way to be in the world. It’s been a crash course, and I can’t wait to see where else mountain biking will send me.

Photos of trails the author likes to visit:

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