We were cruising down a trail somewhere in Norfolk. The guy ahead of me made it look easy so I took the same line and launched off the water bar into the air just as he did. Well, not quite like he did. A few seconds later I heard one of the guys behind me yell, “Stop! Margie just crashed bad!”
It was a spectacular tumbling routine, but it ended abruptly as I lay in a heap on the ground wondering what the heck just happened. As the other riders, including my husband, came upon the scene they all looked a bit concerned. I was relatively new to this mountain biking thing.
My name is Margie Bowen and that’s pretty much how I got started with mountain biking. Yes, I looked a little banged up after that crash with some fresh bruises and scrapes, but that was nothing new. Every time I went mountain biking I came home with another scrape or black and blue. People who weren’t mountain bikers couldn’t understand why I kept getting back on that bike. Was I a masochist?
It wasn’t that I enjoyed getting beat up every ride; the problem was that I was totally hooked on this sport and couldn’t get enough. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I crashed often because I didn’t have a clue about all the skills that were needed for my newfound sport. Of course, it didn’t help matters that I was trying to ride with a clipless pedal system (cleats on shoes which attach feet to the pedals) like I did on the road. But mostly I didn’t know how to communicate my intentions to the bike or how to move my body in a way that would keep me on the bike instead of it bucking me off when I least expected it.
What I did know was that I was having a blast out on the trails. And I really liked being around all the mountain bikers who, unlike many of the roadies I knew, were laid back and just out riding together to get some exercise and have fun in the woods.
How I Got Involved with Mountain Biking
I remember it like it was yesterday. My husband asked me if I thought I’d like mountain biking. We were “roadies” then and had just returned from a 42-mile bike ride. “Well,” I replied, “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t like mountain biking. I love riding and I love being in the woods.”
We bought a used Trek 7000 ZX hardtail to see if I’d like mountain biking. And guess what; I did. In fact, I loved that bike and felt like a kid again whenever I rode it. The frame was an eye-catching orange that sparkled in the sunlight and nearly every ride someone told me how much they liked the color.
Little did I know that a used bike that was too small for me was about to change my world. Within a few months of getting that bike I began racing in a beginner class with the Root 66 race series. I continued racing throughout New England for five years with the last three at the expert or Cat 1 level.
Is Mountain Biking Dangerous?
People often think of mountain biking as being dangerous. They hear the stories, like mine, of riders crashing and getting hurt. And they watch extreme competitions on TV promoted by Red Bull. But that’s not the type of riding most of us do here in Connecticut.
When I first started mountain biking 12 years ago I figured if I knew how to ride a bike and I had a good level of endurance that I’d do just fine in the woods. I was wrong. Mountain biking is very different than road biking. Getting banged up every ride started getting old.
The biggest reason people crash is because they don’t have the necessary skills. Just like any sport, the more you get involved with it the more you realize there is to learn. Unfortunately, often we don’t know what we don’t know even though we think we do know it. After all, we’re just riding bikes like we did as kids, right? What’s the big deal?
How to Become a Better Mountain Biker
I’ve always said I learned to mountain bike the hard way. The truth is, I wasn’t really learning anything except that brute force, and ignorance, sometimes worked to get my bike over, around or through obstacles like roots, logs and rock gardens. And although many well-meaning riders told me that I just needed to ride more or go faster to conquer those obstacles, more often than not what really happened was that when I messed up my line, timing or body positioning, my body would just hit the ground faster, and harder. So all I was doing by listening to them was increasing my risk of injury and not learning any valuable skills.
My advice to you if you’d like to become a better mountain biker? Get some professional coaching. It made all the difference for me. Just as you’d take lessons or hire a coach to learn other sports or play an instrument, with a coach you’ll drastically reduce your learning curve. And if you get coached early on you may avoid having to break some bad habits that you might otherwise develop which will hold you back. Skills clinics are much more common now than when I started riding. In fact, I didn’t even know they existed until a couple years after I started mountain biking.
Learning the fundamentals is essential because all other riding skills build upon those basics. Every mountain biker needs to fine tune their climbing, descending and slow-speed maneuvering techniques if they want to ride well. And when they’re ready for more of a challenge there are technical maneuvers to learn for getting over obstacles with ease and grace, catching some air off natural features on the trails, high-speed cornering and so much more.
How to Find People to Ride With
The mountain biking community in the Burlington, Harwinton and surrounding areas is growing thanks in part to our local NW CT chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA). Based in Burlington, we work with the DEEP foresters and other local land managers and seek approval to build sustainable multi-use trails for community use.
If you’d like to find others to ride with or want to get out for a ride but don’t know the trail systems, join us for our weekly multi-level mountain bike rides. These Wednesday night no-drop RAW (ride after work) rides begin in May. Depending on the level of the riders that show up, we split into two or three different groups and you can choose the level that’s most appropriate for your current riding ability. For more information on rides and trail activities, look us up on our NW CT NEMBA Facebook page.
Now get out there and have some fun on your bike!
Margie Bowen lives in Burlington, CT and is a licensed USA Cycling Coach with a passion for mountain biking. She’s a certified mountain bike instructor with both the Professional Mountain Bike Instructor Association (PMBI) and USA Cycling. She’s also a board member and the Event and Ride Coordinator for the NW CT NEMBA chapter. She can be reached at Margie@MTBskillsTraining.com.