With so many new and returning faces on the trails, we decided to stop a few of them and ask, why mountain biking?
Mountain biking is booming as never before as more of us discover the joy of hitting the trails; we catch up with six new riders for whom there’s no going back…
You’ve probably noticed that over the last year mountain biking has seen a huge surge in popularity. There are more people out on the trails, bike shops are seeing unprecedented demand for all types of bikes and components while mechanics are flat-out breathing life into bikes that have seen better days.
Lockdown has unarguably been the main driver for this boom, but there are plenty of other reasons that have led to people discovering or rediscovering mountain biking. With so many new and returning faces on the trails, we decided to stop a few of them and ask, why mountain biking?
To say Mark is a keen cyclist would be an understatement. He averages 150 miles a week on his road bike, races when he can and once rode a tandem from Edinburgh to London in record-breaking time – 17 hours and 52 minutes. Despite being a roadie, Mark does have a mountain biking background.
Back in the early 1990s when living in Yorkshire, he dabbled in a bit of racing, but a move down to London for work meant mountain biking was put on pause.
“Following a move back to Yorkshire I bought my first road bike in 2012 and got well into that. I effectively stopped mountain biking altogether and my Kona Explosif sat in the garage.”
Then the pandemic came along and Mark started heading out with a group on weekly mountain bike rides and loved it. His now vintage Explosif was the butt of a few jokes, but with his road form he could generally hang on to the group, at least uphill. The problem was on technical and downhill sections where the Kona’s 26-inch wheels and XC-orientated geometry didn’t help fill in the gaps in his skills. Mark decided to invest in something a bit more modern.
Mark’s local bike shop managed to track down a Trek Fuel EX that they reckoned would be a good fit with what he wanted. With its 29in wheels and 140mm of suspension, dropper post, better fit and contemporary geometry, it’s quite a different bike to his old Explosif. “I couldn’t believe how good it felt when compared to the faithful Kona,” says Mark. It’s sometimes easy to take for granted how far bike technology has come on in the last 10 years, never mind 20.
Mark’s not going to be giving up on his road bike quite yet, but he does feel that mountain biking is more democratic, with the ability to have a really good, sociable ride with riders of all abilities. “On the road, we tend to stick to groups geared to pace, the general objective being to beat one another up.” Not that Mark objects to a bit of off-road Fight Club action…
At the moment we’re all looking to travel a little further afield. No stranger to cycling, Corinne has a road bike and a gravel bike, but after getting bored riding the same old roads and finding the gravel bike a bit limiting off- road, she decided to try mountain biking.
“Being stuck at home, I was desperate to see something new, something different from my usual walks and road rides. Mountain biking has opened up a whole new world of trails on my doorstep, some of which I can see from my house, yet I’d never set foot – or wheel – on before.”
When she found it was the mountain bike that was seeing the most use, her old mountain bike was replaced with a Wilier. This wasn’t necessarily the bike she wanted, but with a general shortage in smaller-sized bikes, it was what was available, so she grabbed it. Despite being petite, Corinne has found she prefers 29in wheels; they roll better and give more grip. The struggle is finding a 29er that is small enough.
As well as enjoying exploring, Corinne has found the technical side of riding off- road to be just as rewarding. Every ride has its own learning curve and there’s a real satisfaction to be had from working away at a technical section to eventually ride it cleanly – scratching an itch that road riding can’t reach.
Being a member of local mountain bike groups on Facebook has allowed her to learn a little bit more about the riding in the area. Women can sometimes struggle to engage in groups like this – which are often dominated by male voices – especially so if they are beginners. With more women now riding, hopefully conversations around mountain biking will become less male-centric.
Before lockdown, Corinne would ride in a small group. At the moment social rides are limited to those with her other half, also a keen cyclist, but Corinne reckons that while he might be fitter, she’s got the skills to keep him in check. A bit of spousal rivalry keeps everyone on their toes…
Julian and Martha Howard
Julian and Martha are e-bike converts. After an illness limited her exercise options, Martha decided to give mountain biking a go, but found she was struggling to keep up with her husband Julian on rides around the hills of West Yorkshire. A trip to Gisburn Forest trail centre failed to improve things and put her nascent riding career in jeopardy.
Rather than call it quits, Martha bought a basic e-bike which helped to level the playing field, but the hub-powered motor struggled on some of the steeper climbs, so the bike was sold on and replaced with a Giant Fathom E+. With its Yamaha motor, it has no problem giving Martha the assistance she’s looking for. Despite the plan being for Martha to have the e-bike and for Julian to keep things unassisted, he soon decided he quite fancied an e-bike too and bought a Cube Reaction through the Bike to Work scheme. Now the two enjoy getting out together on a level playing field. E-bikes have been an equaliser and an enabler, and Martha is open about the fact that the ability to get out into the countryside has been a boost to her mental health.
Martha also uses her e-bike to commute on, saving her almost £600 a year in parking fees alone. Working on her feet all day, she wasn’t keen on having to ride home in the evening, but with the e-bike it’s easier, cheaper and quicker than driving.
Julian rides with friends, who have all recently bought e-bikes too – as he’s found with Martha, if one person in a group gets an e-bike, it’s not long before everyone else does too. He’s enjoying his e-bike so much his regular full-suspension bike rarely comes out these days.
They’re both looking forward to getting back up to Gisburn when they next can and, hopefully, having a much happier experience than last time.
Trying new things can be intimidating, and mountain biking is no different. The fear of injury and feeling self-conscious about getting it wrong, can both act as barriers to the sport, but after borrowing a friend’s bike, Louise decided mountain biking was for her.
With a road and gravel bike already in the shed, Louise is used to being on two wheels. However, with an increase in careless driving making the roads less appealing, and the gravel bike being heavy on-road and limiting off-road, a mountain bike made a lot of sense – especially given her background in fell running.
The temptation when starting out on a mountain bike is to buy a cheap hardtail – after all they are generally sold as beginner bikes. Rather than do this, Louise decided to buy a full-suspension bike, in this case a 140mm-travel Calibre Triple B. Her reasoning being that buying a bike that is more capable and comfortable will mean she’s more likely to ride it and stick with it. With the Triple B costing a similar amount as some entry-level hardtails, but with sorted geometry and suspension, her choice makes perfect sense.
In an unexpected turn of events, Louise has found herself sharing the bike with her teenage daughter, who has taken to borrowing it to ride either on her own or with her Dad. Having a bike that can be used by several family members obviously makes the bike even better value for money, although it could lead to arguments if the whole family decided they want to go riding…
Feeling self-conscious about riding off-road for the first time is totally understandable, but Louise is encouraging of others who think they might be too old or too nervous. She’s found asking for advice from other riders is a great way of progressing and most riders are only too happy to help. She draws the line at asking her husband – who also rides – for pointers, though.
From being towed around in a trailer on cycle touring holidays as a baby and stoking a tandem as a kid, through to getting her own bike and going out on family rides, mountain biking has been a recurring, but not constant, theme in Martha’s life. Having parents who both love riding meant there was no way she was going to avoid it.
Despite growing up with bikes and always having one available, she fell out of love with riding in her teens. Partly because other more ‘normal’ teenage activities were prioritised, but also because mountain biking came to feel like it was something she did purely with her parents or as a way of managing weight.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with depression over the years, and as I’ve got older and learned more about managing my mental health day-to-day, I’ve found the outdoors is an aspect I’ve been overlooking.”
A new found love of camping and walking has emerged, but riding, especially during lockdown, has brought a sense of freedom that she feels in control of. This has helped re-frame her relationship with all things cycling. Riding for its own sake with access to beautiful places and escaping the everyday, helps instil calmness and time to reflect, says Martha. A self-determined level of challenge on each ride also gives a sense of accomplishment.
Mountain biking is now purely about having fun and appreciating the here and now. “Now I see riding as part of maintaining my overall health – being physically active and mentally balanced with a bit of mindfulness thrown in too.”
Since returning to mountain biking, Martha’s noticed that more women are riding and some of her girlfriends are starting to come out with her on rides, giving them a new way to socialise. Catching up on a ride has replaced going out for a drink.
Will is an active member of Andy’s Man Club (AMC), a peer-to-peer support group for men. Its aim is to create a space for men to get together and talk about issues in their lives, confidentially and free from judgement.
Some of the members of the group identified one of the problems Will was having was staring at the same four walls day-in, day-out and spending too much time wrapped up in his own thoughts. They suggested he joined them on a mountain bike ride to get him out of the house and into the company of friends.
It’s safe to say this was a good idea. It wasn’t long before Will had bought an On-One Inbred from one of the group and had fully embraced riding. The mountain biking bug had bitten hard, and within a couple of months the Inbred was replaced with his current bike, a Dartmoor Hornet.
For many riders, the mental health benefits of mountain biking are just as important as any physical benefits. Being on the move outside mixes exercise, endorphins and head space and Will can’t get enough of it. He now tries to get out two or three times a week, even if it’s just for a short ride. “It’s a release from whatever you’ve got going on. It’s an escape.”
Mountain biking has also allowed him to keep in touch with AMC members while group meetings have gone online. Like talking with AMC members, Will says he always feels better for having been out on his bike, “It’s the best thing I could have done.”
During the past year, AMC has seen the number of men joining its sessions increase, but there’s always room for one more. With groups up and down the country, if you’re having a hard time or just need someone to talk to then find your nearest group at andysmanclub.co.uk