Should we consider a ride with some old buddies a crucial part of our mental health?

Andy Barlow from Dirt School breaks down a few different clients that he’s worked with over the years and how mountain biking ties them all together.

>>> It’s time to talk about mountain biking and mental health

Mountain biking is a great way of distracting yourself from the commitments and pressures of everyday life. It keeps you fit, it’s sociable, and it’s a great way of discovering new places or leading you on epic adventures.

Is there more to it though? Should we consider a ride with some old buddies a crucial part of our mental health? And can we use mountain biking to switch on new learners?

Turn around

A few years ago I was working in a local bike shop and we had a guy that used to come by and wash the windows every month. Through chatting with him every few weeks it turned out that he’d raced BMX back in the Eighties, and that he’d stopped riding altogether when he ruined one of his knees landing after a parachute jump in the TA. Over the years he’d stopped exercising, put on a bit of weight, and seemed keen to get back into it.

We ended up selling him a heavy-duty hardtail with chunky tyres and a good quality long-travel fork. It was incredible to see him ride. Everyone would have to wait for him on the climbs at first, but he’d blow absolutely anyone away and the descents. Over the next few months we watched him lose tons of weight, set some decent goals, and less than two years later he was racing in mountain marathon events on a light weight full-susser. Mountain biking had got him fit again, helped him deal with the death of his mother, and turned his life around.

Good to talk

Quite often if we work with a client who wants a series of one-to-one sessions, they turn up with a particular goal in mind. It might be an event in the future, a riding holiday to an exotic place, or perhaps they want to get more out of a new bike and keep up with their mates. Inevitably as the sessions progress though, you get to know them fairly well.

These are normally people who run their own businesses, have teams of people look up to them, or are in charge of a team. They understand the value in training somebody properly and that’s one of the reasons that they’re getting lessons from us. During those sessions we’ve had people open up about divorces, talk about building and selling their companies, difficulties that they’re going through with family members. It’s almost like as they get better on their bikes they’re also making progress in their lives. The mountain bike is a metaphor for how to get their head around their problems and continually move forwards. By helping them achieve their 
goals we also allow them to overcome all kinds of problems.

BASE mountain biking

For over 10 years, Dirt School has worked with Borders College in the Scottish Borders to run a genuine academic course that focuses on performance mountain biking. Students study modules in anatomy, nutrition, psychology, and strength and conditioning.

They also get to ride their bikes twice a week as part of a structured syllabus that starts with body position, and goes right through to setting goals in competition. Through Dirt School’s involvement we essentially break down riding problems into their component parts, work on their weaknesses, then get them to rebuild it stronger and with a plan or particular goal in mind. We typically attract riders and racers that wouldn’t really consider themselves academically intelligent. We get them hooked through riding, but in time switch them on intellectually and encourage them to take this same approach with their academic work at the college. As the course goes on they start to work out that they can apply this same strategy to passing their modules, running a business, travelling to New Zealand or Canada for a season, or even go to university. The real trick is that they think they’re there to learn about riding. But really they’re discovering how to become awesome human beings.

Saving lives

When I was a kid I was uncontrollable. I had so much energy that no one knew how to handle me. My mum would have to take me to the park and tire me out before we did anything social, or I’d be jumping all over the furniture. As I went through school I was always being told to sit still, stop running, wait for everyone else, or to slow down. I couldn’t understand it because it was so natural for me to want to climb higher or go faster. When I started mountain biking it all clicked. Straight away my parents could see I was in my element.

They quickly started taking me to races where I was suddenly being encouraged to go faster, push myself harder, or jump further. I’ve been hooked on that same feeling for the last 25 years, and still enjoy seeing what my now broken and battered body is capable of. It’s been a hell of a journey so far and I can’t imagine functioning as a normal human being without having the physical and mental escape of mountain biking. It’s taught me focus and discipline. It’s prepared me for running a business, allowed me to gain qualifications, and has now been my job for over 10 years. Mountain biking has saved my life in so many ways. All my best friends ride, and I honestly don’t know what I would have done without it.