mtb headerUnexpected life lessons from a childhood spent mountain biking

On one level, choosing a mountain bike over a road bike for your child is just the difference between curved bars and flat bars or slick tires and knobby ones. Those of us who have grown up around mountain biking know that it can mean so much more, so we spent a recent lunch break at Islabikes trying to put our finger on why.

While it was a long time ago for some of us, we can remember what that knobby tired choice meant to us right from the start.  Mountain bikes were the bikes that adults rode when they wanted to be kids again. Mountain bikes were fun. Those big grippy tires were an open invitation to play in the mud. To get dirty. Really dirty. Hose your clothes off in the garden dirty. The kind of raw pink eyes in filthy face dirty that made grandparents and people in the street shake their heads and tut, then just let a little smile leak out because deep down they knew that laughs are more important than laundry. In that moment they would realize that being able to enjoy yourself and be yourself, even if it made you a bit different was really important (as long as you cleaned up the mess afterwards).

The kind of raw pink eyes in filthy face dirty that made grandparents and people in the street shake their heads and tut.

Even that first trip into the mud camouflaged a real baptism in learning and taking responsibility. Some puddles could be zipped through with feet off the pedals. Others would suddenly grab wheels and only a panicked push on the pedals would drag us through. Sometimes the puddles would win and we sploshed into the slop of wet regret. The learning curve of our off road classroom was as steep as the hills we could climb with our new easier gears. While few of us will get a job in puddle management skills, that ability to initially judge and rapidly re-appraise is crucial to any career. It never felt like learning or education either, because it was so much fun to do.

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Even the health gains obvious to us are hidden in the fun of it all. Constant micro challenges make the whole process of pedaling, opening lungs and pumping blood to furiously determined legs is part of the fun. While it might not seem much at the time, pushing extra hard to get that line between that root and rock right can be the eureka moment that starts a lifelong love of getting out of breath in a breathtaking landscape.

Learning to handle the inevitable frustration, then find the solutions and the determination to make them stick is possibly the greatest gift you can give a child.

It also taught us to be strong in our minds while strengthening our legs. That’s because failing, then going back to have another try until you succeed, is a bedrock of mountain biking even for the world’s best riders. Whether your junior rider scrabbles up that bank at the second go or it takes them a year to roll over that rock – it doesn’t matter. Learning to handle the inevitable frustration, then find the solutions and the determination to make them stick, is possibly the greatest gift you can give a child.

While a few scuffs and scrapes are inevitable, lower speeds and softer ground make mountain biking a more forgiving teacher while they learn to appreciate that real achievements sometimes take real hard work. Everyone here at Islabikes can remember their first big crash and how it dented their confidence for a while. However we can remember the elation of conquering that section even clearer and if it’s still on our local trails we’ll probably smile each time we go past it. Because what would seem insignificant to anyone else deserves a little bronze plaque in our mountain biking history.

That’s the other implicit part of riding off road. Ultimately it’s personal to the rider. We certainly don’t mean it’s isolated, as riding off to play in the park or local woods with our friends are some of our fondest memories and have forged lifelong friendships. But even if you’re there guiding them vocally or physically down their first steep hill or rocky step, the actual decision to brake or roll is entirely theirs and that’s an incredibly liberating thing at any age.

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Learning to appreciate that the real achievements sometimes take real hard work.

As they ride further and more independently, they’ll learn like we did that a single chocolate bar doesn’t last all day. Especially if they sprint the first hill like it’s the last. That THEY need to remember to pack a jacket if it might rain, rather than expect one to drop down magically from a parental backpack like an airline oxygen mask. That if they join up that path with that track, they get to their favorite part faster. That if that path ends up going nowhere, then it was still worth trying just in case it did and even if feeling a bit lost for a second was scary, it’s all worked out in the end.

Young minds will soon work out who to emulate and learn from.

Going out into the world making and sharing stories with friends or fresh faces who’ll become lifelong buddies teaches incredibly valuable lessons in trust and judgement. Whether it’s a friend, sibling, parent or just another rider who blasts past, young minds will soon work out who to emulate and learn from, and who not to follow when a tricky section comes up. The same lessons we learn and re-calibrate every time we go on a group ride, but at that critical time when we start to build the self-confidence to make our own judgments.

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Mountain bikes offer an open invitation to an incredibly rich, natural learning environment in every sense of the word. Away from traffic, pollution, pressure to ride at a certain speed or even in a certain direction. A book of experiences that gives excited new minds a blank new page every time they open it and doesn’t need a wi-fi connection to create an adventure. A book that might one day contain adventures from all around the world and pages about their own children splashing through their first puddles.

In the same way that mountain bike rides are generally just a big, silly circle for no real reason but enjoyment, means we’re now back at the beginning again. The fact that your mini mountain biker is doing all these wonderful, valuable things with a soggy bottom, mud spraying off their shins, and maybe a bit of grit in that grin, is perhaps the most important lesson mountain biking can teach anyone. That life is sometimes a struggle and a challenge, with hard-to-reach rewards, but it should never be taken too seriously and should always be made as fun as possible.

You thought you were just deciding to buy a bike with knobbier tires than the alternative option.

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