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Dig In: From Rock Bottom to Rock Gardens

This is the second post in our mini-series of sharing stories about how the challenge, fresh air and nature-based experience of mountain biking have tremendous power to pull women out of mental and physical tough spots. Here we also introduce you to another Dig In guest blogger. 

My name is Stacey and I live in Evergreen – a small town in the foothills above Denver. l grew up in Colorado and love the mountains more than anything. I took up mountain biking at the end of 2012, and it didn’t take long for me to fall in love. When I’m not out riding my bike on the local dirt, you can find me hanging out in the hills with my husband and my two demanding but hilarious kids. I quit a career in engineering a while back to pursue my dream of being an artist, and now I spend most of my days in the studio, doing paintings of the Rocky Mountain landscapes I love so much. You can view my art here. 

The first time I ever went mountain biking, I swore I would never do it again. 

Some friends hauled me to the top of Winter Park in Colorado with a cheap rental bike, convincing me that it would be fun. Downhill only! How hard could it be!? Half a mile down the easiest green trail on the mountain, I fell off my bike after what felt like my one-hundredth pedal strike, and (I’m embarrassed to admit) I completely lost it. My very patient husband suggested we ride the access road to the bottom instead of the trail, and thus began my ride of shame. 

I laugh remembering this now, but that ride down the smooth dirt road was just as terrifying as it was embarrassing. I rode my brakes the whole way to the bottom, shaking with fear, and promptly told my husband that I would never, EVER, go mountain biking again. 

EVER.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself pretty close to rock bottom in my life. I had two young kids, and both pregnancies had done a number on my body and my confidence. I was slowly getting back into shape while training for a half marathon, but just when I was starting to feel good about myself again, I ended up with a knee injury that I couldn’t shake. In the midst of all this, my sister passed away unexpectedly, at the way-too-young age of 43. Not only was I grieving a huge loss, but I was sidelined from the one thing that made me feel better – running. I had spent years using physical activity as therapy, and I didn’t know how to process things without it. 

I spent a winter wallowing in sadness, watching my muscles turn to mush, and feeling frustrated that a string of doctors and physical therapists couldn’t seem to get me running again. Finally, I saw a PT who suggested that I shouldn’t bother with running, joking that mountain biking on the local trails would be better for my joints, anyhow. I drove home seething with anger; I was paying this guy to fix my knee so I could run! 

But, after nine months struggling with grief, injury, and a huge loss of confidence, I admitted it was time to try something different. When we moved into a house within riding distance of singletrack, I dusted off my cheap mountain bike and decided to give it a go.

The first time I hit the trails, I remember being scared just riding on the dirt road. Once I hit the singletrack, I spent more time pushing my bike than I spent pedaling. But it was quiet and beautiful out there, and when I arrived home covered in sweat and dirt, I felt content for the first time in months. 

Within a few weeks, I had bought a full suspension bike on Craigslist to replace my department-store clunker, and I started to hit the trails a few times a week. Within a couple of months, I was hooked. Mountain biking was still hard, and it was still scary, but there was something about conquering those fears that seemed to be exactly what I needed to pull me out of a rough time. Suddenly, I had an outlet. At the end of a rough day, I could hit the trails for some solitude, put in a bit of hard work, and come home feeling tired and accomplished. 

I processed a lot of grief as I sweated my way up steep mountain climbs and by the end of that year, I started to feel hopeful again. It sounds a bit dramatic, but I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t taken up mountain biking – it healed me when I needed it most.

Since then, I’ve become a bit obsessed. Most days, I pick my kids up from school sweat-soaked and covered in dirt. I haul my bike along with me on most vacations. I’ve been bitten by the cross-country racing bug. And I recently discovered that fatbiking in the snow is the best way to survive winter. I’m not the fastest or most skilled rider out there, but what I lack in skills I make up for with extra enthusiasm. 

Life still has its ups and downs and stressful moments, but being out on the bike keeps me grounded and gives me the strength to tackle what’s ahead. Mountain biking is like nothing else I’ve ever tried, and here are some of the reasons why:

1.It builds confidence like nothing else.

There’s nothing like tackling something that scares you to give you a mental boost. Riding technical singletrack is a constant challenge, but facing my fears head-on has taught me that with a little bit of perseverance and proper technique, I can do things that I never thought I could do.  On my local trails, there are technical sections that I’m still trying to master and every time I clear a new obstacle, I’m over the moon. Rather than being frustrated by my shortcomings, I’ve learned to embrace the process of getting better on my bike. I know there will always be something new to learn, and welcoming that challenge has given me the confidence to take on challenges in the rest of my life. 

2.It helped me learn to love my thunder thighs.

I’ve never been all that athletic (let’s just say that coordination is not one of my strengths), so learning to love my body for the things it can do has been a long process. When I was sixteen, I thought that all I wanted was skinny thighs. I spent years running in an attempt to shape my body into something I could accept. But when I took up mountain biking, my perspective completely changed. Suddenly, those thighs that I had cursed my entire life were useful for climbing the mountains around my house. And more importantly, I just wanted to be strong so I could ride to awesome places. I wasn’t working out to lose weight or look a certain way – I just wanted to have the strength to do what I love. That mindset has helped me to finally just accept myself for what I am, muscular thighs and all.

3.I found a great community.

One of the things I love most about mountain biking are the people I meet. I joined a women’s mountain biking group a while back, and have met some really smart, interesting women who are out there having fun supporting each other on the trails. And the people I meet along the trail, for the most part, are just as cool. A few of my best rides this summer were ones I did with random strangers who I ran into along the trail going the same speed as me. 

The public image of mountain biking seems to be a bunch of hardcore guys doing crazy stunts, but in real life, I’ve found a community of laid back people who are just out there in the mountains, getting away from it all and happy to do what they love. Some of my friends love to ride rock gardens. Some of them walk that stuff and love flow trails. Often, the people who climb fast bring up the rear on the descent. We all have different strengths, and riding together is a great way to challenge one another while having a blast.

4.It takes me to amazing places.

I’ve taken my bike to some remarkable places; I’ve climbed to the top of my local mountain and watched beautiful sunsets; I’ve ridden quietly through the hills while snow blanketed the world. Having come from a road biking background, I immediately fell in love with the beautiful places my mountain bike could take me, away from the traffic and noise and crowds. I’m an artist, so finding beautiful places is part of my job description and my mountain bike helps me find those places everywhere I go. I’ve gotten in the habit of hauling it along when I travel, because following the contours of a new trail often seems like the best way to figure out the feel of an unfamiliar place. I like to think that the more people we have out there enjoying the trails, the more people we have to advocate for saving our natural spaces.

5.It keeps me sane.

I’ve got two kids and my own business and, let’s face it, life gets hectic sometimes. Getting outside and breaking a sweat is the thing that keeps me grounded in the midst of it all. There is rarely a bad mood that won’t improve with a good dose of fresh air and the act of pedaling out some frustrations. Getting out there on a regular basis makes me a happier and more energetic mom, and I’m convinced that it quiets me down enough to have a positive influence on the art I make. 

This past summer, I toed the starting line for the Winter Park Hill Climb. The gun went off and I raced my mountain bike up the exact same road that I had ridden down in fear just a few years before. After 2,000 feet of climbing, the fast ride down was the fun part, and I grinned ear to ear as I realized I had officially come full circle from my first ride.

I suspect that my first mountain biking experience echoes that of a lot of women who are first introduced to the sport and find themselves uncomfortable and underprepared. Mountain biking has a public image that can be hardcore and intimidating, and a bad first experience can be enough for a lot of women to swear it off forever. I’m thankful for that irritating physical therapist who nagged me enough that I gave it a second try, and I hope that if we get enough women out there on the trails having fun, other women will decide to try a great sport.

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