There are likely three types of people in the world, those who could care less about competition, those who for competition is mostly about the opportunity for socialization, and those who are driven and fueled by competition.
For most of my adult life, I considered myself the latter.
I first rode a bike 100 miles because my younger brother had done it first. I hiked to the top of Pike’s Peak as a high schooler despite being feverish and sick to my stomach because I didn’t want anyone to be able to say I couldn’t. I started racing mountain bikes because I got a taste of winning–and it felt good!
In short, my relationship with the trails was primarily defined by competition.
Sure, I absolutely loved hiking and mountain biking and even occasionally trail running, but the impetus to do these things was as much about being fit and fast as it was the simple enjoyment of being outside. The more I trained and raced, the faster I got, and the faster I wanted to be. Soon, rides became defined by the number of PRs and QOMs on Strava, and I would return home disappointed to find that I hadn’t gotten any PRs on a given day (never mind the impracticality of setting PRs on every ride).
Speed (and the validation of that through racing and Strava segments) was like a drug.
I was addicted.
Then one day, friends joked that, “Abi doesn’t see the trails, she rides too fast.” At first it was funny, a sort of underhanded compliment. And then I started to really think about it.
How much of the trails do I really see? What was I missing because my eyes were glued to the ground in front of me, willing myself to go faster?
Right around that same time, I moved from the midwest to Appalachia, replanting myself in the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for the sole purpose of better access to trails (and elevation) for riding and training. As I started to do battle with the rockier terrain and more challenging trail features, I was initially frustrated. I felt so slow…and it made me angry. “Stupid #@!#% rocks!”
In my arrogance, I had assumed that I would be fast regardless of the terrain, and I wasn’t. The change in training stimulus at first broke me. I teetered in and out of overtraining for most of the first season as a result of wanting so badly to be fast, yet having no physical (or mental) foundation for riding effectively in the mountains. Still I chased.
Then, over this past winter, things changed. I realized that I cared more about riding with friends than doing a perfect interval workout. I started stopping in the middle of a ride to admire the scenery and take pictures. I chose routes based on their newness and sense of adventure rather than how well they fit my training goals.
As a result, my relationship with the trails started to change.
When I climbed three miles up a gravel road to reach a ridgeline trail only to find that it was bedazzled with ice, instead of being angry and disappointed, I was enthralled. It was gorgeous! The more I looked, the more the gravel roads and backcountry trails seemed to come alive. As winter transitioned to spring and then to summer, I watched, entranced, as the forest awoke. While racing in central Pennsylvania this week, I found myself wishing I could stop to take photos of the incredible trails and scenery. Ironically, that didn’t necessarily mean that I got slower (even if I did, I don’t know if I would care), but only that I was finding far more joy in the experience of being on the trails (and roads). Riding my bike became less about chasing PRs and more about enjoying the trails, nature, and people around me.
As a “weekend pro,” who races my bike out of a love for competition, of going fast, and of the race community (and not because I get paid to do it!), what does it look like to balance competition with the pure joy of being on the trails?
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here’s a few things I’ve found helpful:
Don’t be afraid to let the terrain guide your training. One of the things that gave me the freedom to find joy on the trails was moving to a coach who encouraged me to use the terrain to structure my workouts, rather than constantly fighting the terrain. That might not make a lot of sense, but rather than doggedly chasing a time interval, such as 5 minutes of work with a 1 minute recovery, I now let the trail structure that for me: work on the climbs, recover on the descents. Admittedly, I still typically look at the intended workout goals (long vs. short efforts, level of intensity, etc.), and choose my trail destination to match that as much as possible, but it is so much more fun to just work the trails than it is to be staring at a watch or bike computer, frustrated that “I’m supposed to be recovering now, but the trail is too steep!” Besides, for those of us who compete on trails–we’re racing on that terrain anyway!
Surround yourself with community. If you have the ability to run or ride with like-minded individuals, who happen to be fast, but mostly just love being outside and on the trails, do it! There are definitely friends who I ride with mostly on easy days, friends who I ride with to help push my skills on the techy sections, friends I know I’ll have to chase, and friends who I know will go whatever pace the group is going just to enjoy each other and the trails. Whoever it is, I would 100% rather ride with people than go do a solo workout. Plus, it’s always more fun to share the bear sightings and stellar views with friends in the moment than it is to just post a photo on Instagram later!
Look up! I don’t ever again want to be the person who doesn’t see my surroundings because I’m looking down at my bike computer and focusing too much on going fast. Even in a race, when my field of vision is narrowing due to a lack of oxygen, I try to look up to appreciate the amazing trails I’m riding through. Looking down at your feet, or a mountain bike tire gets old quick: look up, and you never know what you might see…the nesting bald eagles, the family of black bears, the beauty of the mountain laurel, and so much more!
Have fun! When all I cared about was going fast, I would have said that I was having fun. I don’t think that level of fun even compares to the amount of fun that I have on the trails now. I still love going fast and love racing, but I love just being out there just as much. When I find myself laughing out loud as I descend a trail, I know I’m in a good place–no matter how fast or slow I’m going.
I know for a fact that I’ve had more fun in the last six months of riding my bike than I have…maybe ever. I’ve also set a lot of PRs…without even trying. I can’t say for sure that those things are related, but I’d like to think they are. One thing I do know for sure is that I don’t want to go back to just chasing speed. There is too much joy on the trails to be missed for the temporary validation of a Strava PR!