The mountain biking risk paradox

Balancing life, reward and risk

How To

Risk Life Monster

We choose to mountain bike and it’s an awesome elective in life. It’s a risky sport, on a spectrum from low to high. We [can] choose, moment to moment, where on the spectrum we ride.

“The risk drives a little nervousness before every ride – and associated excitement of being immersed in a zone where nothing else exists and all my stresses in the world fade away.” SB

Risk is a complex topic, it begs respect, attention and honestly. How you experience and deal with risk is personal, and can be a powerful teacher not only for your approach to riding but for learning about yourself as a human navigating life. *Of note, all quotes are from students of my online skills courses.

“Risk and MTB riding go together and risk is part of living and creating a meaningful life.” RW

If the signals that risk attempts to communicate are ignored then there is a big price to pay. In my experience, risk wanted me to wake up, not just for clearing a section of trail, but to understand who I was in a more intimate way. For me, I felt more real as a human taking risks, the social props and attention I received supported this, but this appreciation [eventually] began to go against all the signs and signals my heart and body were giving.

“I’ve realized that some risk makes you feel alive like you’ve accomplished something.” CW

“Can’t help myself, apparently, I feel like I must prove myself.” B.D.G

The Risk Paradox

If you’re ready to dig into this topic with me then please proceed with caution, you risk having your perspective shifted, and like any crash, there’s no going back!

“I actually wish I was a little more comfortable with risk as I feel that at times my innate caution holds me back.” DT

Mountain biking is rewarding, and how we experience reward is also on a spectrum that evolves due to many factors, and a big one is risk. The memorable reward that comes from successfully riding a risky bit of trail can have an influence on future risk choices – we downplay risk in favor of reward, often unconsciously, and this pattern eventually ends with a crash. For mountain bikers it is common for risk and reward to become codependent on each other, untangling this dynamic through self-observation is essential for a long-lasting mountain biking lifestyle, however, to be clear, risk still cannot be eliminated, it is an intrinsic aspect of our sport.

“For me risk is an essential part of my learning process.” DG

“A little bit of risk is a big part of what draws me to mountain biking.” AK

We evolved from needing to take risks to gain the reward of food and security for our family, risk was required to be alive. Our modern society has now, thankfully, decoupled our need to take physical risks to survive.

Risk-taking still has the power to make us feel alive. A risk above our ability levels makes us think ‘thank god I’m still alive’, whereas a risk that matches our ability level provides a steady flow of aliveness. Most people in our society aren’t willing to truly expose themselves to physical risk, so they rely on controlled entertainment and experiences, such as watching youtube or going to an amusement park.

The Risk Paradox

This has the opposite effect though, a deadening, which is why it’s so painful for mountain bikers to deal with an injury, they’re thrown into this massive entertainment culture and can’t wait to get their blood flowing again. So why is this risk-reward dynamic such a compelling force in the lives of mountain bikers?

“When I feel that it’s been a long time since I’ve had that ‘thrilled to be alive’ feeling, nothing else can scratch that itch but mountain biking, and it grows stronger the more I disregard it.” ED

Let’s consider the reward – engaging risk can bring about a unique and powerful high, it’s a temporary state experience that brings us out of the daily routines and stress of life, out of our heads, and into the moment.

“The paradox is that to make myself feel fully alive I have to risk life itself.” DF

The rewards from riding go beyond just this high of course, such as being in nature, with friends and getting fit, but that’s another topic. It does appear, after much investigation, that the depth of the rewards that are directly related to risk taking is limited. Even pro riders who gain financial reward, praise, and status eventually realize that these rewards fall short of their promise, so we must look beyond the trail for insight.

“In my head… I want to do flips and massive jumps, but I don’t want the consequence. The reward is small and failure could mean not being able to do all the other things I love in life.” JP

To what life challenges or problems, new, old or ongoing, might risk unknowingly be bringing you relief? It’s not always obvious. This stuck energy needs to flow, and riding releases it, but it’s a temporary fix. For example, many riders, like myself, often feel they need to prove themselves, whether to others or to themselves. Once I discovered why (personal reasons I won’t get into here) and worked with this, my enjoyment of mountain biking went way up, and the need to risk went down — I didn’t think I could love mountain biking more than I already did!

“The risk of the line forced focus and freed me from life stress’. Unfortunately, it only lasted to the end of the line. A time of life that I was the most unbalanced mentally was when I was the most balanced on my bike.” LC.

The flip side of risk-for-reward is hospitalization, a reality many of us experience over and over. According to the results of a recent survey I conducted on risk, age comes in as a massive factor, and this is linked to responsibility in life.

“Because of a series of crippling concussions, I tend to avoid risks while riding. Yet because of this, I find it detracts from the joys of riding and reaping the rewards of conquering a challenge.” GH

The Risk Paradox

You can’t take care of your family or earn money if you’re injured. Dealing with the yearning to ride-and-risk can be tricky for older riders to navigate when the deeper lessons from risk are yet to be learned — they’ll be caught in this dynamic where the attraction to risky riding is insatiable and impossible to moderate in line with life’s responsibilities.

“Risk is what reminds me that there is much more to life than mountain biking, and it’s not worth risking those greater things for a momentary thrill.” AM

“Now that I have a family and a crap load more responsibility, I take the risk and analyze it a lot more to assess if its worth it.” KH

“Anytime, anywhere..if you are not on it..poof..you broke something..With two kids, and a family to tend to, its always in the back of my head.“ AN

It is common for many aging riders to turn to fitness-oriented riding challenges, as it is more socially acceptable and provides a similar escape and feeling of aliveness and accomplishment. But again this is often fueled by unresolved issues in life and may end up adding to them.

”I like to aim for low-risk scenarios in my riding as I have a job and a family, but sometimes I feel as though aversion to risk holds back my riding.” RC

“Injuries can easily cost me a full year of riding or more – let alone I have a family that relies on me. I can’t imagine putting my wife and kids in a bind if I got injured badly.” NH

It is important to understand that stress can influence your ability to accurately assess and manage risk, however, the release of stress is one of the reasons that people love mountain biking so much. This paradox creates an internal division and battle that calls to be reckoned with, forcing us to learn about ourselves which ultimately allows us to continue riding mountain bikes safely well into the future. Thus mountain biking has the potential to play a big part in the healthy evolution of our existence in this word.

What about you? How do you deal with mountain biking risk and where do play in the risk spectrum?

More stories by Ryan Leech here.

Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)

About the author: Ryan Leech

Ryan Leech is Pro Mountain Biker & Coach sponsored by @shimano, @norcobicycles, Nutcase Helmets, and Ryders Eyewear. He has performed thousands of bicycle stunt shows around the world including Cirque du Soleil and been featured in dozens of mountain bike films. He credits a dedicated yoga practice for a thriving and sustainable career as a pro-athlete and began teaching to share these benefits. As an avid explorer of human potential, he earned his certification as an Integral Master Coach™, and now is dedicated to creating the highest quality, most comprehensive and effective online technical skill training programs for mountain bikers at ryanleech.com


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  • craig says:

    Mountain biking in itself is not inherently dangerous.
    But to an ever greater degree than the sea,
    it’s terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.

  • HrznRider says:

    As much as I love this great sport, I sometimes think I’ve become dependent on it… dependent on the thrill, dependent on the high, dependent on shiny new parts. Whereas before I could hit the gym or go for a quick jog and call it done. I’m 100% a mountain biker and love fueling the stoke but it’s definitely a paradox. Also, I’ve noticed that I crave more and more tech as time goes on and this isn’t a good thing at this point of my life.

    • Ryan Leech says:

      Thanks for sharing HrznRider, there’s no easy answer hence the paradox, though seeing and being aware of this dependence is the first major step in my experience, and more wise choices can spring even from just that. Keep grappling with the topic and hopefully by doing so your enjoyment of riding will continue rising too!

  • Velobike says:

    As most of my riding is done solo, and in places where other people rarely go, I’m cautious. The last thing I want is to have to call out mountain rescue so I ride accordingly.

    The reward for me is being in the mountains, not short-term thrills.

    I’m equally happy skipping across a bog or scrabbling up a scree slope with the bike on my back as I am on a testing climb or hurtling downhill.

    If I lived somewhere with restricted trail access and had to restrict my riding to designated loops maybe I’d be less cautious.

  • MC says:

    My favorite riding happens to be back country and most often that’s solo as I have to jump on the time slots as they open up. I’ve been mountain biking for quite a few years now and I don’t view it as more hazardous than anything else really… certainly less hazardous than waiting on the couch for heart disease and diabetes to show up.

    But I’m not “sending it”, especially in places where rescue could take 24+ hours. I also get peep laughing at my camelbak loaded with tools, spares, and survival kit… until they need something out of it. Wankers.

  • DayNO says:

    I’m a fairly reserved rider, I see the risk and I balance it with my desire to do it, my skill level, and the possible negative outcome. The biggest issue of risk/reward for me is in riding the more isolated trails, by myself. I can keep myself fairly safe with the rubber side down, but I have always been concerned about run-ins with the local fauna. Recently a biker was killed by a cougar and this has just sent my anxiety about it through the roof. I’ve seen creatures before, and I know how to handle an encounter, but this fear keeps me from doing some of the bigger rides by myself. Is this a concern for others too?

  • mike says:

    What are you risking…some bruising, maybe bike damage? Sure wear a helmet and get your skills up. Paralysis and death? Never worth that risk IMO.

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >>What are you risking…some bruising, maybe bike damage? Sure wear a helmet and get your skills up. Paralysis and death? Never worth that risk IMO.

      Part of the paradox is you don’t know exactly what you’re risking when you participate. You can get a splinter, a broken femur or a snapped neck from the same trail.

      That’s why the ‘risk spectrum’ is a good concept. The risk is always there. It’s just a question of where you choose to play: bike path < --> redbull rampage

      • mike says:

        but with experience you have a general idea based on speed and terrain. I think my point is clear without getting too pedantic.

  • ken kienow says:

    I find it helps to tailor my risk tolerance to how skilled I feel that day. If I’m having trouble doing smaller features and small jumps, I’ll skip the huge drop and massive double further down the trail. If I’m acing everything and feel ON that day, I’ll do the bigger stuff.

    …currently typing with a cast on, an injury sustained by following a talented friend down a high-risk trail on an OFF day where I was tired and messing up the lower-risk stuff. I wouldn’t have risked it were I by myself and I shouldn’t have attempted the high risk stuff this particular day. It’s hard to split up from your buddies though.

    Lesson learned.

    • Noy says:

      I totally agree. Peer pressure is one of the most dangerous things on the trail if not handled correctly. A good, trusted group of buddies who look out for you is a good thing. If you’re the skilled one in the group you should warn the others of a technical feature that is potentially dangerous. Some groups just go go go and they just disappear and all of sudden there’s a drop …..

    • Anthony says:

      100% this I like many others I balance responsibilities and long term impacts with the thrill of risk. Something I have definitely learnt is that if I am not feeling it I should go for it as it will not end well.

  • Survivor says:

    I do not take unnecessary risks. My family can’t afford the lengthy recuperation period if I’m injured and I don’t want to become a burden to relatives or taxpayers if injured. We risk a lot just getting up in the morning and driving in traffic or walking down the street so there is much risk we cannot avoid. I don’t feel the need to take more than the world already serves up. If you do, fine, especially if it brings you income.

  • pparker says:

    I have traded fast descents for fast uphill challenges. It took a C7 vertebrae fracture to make me appreciate that Mountain Biking is a gift that can destroy my current lifestyle and life if I’m not cautious. After a 4 month recovery I feel lucky and more respectful of the trail. At 60 with two kids there is a ton of fun to be had riding without going right up to your threshold. I usually ride alone so peer pressure doesn’t influence me. I hope to ride at least into my 70′s so time to slow down, listen to the sounds in the woods, take pictures of the astounding scenery and soak up the whole experience that is Mountain Biking.

  • Roy says:

    I’ve been riding a long time. First dirt bikes for years then mountain bikes. At 50 my skills have decreased somewhat but not that much. But my risk tolerance has gone down.

    I call it ‘the price of failure’. If that price is too high based on my ability, experience, and how I’m feeling that day I just step off and walk it.

    Now I gravitate now to smoother flow trails and away from the more techincal.

    I still like to get some air and rail turns on dirt trails but when it gets chunky I slow down. It hurts more and it takes longer to heal at this age.

    That said, I love riding and get grumpy when I can’t ride due to weather or injury or whatever.

    It’s a balance. Balancing the risk with the fun and th inking about work next week and will I be able to go riding again next weekend.

    At this age there”s a finite number of rides left in me. I don’t want to miss any.

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