Feature: Taking the Dirt Surfing to the Water


I grew up in the high desert of Albuquerque, NM. Our idea of water was the mucky, paltry Rio Grande. I didn’t see the ocean until I was 14 years old, but I had taken to the dirt quite well with hiking and mountain biking in my young adult life. The idea of surfing on the ocean was intimidating to me. I shuddered at how far away from shoreline you had to paddle to catch a wave. The idea of a hidden, massive foreign world underneath the exterior serenity of the ocean is intimidating. The powerful, indifferent waves can be as mellow as a warm, Caribbean evening or as furious as a killer tidal wave. How can you be in control on the ocean?

I’ve always loved the trail. The ground is solid underneath my feet or my tires. The rocks and roots are unforgiving, but normally predictable. Most of nature is audible and visual unlike the ocean. The mountain world has other creatures lurking in the bushes and in the trees, but at least they’re not under your feet and you might see them coming. If you get scared on a bike, you simply stop and step off the pedals. You can’t get stuck in a rip tide or current. It seems like it’d be harder to get in trouble compared to paddling out into the immense blue ocean.

I decided it was time to face my fears. Surfing looked like fun if I could get over my fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. How could I expect beginners to throw a leg over a mountain bike if I wasn’t willing to try something that intimidated me? At the time, I was staying near Poipu Beach on Kauai and tracked down Kauai Surf School. Both myself and my 60 year old dad signed up to step foot on a surf board for the first time. I was inspired by the fact that my dad signed up too. You’re never too old to learn something new. I think having the curiosity and courage to learn is what keeps people young.

I had a feeling that surfing would share some similarities to mountain biking. We were entrusted to the care of Alan, our surf instructor. It was fun to be a beginner again. I felt the fear of uncertainty and it was wonderful humbling to try something unfamiliar and exotic. After learning how to stand on the board and practicing moving from laying on our bellies to standing, it was time to leave the security of the solid earth.

As I paddled out to the bunny hill of surfing, my heart was thumping wildly in my chest. Would it hurt if I fell? Would I hit my head on the surf board? It was strange not to be wearing a helmet. Would I be able to stand up? Would I get sucked out to sea? What if I sucked?

For our first few waves, Alan stood out there with us on a reef. He gave us a push and told us when to go. I looked back and saw my wave coming. I swallowed hard and tried to focus on the cues we learned on the beach as Alan started yelling over the roar of the approaching wave. It was chaotic, yet things seemed to move in slow motion. I went through the motions and was surprised as I stood up on my board and rode it to the beach! It was the same feeling of conquering a technical section or a hard climb on a bike. The satisfying feeling of “Holy crap! I DID IT!!” I instantly wanted to try again and paddled back out. My dad stood up on his second wave and rode it in hooting and hollering.

The real fun began when we had to catch our own waves, but it came naturally. The next day, I rented a board for 4 hours and went till I couldn’t paddle anymore.

I started thinking of the surfing cues and they were very similar to mountain biking.

  • Look where you want to go and look ahead. I tested this when I looked down instead of up ahead and I fell in.
  • Don’t force it. Feel the board underneath you and let it naturally carry you. On the bike? Trying to muscle your way and fighting the trail is much harder than letting it flow just like surfing.
  • Relax
  • Commit to what you’re doing. If you’re going for the wave, really try to catch it or you’ll miss it. Singletrack? If you’re riding technical trail and don’t fully commit, chances are you’re going down!

The most surprising thing I didn’t expect was the falling. If you fall on a bike, it hurts! There are some bumps and bruises and occasionally some serious consequences. On the bunny waves, falling down was simply falling straight off the board into the water. It didn’t hurt at all! The waves weren’t so powerful that they held you under water and punished you. It’s a great beginner sport, but I’m guessing it’s more difficult as you progress.

After I playing for several hours and mastering the little waves, I started craving something bigger. I wasn’t catching the same adrenaline rush as before. I looked further out off the shore where people were surfing about a 20 minute paddle away. I was once again intimidated. I decided I’d be getting in over my head, literally, if I went out there alone to catch a bigger wave. It reminded me of technical riding. Once you master the small stuff, you want to try something bigger. It’s always easier when you have someone with you to show you the way. With surfing, I didn’t know what I should try and what I shouldn’t.

I can’t wait to get back to the ocean and seek out that bigger wave. I know the bigger waves will be more painful when I fall, but not like on a bike. However, fear of drowning is scary! I also couldn’t wait to get back on my bike to go dirt surfing!

Taking surfing lessons from Alan and Kauai Surf School was helpful for the mountain bike clinics that I teach. It was great to be the vulnerable, apprehensive student instead of the experienced teacher and to accept the challenge to step into a braver, unfamiliar role for the day. Breaking things down into tiny bit-sized pieces and getting positive reinforcement were the most helpful things. It is a great reminder to apply that to teaching mountain bike skills.

Next time you’re near water, check out surfing. It’s a great compliment to mountain biking! Maybe this winter I’ll leave the skis in the closet and get on a snowboard. Surfing on snow sounds pretty cool.

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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  • JB says:

    Hey goofy-footer,

    I have as much surfing experience as you. It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

  • James S says:

    I kind of hate to see anybody encouraging more people to take up surfing. It’s already way too crowded out there. The number of good surf breaks are just too limited compared to the number of surfers and you can’t build more. If you need another sport to do besides mountain biking, take up running, snowboarding, rock climbing – anything but surfing.

    Okay, here’s my attempt to discourage you further: Mountain lion and bear attacks on mountain bikers are extremely rare but sharks do attack surfers and the number of incidents has been increasing lately. (Cue the Jaws theme). Did that work? Are you afraid to get in the water now? Man, I really hope so. I’ve already given up surfing at the closest break to me because of crowds…

  • Sonya says:

    Jame S-urfa hata! haha 🙂 I am all for more people mountain biking… you could argue the trails are too crowded too?

    • James S says:

      Sometimes on a weekend I might run into a few large groups going up a trail when I am going down. That can be a little annoying. But the trails around here (San Francisco Bay Area) are amazingly uncrowded given that the metro population is 8 million people. Compare that to 5.2 million in the entire state of Colorado where they have a hundred times more mountain bike trails than we do.

      Surfing, on the other hand, is entirely different. I invite you to try surfing at Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica (the San Francisco Bay Area beginner spot) or anywhere in Santa Cruz. I think then you might get a better understanding why I think there are already too many surfers. Imagine if you had to wait for an hour at the trailhead before you could ride it and then you had to compete with other people for your turn and try to figure out how to get on the trail without pissing anybody off. Even worse, you could spend an entire day at the trailhead and not get to ride at all! That’s what surfing in California is like these days. I have no idea what it’s like elsewhere, so maybe there’s room for a few more surfers in other places.

  • Surf-Idaho says:

    James S – Sonya is too nice! Take the stereotypical pretentious SF tude over to RBR ;-). Sonya, come surf Idaho anytime (in a kayak or SUP that is, BUT a surfboard will suffice in our whitewater parks!), but bring your 2 wheeler and your hop taste buds with you. Yep, we got all that, and we’re nice…

  • Stickler says:

    Next time you go Kauai, head ’round North Shore to Bike Doktor an ride with Team Whodaphuck. Change your life, yeah? JG

  • James S says:

    Hey Surf-Idaho, I’m from Texas and Colorado. Ain’t nothing “pretentious” about my “tude”. Surfing is overcrowded in California and that’s just a simple fact. Have you ever tried surfing here? Seriously, have you? I didn’t think so… Please talk about what you know instead of trying to insult me. Smiley face emoticons don’t really make an insult any nicer, you know.

    • Surf-Idaho says:

      James, Apologies for not more outwardly insulting you. However, you know nothing about where I’ve lived or what sports I practice, and I don’t care enough about you to provide that history… But yea, CA beaches are crowded. YOU ARE CORRECT. Plenty of people I know still do it and love it. The thing that spurred my comment was that you bothered to try to dissuade people from trying surfing after a simple off-season travel report on MTBR. She was in HI for eff’s sake, not the cold water off the West Coast. How many people you think are going to run out to Santa Cruz after that article and take a lesson? Save the proselytizing for the lineup.

  • Tigeo says:

    Surfed since I was 13 and started mountain biking in college as another outlet once I was away from the beach. The analogy is a good one; I always think of surfing/carving a wave when I go downhill or through rolling trails. Surfing gave me flow on my bike!

  • TFinator says:

    “Surfing is overcrowded in California and that’s just a simple fact”
    The fact that you just tried to sum up 800 miles of coastline in one sentence pretty much shows your full of it.
    All was good in San Diego this Christmas. Sun and tasty waves everywhere!

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