Mountain Bike at your best

Overcoming Fear When Mountain Biking (and using it to your advantage)

Overcoming Fear When Mountain Biking

Mountain biking can be anything from a really fun experience to outright terrifying depending on your skills, experiences, and perspective. Of course, skill is the number one factor in overcoming fear, imagine my students who race World Cup downhills and EWS races like National Champions Luca Cometti, Mitch Ropelato and Jackie Harmony riding your local trails. I doubt they would be scared of that section that scares you on your local trail (as World Cup Tracks are gnarly!). They have worked hard on ingraining the correct riding techniques so they are riding in balance and in control consistently so while they may have less “nerve” than you, they have great skill. Here are some ways to overcome fear with the skill you currently possess and ways to use that fear.

1.  Go at your own pace and take “baby steps” when progressing. Taking a big leap over your comfort zone is not a good way to learn. Have you ever been goaded into doing something that you felt was way above your skill level? Even if you make it you often don’t feel like you have gotten better, you feel like you got lucky. Feeling, “Wow, that was scary!” does not improve your confidence! If you don’t make it,  the crash will often set you back, decreasing your confidence and raising your level of fear. So be gentle with yourself and progress at a pace that is comfortable to you.

2. Focus on what you want to do, not what you don’t want to do. This sounds simple but pays off big. Our brains don’t understand “not” and “don’t” very well. If you are focusing on not falling your brain has to focus on the concept of falling and then quickly try to refocus on “not” doing what you are thinking about. It is much easier to focus on “getting to that tree” or “ride this section smooth and light” than telling yourself “don’t fall”.

3. Use your fear, it can be good! Listen to the fear, maybe it is trying to save you from a trip to the emergency room. Live to ride another day! If you are more focused on “not falling” than you are on getting to where you are going, get off your bike and walk that section. Who knows you might go right through it the next time when you are more warmed up and/or focused.

After/while walking that section figure out what about that section is scaring you then “baby step” your way up to doing it.

Example: If a four-foot drop on an exposed trail is scaring you find a one foot drop with no exposure, get really good a hitting that, work your way up to a four-foot drop with no exposure, then an exposed trail with a one foot drop working all the way to a four-foot drop on an exposed trail. This builds on a series of successes, increasing your confidence!

4. Breathe, relax, breathe and smile it is just a bike ride. Breathing and smiling releases tension which improves our balance, coordination and confidence. I mean deep, belly breathes from your diaphragm which are very calming. Smiling releases endorphins which relax you. The simple act of lifting the corners of your mouth, even if it is a grimace will release those endorphins and relax you!

5. As you improve, make sure you update your self-concept to match. Remember that the past doesn’t equal the future. You may have wrecked or not made a section last week/month but if your skills have improved since then the section may be easier for you now. (more on this in the next article on fear as this is very important!)

6. Wear knee pads and elbow pads when practicing a tough section are learning a new skill. I have found that having padding on really increases your confidence when learning or trying to push your limits. As a matter of fact, I never ride without knee pads anymore, knees are too valuable and easily damaged!

7. Debunk your fear/s. Is your fear realistic? Often fear is not based in reality and when we realize this the fear goes away.

8. Learn from your mistakes. If you mess up or wreck do your best to figure out why it happened and correct that mistake or improve your technique so it will not happen again.

9. Use that fear to motivate you to improve! You know just riding your bike doesn’t improve your skill, practicing the correct, in balance, in control techniques with a focus on quality is the ONLY way to improve your skill. So spend more time practicing deliberately using drills and boost your skill level and confidence.

Stay tuned for part two which will cover why/how/when we feel fear and how this affects us and a few of these techniques in more detail.

Let me know about your fear. How is affecting your riding? Is it a good amount of fear? Or is your fear holding you back? Please comment below. Feel free to share this with anyone you feel could benefit from it. Thanks and create your best ride yet, Gene.

6 replies
  1. Mark Buerger
    Mark Buerger says:


    Wow, what a great article. I have often, all too often, said that I have a fear of heights. I learned recently that i am not afraid of heights, I’m actually afraid of falling. Well, actually, I am afraid of crashing at the bottom.

    So then, what is it i really don’t want to do? i don’t want to lose my balance or footing. And you are absolutely correct Gene; just as in raising children or training anyone to be disciplined in any activity, we cannot effectively train someone to not do something. We can however, train someone how to practice doing something correctly.

    In this I find a new freedom. I can overcome my theoretical fears by training to develop a new confidence in my core strength and balance.

    There is an old saying, “ So soon we get old, so late we get smart.” In my 69 years, I have at least learned that i don’t know everything and i am thus quite blessed to have experts like you, willing to share what you have earned and learned.

    Thank you then for this lesson and the many you share so unselfishly.

    • Gene
      Gene says:

      Hi Mark,

      Glad to hear you taking some positive action steps away from my article. Thanks for the inspiration (I want to riding when I’m 69!) and your compliments!



  2. Kelli
    Kelli says:

    Awesome article!! I still fear some downhills as I am just really beginning to ride more advanced trails. I have found, as you mentioned, that walking down the hill and then looking back at it & surveying it from that angle helps to alleviate a lot of the fear. My struggle is climbing but I’m definitely getting better at it. Gearing is another struggle. I’ve been a roadie for 10 plus years and my friends finally brought me over to the dirt side :). I’ve been riding steadily now for several months and am doing the Rwanda 25 miler in April.
    I look forward to.your next article!

  3. Corey
    Corey says:

    As someone who has spent the bulk of his adult life in jobs/careers that cause many to question my sanity (veteran paratrooper, high rise window cleaner, ski lift mechanic, to name a few…) I’ve had to learn how to harness fear. It’s an extremely powerful tool when harnessed, and an invaluable restraint when my desired course exceeds my abilities. When I nutshell it for inquiring minds, I tell them it’s not because I’ve conquered my fear, but because I have confidence in my skills and abilities based upon countless hours of training and practice that fear brings into focus and execution. Or I really am a little crazy.


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