Beginning Mountain Biking for Women, with Element

A HeadRightOUT-OUT experience

Have you ever wanted to have a go at mountain biking, but have been way too nervous? Do you think it’s all about scary steep hills… up AND down, that might just leave you feeling like a failure? Have you assumed you’re too old to try it now? Think again! Read on to hear more about my experience of a Beginner’s Mountain Biking weekend in the Black Mountains, tailored especially for women, of all ages and abilities.

Our Beginners Mountain Biking Team on Day Two

It’s healthy to experience fear and excitement together

To say I wasn’t nervous would be untrue. After all, my issues around heights were mixed up with a previous fall from my bike. It resulted in a torn knee ligament that had created a cocktail of avoidance, lack of confidence, and fear. Equally, however, I felt the bubbles of my old friend; excitement. I think that’s healthy, to experience fear and excitement together. As long as the fear doesn’t prevent you from moving forward, which has so often been the case for me. Nothing can be learned if experiences aren’t accepted in all their glory. How can we reflect on our responses to activities and adapt ourselves accordingly, if we stay rooted in the same spot? We can’t expect to develop our emotional, physical or mental strength if we don’t allow ourselves the room to stretch beyond what our heads think we’re capable of.

April 23rd and 24th  2022 was going to be my D-Day then. It was a fabulous, wake-up call podcast conversation with Ruth Pickvance of Element. We talked about staying active, facing fears, managing menopause, and taking a leap of faith in mid-life. I knew I could stall no longer. Ruth contacted me shortly after the recording. She said there were still some places available on her Women’s Beginning Mountain Biking weekend course if I was interested. How could I possibly say no, now? I had planned to attend the same weekend, the previous May as it coincided beautifully with my fiftieth birthday. Celebrations were arranged with family. Perhaps there was a deeper underlying hesitance shadowed by a huge doubt in me. Anyway, I hadn’t booked. Luckily, still at fifty years old (just), I took the plunge and booked it this time.

Women travelled to the Brecon Beacons from around the UK

Our small group of women from all over the country met at a Landmark Trust venue, a few miles north of Abergavenny. It was a perfect location, nestled below the luscious green shadows of the Black Mountains in South Wales.

The beautiful Landmark Trust venue: Llwyn Celyn

We were given an introduction to the weekend by Ruth and our mountain bike guide/tutor for the two days, Clare. It felt good to hear about what we could expect. It helped to allay any of the nerves that many of us were hiding well.

Our levels of confidence and expertise were varied

Each woman arrived with such a different level of mountain bike expertise and confidence. This included Angela, whose experience on a bike amounted to no more than forty-five minutes. Another, Carol, a few years ago had road cycled from Bangkok to Cambodia, and then on to Vietnam. All this, but she’d never been mountain biking before. Kim had been told by her doctors after a serious accident some years ago that she would not walk again. I was amazed to see her confidence shining and she was nearly always at the front.

Mary had masses of knowledge about two-wheeling around the challenge that is London. She had even cycled to the venue from the train station in Abergavenny. Her Brompton was piled high with luggage and a couple of bottles of wine. We graciously shared these with her at the end of the first day. Mountain biking for her on the other hand, was a new beast, as it was for most of us. Shilpa felt more at home on the water, as she has been preparing for an almighty paddleboarding challenge in June. She arrived with her husband’s new, lightweight mountain bike. Shilpa seemed to get on well with it, despite the slightly larger frame.

Bike skills and technique training

After a safety check of helmets and bikes, we set off down the gravel track and out onto the road leading up to our first hills. These would be the location for the various selected points where we were to stop for our skills training.

Anna, Shilpa, and Kim pictured on their mountain bikes, on the first track heading upwards towards Gospel Pass

Superb progression through each of the techniques was made by all of us. Tasks such as cycling down a low incline and stopping within four markers. We had to weave between the markers and turn on a tight right-hand and left-hand bend. The latter technique has never been my forte. On the final attempt, I managed to get one wheel through the markers at least! I learned how to correctly use my brakes by using one finger over the levers. I also learned how feathering them (multiple short and light squeezes) is safer than jabbing them on suddenly.

There’s history between me and my mountain bike

Learning to acknowledge my back and front brake, and being mindful of the impact of their use was a lesson indeed. This knowledge would have been oh so useful back in 2013 when I did a full ‘over-the-handlebars’ acrobatic feature. I was cycling out of work, down the sloping driveway from the school in which I taught. I’d foolishly taken a moment to look at my watch (on my left hand). I must have inadvertently braked with my right hand while at some speed.

The bike stopped dead, and like a bucking steed, lifted the back end and catapulted me head-first onto the tarmac. The bike landed on its handlebars and saddle, a feat that you couldn’t recreate if you tried. I landed awkwardly. After a trip to the hospital, I discovered I had a partial tear to a ligament in my knee. That wasn’t before the A&E team had plastered me from ankle to groin, believing that I had in fact fractured my knee. It was days before I had an MRI scan. I was happy to be relieved of the cast and switched into a ROM brace instead.

Back then and up until now, I knew so little about the techniques of cycling and mountain biking. As of the present date, I’ve had this mountain bike for around ten years. Yet I really hadn’t used it to its full potential. I’ve only ever ridden it on the road or easy, country park tracks or towpaths.

Me, facing the steep grassy track on my mountain bike, and realising it IS possible!

Feeling the fear and increasing in confidence

Other skills gently increased our confidence throughout the day. I don’t mind admitting that at one point, I looked on in horror. The grassy track we were going to descend looked too steep. For a matter of seconds, the blood drained from my legs as a little of my voice of fear began creeping in. I needn’t have worried though. I pushed the bike up the incline and watched as each woman faced their own turmoil heading down… and then cheered when they reached the bottom.

We all mastered the slow control of heading downhill and then manoeuvring a sharp turn left at the bottom. The uplifting support from everyone was so joyful. I felt such a sense of achievement at the success of making this descent. I felt triumphant for the others in their own personal achievements too.

MTB beginners benefitting from Clare’s instruction

This was the outside medicine I needed

At every step (or wheel) of the way, there was a new, impressive view around every corner. The first day was cloaked in low clouds for much of the hours out on the bikes, yet I could still sense the magic of the mountains and the spirit of the place we were so lucky to be in. It was hard to believe at times, when looking down that we had come so far uphill, with our bikes! A couple of occasions required us to push our bikes up a stony track often edged with bluebells and blackthorn. I wished I could blink and capture photographic images as we carefully picked our path upwards between the stones. The memories of these moments will last a long time, filling my soul with the outside medicine I needed.

It was well worth the few minutes of effort to push the bikes uphill. We reached a ridge overlooking a valley to either side. A tease of more glorious hills and mountains beckoned to us beyond. The occasional farmhouse or barn seemed randomly scattered below us. It was if they were toys thoughtlessly left by a child since gone to find their next interest.

Looking out over the Llanthony Valley from our rest stop

A fun and noisy ride down the hill!

After a lunch sheltering from the wind in a dip that resembled a Roman amphitheatre, atop the ridge we practised more MTB skills. We tackled a long and bumpy descent down a minute’s worth of riding. Mountain bikes were returned to the top, over and over. It was important to ensure we had the feel and confidence for tackling uneven, rutted, and bouldered tracks. Clare taught us to look ahead and follow the line we had chosen. Instead of constantly looking at the ground in front of our bikes. We employed techniques of rising our butts from the saddle while standing on our level pedals in a ‘ready’ (ready for anything) position. Sinking bodies lower with bent knees meant we were in the ‘attack’ position and ready for speed.

There were times this strategy required us to drop our saddles too, simply to keep it out of the way. We were instructed to head much further downhill to a stone marker for the final descent. I squealed noisily with delight as I approached the bottom. I seriously wanted to go back up and do it again. Really, I did!

The marker we were asked to stop at after the squealing mountain bike ride down the track

Testing my fear-facing

The last descent of day one was down a steep, tarmac lane. Bizarrely, this tested my fear-facing more than anything else during the day. Perhaps it was my memory of the accident I’d had back in 2013 or perhaps it was my fear of heights. Bit by bit, I allowed myself to let go a little more. This is what Clare recommended for us to do. I’ll admit, I never fully allowed my bike to wheel down that hill without feathering the brakes more than I perhaps should have, but I’m pretty certain that the more I tackle terrain like this, the more I’ll get used to it. I’ve achieved a whole lot more in one day and over ten miles than I have in ten years! It definitely didn’t feel like ten miles either.

Making connections

It was great to sit up and chat with Kim, Venetia, Anna, Shilpa, Carol and Mary, hearing more about what interests them and why they booked on this weekend. As Mary and Shilpa headed to bed, and Kim drove home, we heard a tap on the door downstairs. Bemused, Carol opened the door to a man who was staying in the farmhouse, which is also owned by the Landmark Trust. He invited us over to come for a tour of the building, if we wanted to. This was not to be missed, as we’d heard that the ancient farmhouse had been renovated with such care and detail. If the converted barn in which we were staying in was anything to go by, it was going to be a real treat.

Creeping over the courtyard in the dark, up the steps to the huge, attractive oak door, we were welcomed into a cosy stone-flagged room with a tremendous fireplace; the sort in which you could stand an army. We sat at a long table that would easily have seated a banquet of twelve, and were entertained with wine and conversation by a super group of five friends, before being given the tour of this quirky, vast, and delightful old farmhouse. Tiredness doesn’t mix well with wine and sensible conversation however, so with many thanks, we said our goodbyes.

With a deliciously achy body, the feeling you get when you know you’ve exercised, I slept like a baby. Day two would be a whole new experience, with eighteen miles to cover using all the skills learned from the day before.

The gorgeous view I awoke to from my bed at Llwyn Celyn

The beauty of South Wales on day two

The cloud lifted like a theatre curtain, the sun came out and the views opened up to wide, jaw-dropping vistas around the Black Mountains. Oh South Wales, you are SO beautiful! We had a steeper push-up with the bikes in the morning, but ‘wow’, few adjectives can describe the feeling it gave me seeing those views. We reached the top with the sun radiating across yet more green hills; the sky, awash with azure blue, and occasional fair-weather clouds that shifted from one side of the stage to the other. It was a stunning picture to witness.

More of the stunning Black Mountain views

My new favourite terrain

We bumped and skirted along more of what now seemed to be my favourite terrain: bouldered tracks, and then ventured down a watery, spring-filled track to a thrilling end to the first section. I honestly didn’t think I could have cycled that last bit but Clare shouted instructions and support. I made it with a few splashes and another extraordinary whoop of satisfaction. We were led into the woods and took some downhill fire roads to our lunch stop by a beautiful river. Everyone was cheered into our gathering spot.

A tough call

Some of the women made the decision that they had achieved so much more than they had ever before, and so wanted to call it a day here, by ending on a high. Despite being tired, I knew I still had more to give and wanted to experience what the mountains, my bike, and Clare had to offer me. I knew there would be some more challenging sections this afternoon, but it wouldn’t be out of my reach.

It would have been easy to leave with the others at this stage, but I’m so pleased and proud that I elected to stay on. The decision made by the few that ended their journey early was right for them. We had become a great team and it felt odd to see them go. I knew how strong they had been however, and had left with so many biking skills and experiences. Incredible MTB experiences they would never had realised they were capable of.

The slowest horse in the pack

In terms of ability, I was now no longer in the middle of the pack with the reassurance of others always behind me. Not reassurance in terms of safety, just I guess that feeling of not wanting to be the slowest horse in the pack. But now this was me. Everyone was so patient and waited at each junction or turning point for me to catch up, sort out my gears, or stop and have a wee. I learned masses on day two about how to change my gears and how to know which gear I should move into. It’s embarrassing that all these years, I haven’t really known what to do when reaching a steep hill. After clunking aimlessly through a few gears, my usual result is to end up jumping off my bike and pushing it instead.

A steep learning curve using my gears

The fire road continued upwards zig-zag fashion. Up, up and more up. It was long and slow. Not particularly steep but I did need to be in a gear that would allow me to climb steadily without stopping. At times, I considered that my fitness level could have been a little stronger. My thighs indeed had shouted a few profanities at me as they burned while heading up the ascents. It soon became apparent however that it was not so much the fitness as knowledge of those gears again that I lacked.

As soon as Clare sorted the bike out by putting it into the correct gear, I surprised myself by being able to get on the bike and take off, mid-uphill with ease. Despite being slow, I got to the top after what seemed like forty minutes of climbing, with only two stops (I think). It was another joyous moment of achievement, having NEVER conquered anything like that hill before.

Post mahoosive hill and I’m still smiling!

An error of judgement and a challenge

The group mostly pushed the bikes up to the next high point. Clare and Anna made a good example of going as far as possible before finally accepting to push up. From here, a small steep section, a deep rut and a boulder with a short drop awoke my fearful voice again. I saw I could do it, yet the ‘what if’ voice in me kept talking me out of it. I hesitated, perhaps a little too long, and then finally went for it.  A misjudged line and braking too soon tipped my bike and I came off. Not dramatically, I should add, as I was able to step back up super-quick. I knew the side of the bike had caught my knee, but it was just a bruise. I was not going to be deterred by a bruise.

Clare talked me through what had happened and asked me if I wanted to try again. She said she’d totally understand if I decided to carry on. The choice was mine, and deep down, I could have easily gone with the ‘give-up-and-go-on’ attitude. I knew that I would never forgive myself for not saying ‘yes’ and going back to give this another shot. Climbing to the top of the ascent again, I coached myself over and over with words of encouragement. Ruth had re-joined us too and stood behind me, offering moral support.

It was a short stretch, and not that steep to be honest. It was just my brain. I had overthought the risks. It had begun to tell me of all the horrors that ‘could’ happen if it all went wrong. After what seemed like an age, I finally let go of the brakes. I allowed my bike to freewheel, made the correct line on the dip, and cleared the boulder. This time I didn’t brake too hard or too early. I came to a stop and everyone cheered. My heart had initially pounded in fear. It was now bolstered with the rich sense of achievement and the feeling of ‘you’ve got this’.

Remaining true to HeadRightOut and feeling proud

This is what HeadRightOut is all about. If I hadn’t returned to try again, I wouldn’t have been true to my mission of HeadRightOut. It’s as much for me, to get me doing stuff like this as it is to encourage others. It’s all about having a go at new things in the outdoors. I felt proud, and rightly so.

Our band of mountain biking beginners on the way up to Crug Mawr

Biking and pushing up to the highest point of the day for a superb prize

The next MTB climb up to one of the high points was tough, but again not out of my range. There were more deeply rutted tracks and the odd boulder jutting out here and there. Heather flanked the path to either side. On the couple of occasions that I misjudged my chosen line of travel, I simply dropped sideways, stepping onto the heather. Nothing serious. Eventually, it was a short push up to the top where a trig point marked a stop. It was time for a well-earned breather and an opportunity to take in the stunning 360-degree views. This was utterly worth it, as the challenge had delivered a superb prize.

Ruth joins us at the top of Crug Mawr
At the trig point, marking the high point of Crug Mawr

Clare’s bike expertise was fascinating to watch

The ride down from the trig at Crug Mawr proved to be fun giving me more of my new favourite, uneven terrain. Anna, who had been up at the front for most of the journey had stopped ahead. When I caught up with her I could see her chain and derailleur hanging from the bike. I asked her what had happened, thinking she must have hit a rock. She was puzzled as she had been handling the terrain well and hadn’t collided with anything. Clare came back up to where we were waiting. Watching her work patiently and skilfully on the chain, with her small set of tools, was fascinating. She knew what she needed to do in order to at least get the bike into a useable condition. It might only be single-geared or none at all, but it would be better than having to walk it back!

Clare working expertly on Anna’s mountain bike

Full-on fear gripped me, but was it necessary?

Clare made the decision to switch bikes with Anna and cycle down the hill to a point where she could work on the bike easier. We all headed down and that was when my fear of heights truly (and unnecessarily) returned. The bike started to skid and I knew in an instant that I wasn’t using my brakes correctly.

All of a sudden, I was back on the South West Coast Path, eleven years earlier. I saw the image of the path fall away in front of me, seemingly dropping off the edge of the cliff. Back in that moment I couldn’t face walking this scary section of path. Instead, I climbed a barbed wire fence into a field and then back out again later, to avoid facing the sheer drop below me.

Now, it was happening all over again and I could feel the rise of embarrassment, as well as the fear flooding through me. I couldn’t see where the path went; therefore to my brain, it just dropped over a precipice. I allowed the fear and my imagination to take hold, so got off the bike and walked.

The voice of positivity banishes my fear of heights

As I pushed the bike downhill, Clare caught up with me and asked if I was ok. I shared with her my predicament, the skidding, and the fear of heights. She said it was fine if I wanted to walk down. No pressure. As she cycled away, she turned to me and said “you could always hop on your bike and come down slowly. Would it feel better if I was right in front of you?” It took a split second for my positive voice to reply, “yes, please! I think that might work.”

Back in the saddle, I freewheeled down the grassy slope. I feathered the brakes carefully, heart still pounding, talking myself through all the skills that Clare had taught us. Drop the saddle. One finger over the brake lever. Rise your butt. Bend your knees. Get those pedals level. Look where you want to go and follow your line.  It was just the encouragement I had needed and guess what? There was no cliff face or outcrop that I was about to drop off, bike and all. It was my head playing silly mind games with me all along.

A new clarity, emotion and a protein bar

On reaching the bottom where the others were waiting, I pulled out a protein bar. I needed some sustenance and apparently a good cry too! The tears fell without warning. I felt the power of facing a fear and working through it to achieve my best. I was never going to be the best and that wasn’t what this weekend was all about. None of us were competing with one another. As women who brought different skills and life experiences to the table, we supported one another.

In this moment of release, a new clarity unveiled itself in my mind. What I’d accomplished over this weekend and particularly in that downhill struggle were ninety-eight per cent mind games. It’s my head messing with me as I overthink each new task ahead. If I can learn to drown out the voice that so often holds me back, my life will be richer as a result. After all, if I can jump out of an aeroplane, I can flipping well cycle down a hill!

A deep lasting sense of satisfaction

What a fantastic, fun weekend this was. At the time of writing, a month has passed. I’ve come away with so many skills that I’ve since put into practice even on the narrow, but steep lanes I’ve cycled whilst down in South Somerset. I never thought I would be admitting that it was fun, bearing in mind my fears. Honestly though, it filled me with sack-loads of good endorphins and a deep, lasting sense of satisfaction, not to mention connecting with a group of amazing women.

I smiled lots, challenged myself, and could not stop talking about it once I returned home. I had mistakenly thought that mountain biking was for the adrenalin-hungry, fool-hardy peeps. This course had indeed tested my head on a few occasions but in my book that’s a good thing. That’s what HeadRightOut is for; to step out of my comfort zone and build my resilience, and in doing so I hope to encourage others to do the same.

The Beginners Mountain Biking for Women weekend ticked all my boxes

The Beginners Mountain Biking for Women two-day course absolutely worked and ticked all my boxes. I regularly find myself leaning towards caution and therefore end up avoiding so many things that would bring me joy, fulfil me and add to my bank of resilience-building. This weekend allowed me to experience nature actively in the outdoors, in a thrilling way I wasn’t accustomed to. I inhaled the big sky and the even bigger views. I joyfully connected with like-minded women, and in achieving more than I thought possible, it filled my depleted reservoir with positivity and encouragement. It also reminded me that perimenopause will not beat me. Physically, I know that perhaps I wasn’t at my fittest this time, but it was perfectly manageable.

As long as I kept my bike in the right gear…

Carol and Zoe

Listen to Zoe and Ruth on HeadRightOut

Ruth Pickvance’s podcast episode on HeadRightOut

If you’d like to listen to the earlier podcast episode of HeadRightOut where I chat with Ruth Pickvance, prior to attending the MTB weekend, please click here. You can also search HeadRightOut in your usual podcast platform and scroll to Episode 18.

There will be an opportunity to listen to the audio of this Out-Out experience. An episode will be released in due course. Please hit subscribe/follow in your podcast app to be sure not to miss it.

Book yourself a place on the next Beginning MTB weekend

It’s not too late either, for you to experience all this, and more! There is another Beginning Mountain Biking for Women weekend with Element taking place on September 10th and 11th, 2022. Please note that numbers are very limited. You can find out more information here.

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