For the last two years, “Full Send” has been my motto. When David first challenged me to ride in the pro/elite field at Iceman in 2018, I decided to go for it, and haven’t looked back since.
Well, not until 2020 anyway.
I came into the season feeling strong. I started working with a new coach, Don Gallagher of DRT Consulting, last fall, and was seeing the results as I moved out of the long winter trainer months into the early gravel and mountain bike season in March. Just before COVID exploded in the U.S., I competed in the 2020 Southern Cross gravel race in Dahlonega, Georgia, and even with two flat tires, still placed 12th in the elite women’s field. I felt strong, rode well, and was feeling confident on the bike.
In late May, as school let out and stay-at-home restrictions started to loosen, I traveled to Roanoke, Virginia to ride some new trails, most notably Carvin’s Cove (epic!) and Mill Mountain. On every trail I rode, I felt nearly invincible. My technical skills felt dialed, I felt strong, and had an amazing time riding.
Fast-forward just two weeks, and I had the opportunity to race at Brown County State Park in Indiana. Unlike the trails in Roanoke, I’ve ridden Brown County before. I know the trails, at least somewhat. But I felt totally off. Nothing seemed to come together. I struggled cornering, struggled over roots and rocks, and was scared on descents that didn’t even come close to the technical demand of the trails in Virginia that had I just ridden full-send on first sight.
Now, nearly three months later, I am still struggling to not “ride scared.” The confidence and fun I had in Roanoke has faded to fear and stress, even on familiar trails. I find myself braking around corners, gripping my handlebars so tightly that my hands hurt, and panicking at small logs or roots that wouldn’t have even made me hesitate this spring. And it’s exhausting. The emotional energy demanded by my fear is sapping the strength from my legs.
So what to do?
I’m sick of riding scared, and nothing I was doing seemed to help. A ride would go well until it didn’t, and then I’d be terrified of every corner.
I called my coach.
Actually, I called both coaches.
First, I talked with my cycling performance coach, Don Gallagher, and met with him for some in-person skills coaching and ride time. He gave me some basic pointers, reminding me to go back to the basics and look through the corners, put my weight into the outside pedal, and not brake going into the corner. These were all things I knew, but I’d somehow developed bad habits, and the bad habits were making me more and more scared as they increased the likelihood of a crash. He also told me that I was being too hard on myself. This grated a bit, as I’m a firm believer in high expectations. I want to perform at the highest level and be competitive, so in my mind, I have to be hard on myself. So though I was a bit unsure about it, I decided to sit with it, try it out, and see. Finally, he encouraged me to just keep riding, as the hypothesis was that much of my lack of confidence stemmed from the increased speed that came as a result of increased training–thus forcing my brain to process technical sections of trails at higher speeds.
Then, I called my mental performance coach, Mario Arroyave. Mario and I discussed the summer, my fear, and then went back to that last ride where I really experienced “flow:” Roanoke. He encouraged me to visualize my rides there. What did it feel like to “nail” the technical sections without hesitation on a trail I’d never ridden before? What was it like to go “full send”? Perhaps the number one point that he made was how critical it was to focus my attention on the times where I had ridden well. Naturally, it is easier to remember and think about the fear than the millions of successes. So even though I might be having a crisis of confidence now, I am the same rider who “sent” Roanoke and experienced that flow state. I still have those technical skills and abilities. Then, he told me to take some time to slow down and do some dedicated skills practice, just having fun playing with my bike. In short, take a bit of time to go slow so that I can go fast later.
Now that the 2020 “season” is over, I’m getting to spend a bit more “free” time just riding trails. Last weekend, I took my “big bike” (a Specialized Stumpjumper) to a trail in Southeast Michigan that is all machine-built bike-park style flow trails. Instead of focusing on going fast, I focused on dialing in my cornering on the big, bermed corners, and staying in a ready position through the downhills and small jump lines. Most of all, I had fun. Then, I came home, got out my hardtail (Specialized Epic Hardtail), and tackled the local trails with the same mentality (and a little bit of trying to go fast). I only scared myself a few times (like when I slid off the skinny three times in a row), but as a whole, it was a fantastic, fun ride–and I even had a few moments where I nearly stopped to celebrate a really well-ridden corner.
I’m not saying I’ve conquered this beast; just that I’m doing my best to slay the dragon of fear.
It’s time to start sending it again!