How to cope with fear when mountain biking (because we don’t talk about this enough).

Recently I read Meg Hine’s excellent new book Mind of a Survivor, which explains how the instinct and skills needed for survival can be applied to ordinary lives. Hine is an expedition leader and bushcraft expert who works with Bear Grylls. She is also a keen mountain biker whose earliest adventures were often on a bike.

The book is broken down into chapters which explore issues such as intuition, acceptance, curiosity and creativity, empathy, preparation and resilience, along with Hine’s own often hair-raising adventures involving predators, rapids, bad weather, and lack of food in far flung corners of the planet. It’s a great read.

It was the chapter on fear that really got me thinking about what scares us when we ride. As well as my own fears – hurting myself again,  messing up a technical section and beating myself with the misery stick for not being as good a rider as I think I should be, a fear of contempt from those who ride with me – I’ve also read, over and over again, comments from other women who regularly bring up the fear of being the one at the back, or holding people up, or looking silly. We even apologise for ourselves by saying ‘I’m really slow’ before we know how fast every one else rides.

It seems that while one half of the internet is leaping over jumps and getting air like a badass, many riders are really struggling with fear.

Although it is ultimately healthy and natural to feel afraid, it can also be debilitating if it gets out of hand. In other words, a companion we’d prefer not to have to ride with all the time.

I hate this root.

I, for instance, hate this root. Its on a short, steep climb with no run up and I can’t get enough speed up in order to weight the bike properly and get over it. But that isn’t why I hate it. The reason it makes my stomach turn is because a more experienced rider tried to help me and another rider to tackle it, and I gave up (my friend managed to do it, of course). And now whenever I ride past it (or walk up it – I’m still nowhere near seeing how I will ever get over it while actually on a bike) I just remember feeling ashamed of myself.  I’m also convinced everyone on that ride remembers me as the one who gave up (though in reality they’ve probably forgotten all about it).

‘No amount of top of the range kit will save you if you don t have the right frame of mind’ says Hine.

So while its fairly unlikely that any of us are going to be faced with hungry lions whilst nipping around the local trail centre, we do have to call upon our inner resilience – and a positive, informed mental attitude – if we are going to get round in one piece and with a big smile on our face.

Ultimately when we ride we are all chasing ‘the flow’ fix – those moments when your mind and body connect and riding becomes instinctive and effortless “it’s the most beautiful, almost spiritual feeling: a kind of physical enlightenment’ says Hine. But this means pushing ourselves to our limit, and when fear takes over (which it does for me fairly often!), we freeze, don’t think clearly, and are then in more danger.  Reassuringly Hine explains that fear is an evolutionary response to a perceived danger and there is nothing impressive about not being scared because that means you don’t know you may be in trouble. Fear is your body’s way of saying something is wrong. To move forward, its important to control your fear – perhaps using visualisation (I have found this very effective, though it takes practice!), or by pinpointing the cause, accepting it and putting it ‘into a box’.

Obviously if you’re faced with a visible danger – an off-camber, wet, rooty drop for instance, where you can stop and look for the line or follow someone more experienced, then it is easier to apply these skills. But no one is going to pretend this is quite so straightforward when its a fear of being excluded or feeling humiliated that you are dealing with. However that doesn’t mean these skills aren’t transferrable, so long as you identify what it is that you are actually frightened of. But ultimately, and with practice, learning to manage your fears could become your most important tools in your mountain biking skills set.

Flow not fear – this trail at Swinley Forsest always puts a smile on my face


How do you control your fear when mountain biking? Please share below – I’m really interested to hear how others deal with this issue.

You can find Mind of A Survivor by Meg Hine here.


  1. Emily

    I really welcomed this post, as I think fear is something we don’t talk about much in relation to every day riding, but it’s something I have to work really hard at to control.

    I regularly feel a slight catch of fear of simple trail features, such as a muddy puddle or off camber root, as I don’t like the bike moving unpredicatably.

    I’m aiming to race a World Cup next year so I need to push myself on features that quite frankly, I’d rather not do at all! I’ll talk to my man about my worries, such as not having control, or not making the corner. I’ll also critically look at the feature, and if it’s far beyond my skills or limit, I’ll walk away but will write it on my ‘to conquer’ list. It’s a nice reminder to keep pushing the limit and to go back in a few months. I’ll also seek out similar but smaller features to train on first and practise my body movement.

    Ultimately I don’t feel any shame at not doing a feature – just motivation to improve until I can.


  2. Pippa Stroud

    There’s a technique known as ‘graduated exposure’ which works brilliantly; it’s about gradually acclimatising yourself to a particular situation (slippery descents for example) but the really awesome thing about it is that you also have to reward yourself each time you tackle something that you’re afraid of. I’ve had the excuse to buy myself some great bike kit as a result!
    Weirdly, what’s happening in my life can often impact on my MTB bravery level, but there’s no better feeling than facing those fears.
    Great article! I’d love to read more on this subject


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  4. caspriddy

    Just got back from an awful ride and read this, really cheered me up! Trying to get back into mountain biking after having my second baby…managed about 4 rides in 2 months. Was so happy I could get out on my usual group ride tonight, but then the route picked was one that I’ve never felt comfortable riding – but at least it was dry I told myself…!! Well, let’s just say as we walked up the downhill course and the boys were talking about which lines they were going to take, I was busy picking which bits I would be walking 😦 So frustrated in talking myself out of riding bits before I’d even got to them!! So got home feeling really disappointed in myself, thinking why do I let something I should be enjoying stress me out so much!


    • adele mitchell

      I think we’ve all been there (I certainly have!!) – and I hate having to walk! When I shared the post on Twitter last night Rachel Atherton picked it up and tweeted this “sometimes it’s a fear u can’t overcome that day,so take a different path & try again when u feel braver-that’s ok-cos every day is different”. She’s right (of course!) – it’s okay to have an off day. Come back at your own pace – after all, you’re there to enjoy yourself!! Good luck. 🙂


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  7. Bill Dorman

    I started riding w/ other bikers who were just a step above me in ability and by following their line, flow and speed it helped my confidence tremendously. I’ve had the butterfly stomach many a time and sometimes you just have to take that leap and know you are a good enough rider to safely complete the task.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Willow Springs (@WillowSpringsUK)

    Hi Adele – being that my campsite is nicely nestled into the more technical side of the Afan trails, conversations with our riding guests soon turn to questions of ability…’do you think I’ll be able to ride that section?’..’is it really tricky’…’will I fall off?’ ‘how steep?’…’are the roots really Gnarly?’….most of the questions are followed by a blush and remark that they know I can’t answer because its entirely subjective. It’s sad that the most common fear is the social one – if only we could remove our ‘comparison gene’, so many more people would get involved. Confidence however is something else, and often confused with fear, you can be a competent rider but not a confident one (and vice versa!!). My thoughts are, as with most things in life, the belief that we can be better tomorrow than we were today will always produce positive results, improve confidence, overcome fears and even a harsh root on a steep climb! happy trail shredding 🙂


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