The spiritual depths of mountain biking

When you are out biking in the woods, you naturally prefer going downhill to going uphill. Downhills are easy and fun. Uphills are arduous, even frustrating at times.

You often feel like the uphills and the downhills are somehow out of balance. As if you had to pay for the enjoyment of every downhill slope with 10 times the amount of strenuously pedalling uphill. And to some extent your perception is correct, because you do spend a lot longer going uphill. But you invariably gain exactly the same elevation uphill as you lose downhill. As long as you finish where you started off, the two are in perfect balance. And yet, to you it feels like they are not.

What happens over time though, is you begin to develop an appreciation for the uphill too.

You realize that although it’s damn hard, it won’t kill you. Quite the opposite. It gets your heart rate right through the roof, which makes you feel more alive than ever before.

If it’s a moderately steep slope, going uphill gives you time to notice and enjoy what’s around you. Listen to the birds chirping away, look at a flower here and there, touch a low hanging leaf. Just be present.

Other times you notice that going uphill is a great time for getting inspired. Almost as if you were in the shower. You don’t know why, but some crazy ideas meet some even crazier ones and they mate on the way up…

And then there are times you feel you’ve reached the end of your strength and just have to stop immediately.

But no matter how challenging, every uphill battle has an end. As soon as you begin feeling the pull of gravity in the first couple of meters of the downhill, you drop everything. Your exhaustion disappears. All your problems, likes and dislikes go with it. The story of who you think you are temporarily dissolves. There is no past and future, only the now.

Right now, the stakes are high. One bad move and you are done. So you can’t help but focus 100% of your consciousness on keeping the bike on the path. As you storm down the hill, you are scared shitless and are having the time of your life simultaneously. You dodge holes, rocks, trees and the occasional dead rabbit. It’s intense.

When you reach the bottom, you stop for a minute, look back and just laugh. You sense an amalgam of relief, awesomeness and gratitude. Now, all that uphill struggle is suddenly made worthwhile.

Later, you realize that going downhill is so enjoyable because you know what it’s like to go uphill. If you went downhill all the time, it would lose its magic. It would become the default and you would not get the same kick out of it.

And then you begin to see parallels with other walks of life.

You notice your tendency to want to minimize the uphill rides of life and to maximize the downhill bits. You want to be happy, feel good, comfortable and fulfilled not some of the time, but all the time.

But then your riding experience reminds you that there is no downhill without going uphill (even if you take an elevator, you need to get up the mountain somehow to be able to go down). The only reason why you can enjoy the good moments of life is because you have some bad moments. You can’t have one without the other. As that notion settles in, your strategy for life begins to feel a bit silly.

That doesn’t mean you’ll start seeking pain, struggle and discomfort from now on. But you’ll have a different relationship with such feelings. You begin to notice how they are an essential part of the human experience and you may even feel a sense of gratefulness for being able to know joy through misery.

After a while, your partiality for what you consider a positive experience fades. You discover that having any experience is a gift. You feel pain, sadness and sorrow just like you used to. But they don’t make you suffer as much anymore. You don’t mind feeling pain and sadness or even unhappiness. And when you don’t mind feeling unhappy, guess what, it’s impossible to stay unhappy for much longer.

What mountain biking teaches you is to appreciate the ride as opposed to favouring certain bits over others. The beauty of the ride comes exactly from the continuous alternation of uphills and downhills.

Just like the beauty of life comes from experiencing the whole spectrum of human feelings and emotions.

Image credit: Chris Arellano