Mental Health, Mountain Biking & Looking After Your Mates

by Wil Barrett 5

Author: Tom Johnstone (Carbon Monkey)

At the Singletrack readers awards last week, I got chatting to Mike Hall. We have a shared riding friend and both have significant bikepacking experience, although we approach riding from very different ends of the scale. One thing Mike said really struck me. When talking about getting through the tough times (on a ride), the dark hours late at night or the rain-drenched final big push of the day, he said “don’t give tired people choices“.

“don’t give tired people choices”

What he meant by this was that choice and options can be hugely stressful, and often the physical discomfort of pushing on is often easier than the mental discomfort of making a choice, torn between allowing your body to rest and your desire to complete the ride. This idea struck me not because I’m about to go out the door and take on the sorts of rides Mike favours, but because in recent months I’ve become more and more interested in mental health and am aware of the stresses that having a choice can bring.

reader awards trade day hebden bridge mental health group ride mates friends moss green fern
Riding through the lush greenery around Hebden Bridge.

Awareness of mental health and our openness towards it has come on leaps and bounds in the last 10 years, we have made huge and significant progress in de-stigmatising the subject and as a society making it OK to talk about mental health (the current 22 in 22 is just one example of this). Even with these huge strides forward I can’t help but think that we’re still some way off the point we need to be at.

Everyone accepts that each of us has a range of physical health, from feeling on top form, to having man-flu, to suffering a chronic illness or terminal disease. But we’re not yet at the point where we have the same attitude toward mental health and do wonder if the biking world is making that goal harder to achieve instead of easier.

reader awards trade day hebden bridge mental health group ride mates friends moss green fern
Smiles for days! Plenty of this during the Singletrack Trade Day last week!

Looking back over the summer, it started with a spectacular weekend at Fort William proudly watching Steve Peat shred down the mountain in a final farewell to his home crowd, while countless elite level riders challenged each other for top spot at superhuman speeds.

The summer rolled on and before we knew, it the Olympics were upon us and watching these elite level performances my inspiration started to wane and it was replaced with a simple sense of being entertained.

The BMX racing was awesome, the XC guys and girls were finally riding a course that looked like it was actually a MOUNTAIN bike course, and yet I wasn’t inspired to go out on my bike, to hit the local BMX track or tear my legs off on the next big climb.

Rio 2016: Not a roadie course
Rio 2016: Not a roadie course

Their achievements and riding abilities were simply so far removed from my own, that I might as well have been watching the gymnastics. The summer truly came to a close for me with the first properly wet and muddy ride of the autumn last Thursday with the guys and girls from Singletrack Magazine, on some steep loamy tech around Hebden Bridge.

We rode, we crashed, we slid into trees, got covered in mud and even spilt a little blood. I came away from that ride absolutely raring to get back out and ride, race my mates, crash in the woods and push my riding onto steeper and techier trails.

reader awards trade day hebden bridge mental health group ride mates friends moss green fern
Slippy, rocky madness descending down some of Hebden’s best singletrack.

The cycling world has for a long time put elite level performances on a pedestal, something to be aspired to, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s got to the point where it’s hindering our sport, not helping it.

The difference between most elite level riders and the rest of us has grown so huge that we can only watch from the sidelines in awe, accepting that no, we will never be that good. I’m no longer inspired to ride my bike in an attempt to emulate my heroes, because my heroes are riding at a level that will never be even remotely achievable for me.

reader awards trade day hebden bridge mental health group ride mates friends moss green fern
The best part of the Singletrack Trade Day? Catching up with old riding buddies who took out a whole day to come visit.

I grew up devouring Martyn Ashton’s riding style and big moves, and at my best I was perhaps 25% as good as he was at his peak. The trials riders of today are looking up to Danny Macaskill and those are some big boots to be trying to follow, just the thought of getting 25% as good as Danny terrifies me.

Martyn Ashton
Martyn Ashton a leading light in positivity in our sport

But going back to my childhood hero, of everything he’s ever done that has really inspired me, really lit the fire in my belly, it’s his positivity since his injury that has blown me away. It would have been so easy to have slipped into a depressing black hole after his crash, having lost so much, especially to such an active man, but has he?

Outwardly at least he has shown greater strength than he ever did on his bike, he’s taken the challenge on and become a leading light in positivity in our sport.

reader awards trade day hebden bridge mental health group ride mates friends moss green fern
More glorious Hebden Bridge greenery.

Statistics show that I am more likely to die from suicide than anything else at this stage in my life. Many of the people I ride with are in the same category as me (male, aged 20-34) and even with all the huge steps forward we have made with mental health, how are we still not tackling this in a more head-on manner?

We all wear seatbelts, we wear helmets and have made smoking a taboo action, but statistically none of that stuff is as important as looking after each other, providing an open and positive support network to our friends and family, and making sure that none of our riding buddies top up that statistic above.

reader awards trade day hebden bridge mental health group ride mates friends moss green fern
Get out, ride your bike with your mates, and don’t be afraid to talk about the things that might feel impossible to talk about.

Maybe it’s time to stop standing at the bottom of the elite performance pedestal, staring blinkingly up at the bright lights of unachievable performance above us, and to start looking around us to our mates and riding partners.

Maybe it’s time we take more notice when they’re on top form and trying to beat them down the hill, but also noticing when they don’t seem to be 100% and finding a way to tell them ‘you’re not alone, lets go ride our bikes and if you want to talk I’m ready to listen‘.

“you’re not alone, lets go ride our bikes and if you want to talk I’m ready to listen”

And maybe Mike was right, if you’re really [emotionally] tired, maybe not having a choice is key. It’s easier to stay at home and be depressed than it is to go outside in the wind and rain and ride your bike, but at times like that riding your bike can often be the best thing you can do.

For more information on supporting someone with mental ill-health head over to the website.

Comments (5)

  1. Great article Tom. The issue of mental health is becoming far more every-day, I had to go through months of therapy returning from Afghanistan a few years ago and riding a bike was a HUGE part of my rehab. I post this link to a blog I wrote that discusses the same sort of affect and how friends and bikes helped:

  2. Great article. Men are different to women (thank goodness) and this applies to many things, such as friendship/mateship. Women (generally) prefer to gather around a coffee table and natter away. Men prefer side by side activities, whether it be watching a game or riding. just being there as a mate works for men. In Australia there’s there “are you ok?” campaign. Touch base, make contact, arrange to go for a ride, all good stuff. It works and doesn’t cost a dime.

  3. Good to read that. Different perspective. Have appreciated help in the past (and ongoing to tell the truth). Callum

  4. Great article thanks for raising this and making me think.

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