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Why aren’t there more seniors mountain biking? Part 2

I asked the question here on my blog last week: Why aren’t there more seniors mountain biking? I’m trying to understand what’s behind the relatively few number of my age-related peers (AARP crowd, baby boomers, seniors, geezers) who are out there mountain biking regularly.

I also posted the question to:

Tim Walsh, Griff Wigley, Dean Davis

This morning, I met and had coffee with two of the guys who’ve been participating in the MORC discussion, Tim Walsh and Dean Davis. Tim is 64 and has been mountain biking for 30 years. Dean is about to turn 66 and starting mountain biking last year.

After a couple hundred online comments, plus my conversation today with Tim and Dean, I’ve got a somewhat better understanding than I did a week ago about seniors and mountain biking. There’s a lot to sort through and explain so I’m planning a series of blog posts, each one tackling a factor or issue related to seniors and mountain biking and what could be done. 

In the MORC forum discussion, Dean chimed in with a very detailed analysis. It included this:

By the time most of us hit the “senior” stage, our interests are pretty well set. My friends and I belong to golf leagues, we fly fish, we downhill ski, and we walk. In order to start mountain biking, I actually had to drop one of my summer activities to free up time to get out on the trails. None of my friends have any interest in starting a new sport, but they might be interested in doing something like the River Bottom Trails. I’ll have to push that this summer. But most of my friends just don’t have the personality anymore to get out there and ride trails.

Nearly everyone who’s physically active in their 50s and 60s still rides a bicycle at least occasionally, but most don’t race, or go on organized group rides or bike trips.  Mostly they ride bikes for transportation or for recreation, often on paved bike trails, like my wife Robbie and I like to do with our hybrid bikes. But I think if you asked her what sports she participates in, she’d say ‘none.’  For most people, riding a bicycle is not considered a sport.

But it seems that mountain biking is viewed as a sport by both the general public and those of us who are hooked on it.  It’s assumed that there’s a significant level of skill required to be a beginner, like downhill skiing (more on that below).

I asked fellow geezer John Schaubach how he introduces newbies at the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail System which is near his home. He replied

John SchaubachIf they have never ridden an off road bike before, I suggest first gravel riding, forest trails or, at Cuyuna, Sagamore trails. This way the rider experiences variation in ground resistance, the amount of momentum needed to go over changing terrain, the physical power needed to climb a grade and what it takes to navigate a controlled line through all this. This basic skill building leads to the confidence needed to tackle singletrack.

I do think Haul Road and Trout are the best starting trails at Cuyuna. Decent sight lines…. A nice roll without to much climb that helps conserve the momentum of the bike. … No difficult challenge features. Just good cross country flow.

But realistically they are not the perfect beginner trail(s). I would like to see available, say, a mile loop with a wider track that incorporates simple graceful flow design of gradual up and down and sweeping side-to-side bermed turns. Something that would immediately afford the new rider the core mountain biking experience that these purpose built trails are designed to deliver… something that is so engaging and inspiring they will want to ride more …and know they are able to.

Myrna Mibus and son Ryan Myrna Mibus and son Ryan
I took Myrna Mibus, a friend who lives near Northfield, and her son Ryan to the Salem Hills Mountain Bike Trails in Inver Grove Heights last year for their first ride on a mtb trail. Myrna commented on Facebook and in an email to me that she and her family found the that Salem and some of the beginner-level mountain bike trails in the Twin Cities area to be a little too intense for their first rides:

Myrna MibusAdd to that the fact that you are probably going faster on a bike and have farther to fall and that you have to be watching for bumps, trees, soft spots AND manage shifting gears and bike maintenance (flat tire potential, chains falling off) and, yes, I can see why “geezers” aren’t jumping on the mountain bike bandwagon.

John’s and Myrna’s comments were an eye-opener for me.  I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner and they’re essentially saying that it’s often too large of a leap to expect recreational bicyclists to go from riding on pavement to the dirt singletracks that I consider to be beginner level.

Mountain biking is often compared to downhill skiing.  Both activities involve learning how to control your speed over unstable surfaces and constantly changing terrain. Beginner-level mountain biking, however, doesn’t require a completely new body skill since pretty much everyone knows how to ride a bicycle. And it can be learned on relatively flat ground, despite the word ‘mountain’ in the name. So it could be argued that mountain biking is a much more accessible form of recreation for newbies than downhill skiing.

What’s scary for many beginning mountain bikers is being higher off the ground (sitting on your bike seat and standing on your pedals) while on an unstable surface.  Braking and turning, skills that hardly require a second thought when bicycling on pavement, suddenly have unpredictable consequences on dirt, especially when there are obstacles like rocks and trees nearby. So fear of being injured is a still a big issue,  just like downhill skiing. (More on this in an upcoming blog post.)

I’m coming to believe that if people can be shown that the fun of bicycling off-road can be just a small step from biking on pavement, they might become interested enough to buy a mountain bike and regularly embrace the activity at a recreational level.  And then some of those might decide it’s fun enough that they want to improve their skills and turn it into a sport for them.

Double track dirt trail, MN River Bottoms between the Mendota and Cedar Ave bridges

Dean suggested, and I agreed, that the dirt double track trail along the MN River Bottoms between the Mendota and Cedar Avenue bridges would be a perfect metro area trail for those who’ve never ridden a bike offroad.  It’s generally flat, wide, smooth, and obstacle-free.

We don’t yet have enough ride leaders and instructors who are skilled at introducing mountain biking to newbies.  I’m delighted to see IMBA offering their new Instructor Certification Program. I’ve not seen reports yet on how successful the newly certified are at introducing newbies but I’m going to take the Level I course when it comes to the Twin Cities in May.

And Tim Walsh said he’s having discussions with a local bike shop and a local fitness center about their helping to promote and support a series of daytime mountain bike rides targeting older riders.

More scheming to come.

13 thoughts on “Why aren’t there more seniors mountain biking? Part 2”

  1. Here’s a couple thoughts. Fat bikes might be good bikes to start on. … and stay on. One can ride just about anywhere year round. Stretches of summer bike trails could be groomed for winter fat biking. Seasonal “single track” could be created on a lot of open space with a little volunteer snowshoeing. Going fast on a bike is over rated. I promote the rule of “hurry up and slow down”. Give it your all uphill and take it easy on descents.

    The pace of winter biking is even slower and snow is a softer landing choice than dirt. I started mountain biking on designer single track three years ago as a complete novice. But it has been winter biking that has developed my biking ability and physical conditioning for summer riding. The pure enjoyment of off pavement biking, especially the new single track, will be what ultimately brings folks of all ages into “mountain biking”.

    But let’s keep sharing about the health benefits. Strength and conditioning speak for themself. And losing some fat is always nice. You brought up possible bone density benefit. How about balance? Does biking help conserve the natural decline of balance in aging. Improve it? I believe I have significantly improved balance from when I started mountain biking. Griff, your technical riding ability is impressive. Have you have had your balance measured to see how it rates for your age?

  2. John, I’m thinking of authoring a whole separate blog post about the pros and cons of fat biking for newbies of any age. I’m going to insist that you be one of my consulting editors because you keep opening my eyes.

    I’d not thought about how fat biking in winter could be a great entry point for someone who’s never ridden offroad. Slow with soft landings, indeed.

    Your phrase “hurry up and slow down” makes a lot of sense. It reinforces the “dorky slow” phrase that QBP’s Gary Sjoquist told me he uses when talking to people about fat bikes.

    Creating an alternate culture of mountain biking that doesn’t emphasize speed seems really important, fat bikes or otherwise.

  3. John, I’m definitely going to do more blogging about the health benefits of mountain biking. One cool thing is that there is some research that indicates mountain biking is safer than golf if you combine acute and chronic injuries. Not that many golfers fall out of their golf carts or get hit in the head with balls, but it’s surprising how many suffer from back, neck, hip, shoulder, etc problems.

    You may have missed it but Roger Christensen added a comment last week to our discussion about how mountain biking helped him recover from his stroke, especially his hand-eye coordination.

    So I’m on the lookout for more articles and research about mountain biking and balance benefits. If you or others reading this know of any, alert me.

    But how can you tell that your balance has significantly improved since you started?

    And what are the tests typically done to see if people’s balance ability is within their age group norm?

  4. Griff. I will be happy to share my ideas on bringing more seniors into all terrain biking. I am interested in the fitness and health benefits because of how significant an impact it has made in my life. No knee pain, weight loss, improved physical strength and endurance, better balance. With that has come the confidence to set a goal to mountain bike as long as possible in the years ahead.

    I have met folks in their 70s riding well on the single track. One guy, on Miners Mountain, proudly told me he was 80… So I ask, why not me? The testimonial of Roger C.about how he used mountain biking to recover after his stroke resonated with me. The mind / body connection.

    I know my balance is improved from my fat biking experience this winter. Snow after snow presented very difficult riding conditions. There were advances in grooming techniques. But grooming really never caught up with the challenging conditions. I rode about 40 times this winter. There were days I was pushing snow, covering very rough uneven surfaces, or riding in an existing fat tire track. Some of the climbs required riding a speed just shy of a standing stop to maintain traction. Riding slow and maintaining a precise line over distance and grade noticeably improved this year. And your coaching of my riding technique last summer was a key that got me working on improving my balance. Thanks.

  5. John, you’re an inspiration to young guys like me. ;-)

    Are there other areas of your life besides mountain biking where you’ve noticed that you have better balance?

  6. Griff. I don’t have scientific proof of balance improvement… just better performance. That is my question. Might mountain biking improve balance?

    Do you ride those mountain bike technical courses (skinnies) because you have better balance than others or because you have just maximized the balance you have?

    A test to demonstrate decline in balance is the ability to balance on one leg. Younger folks generally do better than older. Check it out.

    I hope to try stand up board paddling this sumner. I have heard balance and core body condition are important for this. For seniors, might stand up board paddling be an activity that has an alligned set of attractions and benefits to biking? It would be interesting to here from folks that do both.

  7. John, those are great questions. I’m not very knowledgeable about the science of balance. “Use it or lose it” is about as deep as I go.

    I’ve assumed that there are some psychological issues that play into it. I’ve always felt that I’ve had good balance skills so as a kid I was excited to learn skateboarding and slalom water skiing. When I got interested in dirt biking (motorcycles) as an adult, I got the hang of mototrials pretty quick. And although it about killed me, I learned to snowboard at the age of 45 so I could keep up with my teenage sons. I bought a Vewdo Balance Board back in 2007 so I could keep getting better at snowboarding. I still use it. I think knowing how to snowboard made it easy for me to learn stand up paddleboarding when I was on vacation a couple years ago.

    Making the transition to the technical riding of mountain biking and being good at skinnies was easier for me because of my mototrials background. (Learning to go fast and do jumps has been much harder because I never raced motocross or enduro.)

    So I think for me there’s been this virtuous circle for me. The more I participate in balance-type sports, the more I’m willing to do balance exercises, the better I get at the sport, etc.

    For others, it’s a vicious circle. They don’t feel confident in their balance so they avoid learning balance-type sports and don’t do balance exercises and their balance abilities gradually deteriorate.

    The key is having fun at something. So I think if seniors can taste the fun of mountain biking, they’ll be more likely to continue and maybe their balance skills will improve or maybe they’ll be motivated to do more balance exercises so that their mountain bike skills improve, etc.

    I did check out the one leg/eyes closed balance test and I sucked at it. 70 years old!
    http://www.sharecare.com/health/fitness-exercise/article/improve-your-balance

    And then I found out that it might be a crock of shit:
    http://www.crankyfitness.com/2009/07/unfair-and-unbalanced-real-age-balance.html

    But I’ve practiced a few times this week and once in a while I can get to 10 seconds. How about your score?

  8. I do less than 10 seconds balance with eyes closed…. but yet, my biking ability is getting better … Go figure. At the gym today I saw a lady of retirement age do a long graceful one legged pose concluded with a full bend of the waist. 9 years of yoga, she explained…. and also advised me that working on ones balance is very important.

  9. John, are you doing any kind of exercise routines?

    I’ve been doing the “Top 3 Kettlebell Exercises for Mountain Biking” by James Wilson for the past year or so:
    https://www.bikejames.com/strength/top-3-kettlebell-exercises-for-mountain-biking-2/

    I think it’s made a big difference in my overall core strength, which in turn makes me much less vulnerable to getting injured when I crash. At least that’s what I tell myself to help motivate me to do the exercises regularly!

  10. Yea. This winter I have been going to the gym regularly to strengthen my core. I do think this has contributed to riding better… safer. Since I have become a committed fat biker, with tire pressure serving as the only suspension, I have found my upper body and abdominal conditioning is key to managing tough riding… especially snow biking. The combination of riding and workouts seem to be complementary . But I really prefer a challenging bike ride over the gym any day.

  11. John, I posted this for Bruce Swanson in the MORC forum but I might as well as you directly!

    I think it was you who said to me when Cuyuna Lakes was creating their website way back when that he thought it would be good to have the various trails featured on the site by level of difficulty.

    I don’t think that’s been done, has it?
    http://cuyunalakesmtb.com/trails/

    In other words, it would seem like a good idea to have a whole section/page of the site devoted to the easiest trails at Cuyuna, with videos and photos depicting some of the ‘smell the roses’ elements that Bruce mentioned in his comment. (And of course, other pages for the more advanced trails. Timber Shaft should have some bloody knee photos. )

    I’m not picking on Cuyuna. I think this might be a good idea for all trail systems’ websites.

  12. I think that all this is still at an early development stage… just as getting new age groups involved. It will probably evolve as more folks get engaged. I had breakfast with John and Liz Burns yesterday. Liz was telling about her experiences last summer introducing women to mountain biking. Very encouraging. The issues and challenges seem to be the same as for seniors coming into a new sport. I still believe the range of starting points for all these folks is so varied it would be tough to give a one size fits all first ride recommendation. We did agree Haul Road would be a good start for single track… but thought, in some cases, only a short stretch of that trail, practiced over and over, would be best.

  13. John,

    I said this to Clay but I might as well nag you and Liz and John, too!

    Are you or anyone else at Cuyuna considering taking the IMBA Instructor Certification Program (ICP) course in May at Leb?

    It seems like a great opportunity. I’m going to take it and it would be great to have you or someone at CLMBt do it as well so we can collaborate as we implement some instructional clinics in our respective communities.

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