Why aren’t there more seniors mountain biking? Part 3: Fear of injuries

In the online discussion threads (see the list in part 2), many people mentioned the fear of injuries from falling as a reason for not considering mountain biking.

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

I touched on it in that post, arguing that beginners should not have to accept falling as a necessary part of recreational mountain biking on flat, wide, smooth, obstacle-free dirt trails like the dirt double track trail along the MN River Bottoms between the Mendota and Cedar Avenue bridges.

But what if you’re wondering if mountain biking could become a sport for you?  What if you’re curious about what it’s like to ride on some singletrack, especially trails with some of that ‘flow’ that you keep hearing about?  What if you’re tempted to engage in a little skill development, either on your own or with some coaching?

woman mountain biker on the berms at Lebanon Hills woman mountain biker on the berms at Lebanon Hills woman mountain biker on the berms at Lebanon Hills
I took these photos of a woman riding the big berms section on the Lebanon Hills advanced beginner trail when it opened in August of 2011. I yelled to her, “Are you having fun?” and she yelled back with a big smile, “I’m scared to death!” Given her casual clothes, I’d say she was a recreational mountain biker at the time, right up against the limits of her skills.

It’s cool that she was out there, testing her limits. If I was her instructor that day,  I might have pulled her aside to ask her if she was having fun and if so, was she willing to accept that there was going to be some falling in her near future.  Why?

If she got a taste of the pleasurable physical sensations going around the lowest part of those berms, her brain was likely to be screaming “Let’s do that again!” as it released a variety of chemicals that contributed to those feelings of euphoria.  From there, it’s a short step to go a little higher on those berms the next time through, a little faster on the rollers, or find slightly bigger rocks or logs to ride over.  And at some point, she’ll exceed her skill level and fall.

Falling is something we increasingly don’t experience regularly as we age, and when we do, it’s rarely in the context of a helpful learning experience like when you see kids falling constantly when they’re learning to ski or snowboard.

I’m not an instructor but it seems to me that adult beginners, including seniors, who want to graduate from recreational mountain biking need to be reminded of this.  Falling is part of learning when you want to mountain bike as a sport. It can be a good thing.

The good news is that spills by beginning mountain bikers are rarely severe. Tim Walsh, who I met yesterday, added a comment in the MORC forum about mountain biking injuries:

Griff, I was looking for a link on an article regarding the comparison of injuries due to mountain bicycling to other cardio action sports. Sorry that I can’t find it, (I believe the article was in Bicycling).

The message was that the incidence and severity of injury compared to other sports such as downhill skiing, snowboarding, XC skiing, running and road bicycling was fairly low. The author used data comparing industry provided estimates on number of participants and emergency room incidences resulting from sports participation as part of his rational.

The writer speculated that the reasons mountain bicycling was not as high a risk sport as other cardio action sports included the ideas that most riders rarely sustain speeds over 10 miles per hour so not a lot of broken bones and it’s not an impact sport so not a significant risk of overuse injuries. This may suggest that safety equipment promoting comfort, safety and balance would be the order of the day. Helmets, gloves, and long sleeve shirts would provide most of the protection needed for new riders. Bottom line, my experience is that if wearing the above listed items, other than some abrasions, poison ivy rashes and bug bites, XC mountain bicycling is a fairly safe sport. I will keep looking for the link. 

And I’d argue that if you’re willing to also wear elbow and knee pads in addition to the gloves and long-sleeve shirts that Tim suggests, you can avoid many of those small bruises and scrapes associated with falling over and low-speed crashes.  

Riding the rocks at Lebanon Hills skills park with protective gearI’ve found that wearing protective gear has some psychological benefits for me in my quest to keep improving my skills. I’m much more willing to keep trying stuff that’s just a bit beyond my ability level because I’m not overly concerned about getting hurt. I tell myself, If I don’t make it, it’s not a big deal because I’m pretty well protected.  I’d argue that this mental mindset means I ride more relaxed, with more concentration on the challenge, and thus I’m even less likely to fall.

I found an article with the slightly misleading title Most Dangerous Sports that included mountain biking in its ranking:

What qualifies as the most dangerous sport is a matter of opinion, as it can be measured in a variety of ways.  The approach taken in this case was to generally look at sports most people play and compare them against each other in terms of number of injuries, body parts injuries, ages of those injured, and what types of injuries occurred using the Consumer Product and Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) database

If one defines ‘most dangerous’ as the sport with the greatest number of injuries per number of participants then football, skateboarding, and basketball could be considered the most dangerous… Mountain biking, tennis, and golf where those that scored lowest in terms of injuries per participant.

golf back injury cartoonGolf cart crash

For all you seniors out there who golf regularly, note that mountain biking was last on the list at #11 (safest) and golf was #9. I’m guessing that not that many golfers get injured crashing their golf carts or get hit in the head with golf balls. Rather, as this article states,

 … golf is fairly demanding on the ankles, elbows, spine, knees, hips and wrists, which, without practicing necessary precautions, can result in an injury occurring in one, or even several of these areas.

Those are the injuries that are probably triggering all those hospital visits tallied by the NEISS database.

The moral of the story is not to quit golf and take up mountain biking, since the injuries in both sports can be minimized with proper preventive conditioning.   It’s really a perception thing. Mountain biking at the beginner and intermediate level is safer than most people think.

Mountain biking has other ‘perception’ problems, too. More on that next.

John Seery, Michael Knoll, and bloodied friend in the Yawkey Unit at Cuyuna Lake MTB Trail SystemUpdate 10 PM:  The photo at the top of the blog shows John Seery and Michael Knoll from Michael’s Cycles in Prior Lake  attending to an injured buddy’s leg. They were tackling the narrow and rocky upper section of Timber Shaft in the Yawkey Unit of  the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail System when he fell and sliced his leg on, you’ll never guess, a sharp rock. Shred the Red became Shed the Red. Michael had a first aid kit, patched him up, and he promptly got back on his bike and cleaned the section where he’d fallen. Off they went to the Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby to get him stitched up.  Just another way that mountain bikers bring economic development to the area.  Full details of that day in May, 2012 in this blog post.


  1. Clay said:

    I’m really enjoying this series as a geezer in training. I agree with you about safety gear having a psychological component as well. I feel safer and actually will ride faster and take bigger chances when I’m geared up.

    March 27, 2014
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Glad to hear, Clay. So as soon as it dries up, we’re going back to Hillside with all our armor on and beat the Browner stockade skinny into submission, right? You’ve got your Wilderness First Aid certification, don’t you? 😉

    March 27, 2014
  3. Clay said:

    The only way I’d even really attempt the Browner is if I could ride it backward…doing that uphill would leave me with so little momentum, I see only pain. 😛 And although, I do not have a certification in wilderness first aid, I am pretty handy and CPR certified…LOL So I’ll help put you back together.

    March 28, 2014
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    Okay, good to know. And if you fall off going the other way, I’ll try to catch you… on camera!

    March 28, 2014
  5. Stormy Ward said:

    Hi, Griff! I just ran across your blog, and I thought that I would give you a brief review of my MTB experiences. In 2009, I bought an entry-level Giant Boulder SE. I hadn’t owned a mountain bike since 1990, and even then, I didn’t really do any off-road biking. The thing is, I really wanted to.

    It didn’t take me long to know that this was a sport/activity for me. I had just started to learn a few things when I had to move from AZ to OK due to health problems. I then developed fibromyalgia, and was unable to walk more than about twenty feet for 3 years. After discovering that dry climates were better for my fibro, I moved to Surprise, Arizona last fall. I learned that there were some fun ATV roads on the state land, and so started to ride out there twice a week.

    Even now, several months down the road, I still think that there are some areas that would challenge a pro. Many crashes later, I am just as committed to developing my skills and having fun as I was when I started. The YouTube videos (I’ve seen hundreds) have been really helpful, and when I learn something new, I go out and practice it. My experiences and progress have probably been atypical, and I wouldn’t really recommend that someone follow in my pedalsteps.

    I learned everything the hard way, with out any advice from a live person. On some days, I’ve had as many as four wrecks. Recently, I went for 17 rides without a mishap, but when I finally had one on the 18th ride, it was a doozy. Maybe (probably) there is an easier/safer place to take up the sport, but I’m just not sure that all seniors (or others) are prepared mentally for the dark side of MTB riding.

    I think that you have to be prepared to pay the price of bumps, bruises, cuts, abrasions, sore muscles, rattled brains, and just plain old pain. In my opinion, the fun makes it worth it, and it gives you some good stories to post on Facebook. I never worry about broken bones, but perhaps senior female riders should exercise caution, due to their lighter bone mass. I do try to be wise when riding, and it’s my practice to check out tricky places before I ride them, but you can’t plan for every contingency, and those little surprises can possibly result in a face plant.

    Griff, please pardon this little book th at I’ve written, but I’m just so happy to find some other “mature” riders who also share my love of MTBing. I’m looking forward to reading your blog, and the comments of other people.

    June 10, 2014
  6. Griff Wigley said:

    Stormy, that’s a great personal story. Not many people with fibro are able to do what you’ve done.

    I’m a big believer in crashing as a way to learn (and have fun!) but it’s tough for adults who aren’t used to it. So I’m an equally big believer in wearing lots of protective gear.

    See my blog post about crashing and protective gear:

    Besides a helmet, what protective gear do you normally use?

    June 10, 2014
  7. Stormy Ward said:

    Now you are touching on one of the first tips that I would give beginners (and others). I would suggest that everyone purchase knee/shin pads and elbow/forearm pads at the same time that they buy their bike. I could have saved myself a lot of pain, if I had been given this advice. My first “wreck” occurred on the initial ride in Arizona, and I didn’t really crash, but I hit some sand and just fell over. Sad. I still walked away with a cut and significant abrasion on my knee. In subsequent mishaps, the list of moderate injuries grew. As my skills multiplied, so did my scrapes. And my wife was getting tired of calculating my blood loss. All of that could have been avoided if I had purchased some protective gear. Unfortunately, at my house funds are extremely limited, so no gear other than a helmet and gloves. I will have to say that having a few wrecks has boosted my wisdom, so now I plan better lines and check out the hazards before I ride through a difficult area. When Christmas comes, though, I’m hoping that I’ll find protective gear under the tree. Meanwhile, I can expect to be “awarded” with a few more “badges of honor.”

    June 10, 2014
  8. Clay Haglund said:

    Stormy- Keep an eye on the online parts dealers for big sales. You can get the protective gear you need for little money. I found my TSG knee/shin guards on http://www.nashbar.com for $15!…marked down from $125.00 on clearance. My elbow/forearm guards were a http://www.pricepoint.com sale item for $12.99. Both have saved me plenty of skin already when I bother to put them on. My shins look like hell from all the pedal bites I’ve suffered when I slip a pedal. I buy my “mechanic” like gloves at Menards for $6.99/pr. The leather palms protect my skin and when I go down and tear them up, they are cheap to replace. Helmets can also be found cheap. I just recently added to my collection when pricepoint had a sale on the Bell Faction helmet for $6.98…marked down from $45.00 Money has always been tight for me; so I’m pretty good at looking for deals.

    June 10, 2014
  9. Stormy Ward said:

    Thanks for the tip, Clay. Yep, I could afford those.

    June 10, 2014
  10. Griff Wigley said:

    Yeah, our ‘badges of honor’ are good for storytelling and a bit of comraderie among fellow mtb’ers.

    But I’m always surprised how often good riders are unwilling to try new challenging technical stuff and I think it’s often because they really don’t want to risk collecting more of those ‘badges of honor’ as they don’t like to wear protective gear.

    It’s kind of a conundrum.

    June 10, 2014

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