The Trails and Tribulations of a First Time Mountain Biker
Disclaimer: No employees were harmed in the making of this blog. Do try the stunts (not at home) but at a trail centre near you.
As a new member to the team at MountainBikeNI, it was only a matter of time before I would have to get out and experience mountain biking for myself. Boldly claiming “I’ll give it a go! Why not?”, my colleague Ethan and I set out to test the trails, and my nerves, at Blessingbourne Estate.
What to expect when you have no clue what to expect?
Blessingbourne was the first official MTB trail centre in Northern Ireland, dating back to 2013. It is ideal for all level of riders and ages, boasting a pump track, 4km of blue trails and 8km of red trails, making it an ideal location for those starting out on the blues or challenging the more experienced riders on the harder red trails. It was an obvious choice for my first time.
I acquired a bike and a helmet to complete the look and familiarised myself with where everything was on the bike, primarily, the brakes, as I was told that stabilisers were not an option. I adjusted the bike so that I could put my foot down in the likely case that I would need to emergency stop or slow down in a speed wobble and after a quick test run around the drive I was confident enough the hit the trails – or so I told myself!
I had an image of mountain biking built up in my head, very gnarly, lots of jumps and speed demons chasing the trails in epic fashion. So how was I going to match up to that as a total novice? As it turns out, it doesn’t have to be all big airs and break neck speeds.
We started out on Blessingbourne’s pump track, which was great for getting used to the steeper mounds with drops and turns and getting generally used to being on a bike again. The main 3 things I was encouraged to remember:
- Head up – Eyes forward and look ahead
- Keep your feet neutral when not cycling
- Bum back when going down a steep bit or drop
Once I had these etched into my brain, I was ready to take on the trails.
If you’ve never mountain biked before, it’s best to go with someone who has, and get them to lead the way. That way you’re not hit by an unsuspecting rock garden that you’re not ready for and you won’t veer off the trail you’re on or end up on a trail that’s too difficult. I found it really helpful when Ethan would shout “narrow bit coming up” or “keep right” and that way I was at least mentally prepared for what I was about to approach.
Once you have found a buddy to join you, it’s important to think about your selection of trails. Blessingbourne has over 12km of trails with a good mix of red and blue. The loop allows riders the option of heading home or continuing with more of the trail without taking you out of your way.
Once I had gotten the hang of cycling round the trails with some turns and steeper slopes, I wanted to prove myself on some of the harder stuff – for me that meant conquering a rock drop of around 20cm. If you are like me and appreciate a good dose of adrenaline, this is a good place to start. Similarly to going around the trails, I found it helpful to watch Ethan go first so that I could see which lines to choose, how to best approach obstacles and what way to position myself on the bike. Once I had watched and learned, it was time to give it a go. I got into position, lined up the rock and gave myself a quick pep talk before peddling off towards the jump. I hit the line, grabbed a few inches of air and landed gracefully on the other side, feeling like the queen of the world. “Let’s do it again!”.
One of the best things I found about mountain biking was that the smallest jump felt like a massive leap to me, so even though looking back now it seems less impressive, at the time I was over the moon and felt pumped to try even more. You can be a first timer and feel like a pro.
Use Your Brain.
Once I had gone over the jump a couple of times, I felt confident and ready for any other obstacles I might have to tackle. It’s important to remember that it’s still unfamiliar territory and if you don’t think you’re going to be able to do something, there’s no shame in either taking the chicken run or coming off the bike and walking it across.
I was able to ride some rock gardens and a boardwalk (slowly) but when it came to approach Blessingbourne’s famous ‘Crocodile’s Back’, I knew I wasn’t ready for such a narrow task with its steep drops on either side. It’s like saving a present for yourself in the future, today’s not the day, tomorrow doesn’t look good either, but someday I will do it.
Take a Breather
It’s a rush of green and brown as you whip through the trails but it’s easy to forget to stop and take in the surroundings. Even if just for a quick breather, a photograph or video set up, it’s good to stop along the way and really appreciate the scenery around you. If we didn’t stop it would all feel like a blur and the trails would have merged into one. It can also help you get your bearings and figure out where you’re headed to next. Blessingbourne is a stunning location and when you stop along the forest it feels like you’re in a fairy-tale setting, the lush green canopy overhead and the tall trees that hug the trails make for a great contrast to every day life.
After 90 minutes of blue and red trails I was really feeling the session, my legs were starting to tire, and my hands were stuck in handlebar grip position; it was time to head back. As we were cycling, I was thinking about how I had managed to go around both blue and red trails having never mountain biked before (not even being on a bike in 5 years); I had managed to figure out the basics and try some harder elements throughout and even made it around without falling off or hurting myself (minus a few scratches and bruises). If I can do that, then anyone can do it, and it’s totally worth giving it a go!
If you’re reading this and are now thinking you’d like to try mountain biking, Blessingbourne is easy to find, located on a private estate just 1 mile outside of Fivemiletown. It costs £3 to ride the trails or £5 if using the car park.