Teenagers flew by me as I cried. Why was I mountain biking again?

Teenagers flew by me as I cried. Why was I mountain biking again?

Standing on the side of the trail, with my bike flung off into the bushes and tears running down my face, I watched a parade of teenage boys fly past me with that reckless abandon only children possess. Cheering and whooping as they skidded through the corner, I hoped they were going too fast to notice me.

I quite often feel like an idiot for taking up a new, dangerous sport in my mid-30s, especially when the trails are full of 12-year-olds who can already ride better than me. But I’d never felt more ridiculous than at that moment. It was day one of practice to achieve a goal I’d set myself a few weeks earlier.

Laura Gray after one of her action-packed rides down a mountain trail.

I’ve ridden a bike my whole life. But when I met my now-husband – a World Cup mountain bike racer, bike mechanic, and mountain bike instructor – I got swept along for the ride. We moved to Bright in Victoria’s high country and I soon shelled out for an expensive bike and was riding regularly.

So here I was – a woman in my mid-30s, 12 months postpartum, with a part-time job and a baby to look after. I barely fit into my bike shorts. I didn’t know the lingo. I was way out of my element. But I just loved riding downhill fast.

Unfortunately, imposter syndrome is real. Maybe it’s an age thing, a gender thing or a combination of both. But, until very recently, I would give way to every rider in my vicinity to allay the terror I felt at delaying riders who looked fitter and more competent than me.

Then I found a community of female mountain bikers in Bright. We started riding together every week – often spending more time talking than actually riding. The huge range of ages and abilities, plus the sharing, coaching, and encouragement was inspirational. Some had been riding forever, and some of us were just starting. But it didn’t matter – out on the trails, doing what we loved – we were all equal.

So 18 months ago, I challenged myself to ride a Black Diamond-rated trail named Elevation. It’s not the toughest trail in Mystic Park, but it’s certainly in the top three – a wild, 2km goat track that descends 300 metres from the top of the mountain.

“I’ll never be able to ride this trail. Ever!” I screamed at my husband the first time I tried to ride it. I stood on the side of the trail, crying, overwhelmed by the task ahead of me.

But with persistence, practice – and a few lessons – I started to progress. I got to some of the most challenging sections: rock drops, tight switchbacks, and super steep terrain.

Then, just before Christmas, I went over the bars down a steep, rocky drop. Somehow, I broke my big toe but, even worse, I shattered my confidence. Not to mention the enforced six-week recovery period with no riding.

On the trail near Bright in Victoria’s high country.

So it was back to square one in February 2022. Real back-to-basics stuff. Not only could I not face the technical terrain, but I also found myself unable to ride even the easy sections. I knew I had the skills, but my head was getting in the way. I was closer than I’d ever been to giving up. Had Elevation finally beaten me? Maybe I wasn’t good enough, after all. Maybe I should leave it to the “real” mountain bike riders. So when the snow started falling in May this year, I thought I’d missed my chance again.

But between the storms, I rode when I could and, in mid-July, I headed out to ride Elevation in its entirety.

Bingo – after 18 months of working at it, I finally conquered the trail I consider my nemesis. From the steep, rooty section at the top that makes my heart race just thinking about it, to the rocky drop where I broke my toe, through the teeth-rattling roots, and onto the super tight and technical switchbacks near the bottom – I did it all.

I was elated (but mentally exhausted) after my first run. I’d finally shaken off the beast.

Parts of that trail still scare the hell out of me, but I’m becoming better at ignoring my brain screaming at me to bail. My husband calls that confidence. I just call it survival mode.

This project might sound like an overblown hobby to some. But the journey to reach this point has meant a lot more to me. It’s really challenging to throw yourself into something difficult again and again (especially when that thing is a literal mountain). I’ve proved to myself that I can set a goal, work towards it and achieve it. I’ve proved to myself that I am actually a decent mountain-biker (that darn imposter syndrome won’t let me go so far as to say ‘good’).

I’ve proved to myself that it’s possible to take up something new, and excel at it, in your mid-30s. And, most importantly, I’ve shown my daughter that hard work does pay off, that it’s okay to take time for yourself, and that women can – and should – do absolutely anything they want.

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