On Falling: Risk, Fear, and the Reward of Mountain Biking

Cycling Expert Talia Peterson tells the story of her most recent fall and how it has redefined her gendered relationship to risk while mountain biking.

The author rides over a drop on the No Quarter trail.

No Quarter Trail at Trestle Bike Park. Photo courtesy of Talia Peterson

Published on

We all fall in a lot of different ways. We fall off routines, fall short of our goals, fall in love, fall behind...we fall down. Falling comes with that feeling of weightlessness as your body breaks free of gravity's hold for just a few seconds, then is reclaimed and pulled back. It’s a feeling I’ve always been terrified of—the jerking sense of being out of control and the terror of the punishment of hitting the ground.

I was a bit of a tomboy growing up. I only had guy friends, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress, and I was always fiercely competitive. I biked and tumbled and ran around in the dirt, but my adversity to risk, to falling, and to getting hurt was always much more prominent than what I witnessed in my male counterparts. When they would climb trees, I would watch. When they would ride bikes, I would cruise behind. This little bit of fear would hold onto me, a fear of the uncontrollable, of falling.

I’m not sure if my experience holds true for other women, but I imagine that I’m not an outlier for most. Something about being a girl came with this internalized sense that getting hurt was the worst thing you could possibly do, that scrapes and bruises were to be avoided at all costs, and that risks that could result in injury were stupid and reckless. Getting hurt was something for only the brutishness of men. The guys I was friends with were never overly brazen in their risk-taking, but they would break the occasional bone, scrape knees and elbows, and wear those scabs like a badge of honor.

As an adult, as a woman in birth and identity, and as someone who is discovering a love for the sports that take you to the extremes of risk and human capability, I still struggle with that internalized fear of risk, that fear of falling all the time.

The author jumps on her bike coming over a small hill and heading down hill. The sky is bright blue above and her hair flows out of her helment behind her.

Joe's Ridge in Fruita, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Talia Peterson

I rediscovered mountain bikes a little over a year ago when I met my current partner. I was lucky enough to mountain bike a little bit as a kid, so the sport wasn’t entirely new to me. I rode an old-school Specialized hardtail on our local singletrack and occasionally out in the mountains of California, but nothing gnarly. The dirt was pretty smooth and there were no jumps or drops or rock gardens to really push my boundaries on a bike.

My partner is a downhill mountain biker and opened a door for me to re-enter the sport with excitement for the extreme and rowdy side of bikes. Maybe it didn’t happen immediately, but after a few days on a decent bike (I rode an Orbea Occam last season) and the conquering of a blue trail or two for confidence, I think it’s safe to say I’m hooked.

Most of our season is spent on a lift access mountain, with some pedaling in our shoulder seasons for the rowdier trail riding here in Colorado. I have progressed so much since last season—moving through a novice timidness, to a nervous elation at clearing the baby jumps and rocky sections, to the beginning of my intermediate riding where I’ll swallow back the nerves and do my best to just trust my bike, trust my body, and send it.

Piece by piece, dismantling that fear of falling has made mountain biking the most rewarding sport I do, and something I am driven to progress in. The constantly changing relationship I have with risk, fear, and reward makes it thrilling, engaging, and intoxicatingly fun.

But when you fall and hit the ground with speed, the reality of the risk and fear comes rushing back in. For context, I am writing this coming off of the gnarliest crash I’ve ever taken on a bike, and so have spent the last few days deeply exploring my relationship with falling.

Someone rides towards the camera with their arms pushed up on their bike handles. They wear a helmet with a full face covering.

Bear Arms Trail at Trestle Bike Park. Photo courtesy of Talia Peterson

Falling hurts, but it’s also (as I’m discovering) so important to learning.

My crash was from a jump I had never cleared before and had spent most runs baby pulling and landing to flat on the tabletop. It was on Rainmaker, a popular jump line at Trestle Bike Park in Winter Park, Colorado - our home mountain, so to speak. I was dropping in as the tail on a train of coworkers I was riding with, having had up to that point a phenomenal day—clearing a few jumps I’d perpetually been casing, whipping corners faster than normal, and overall feeling pretty sendy. On the jump prior to the crash, I smacked my rear tire short of the landing and squirreled out a little. Rolling over into the next jump, I was feeling confident. I held speed and forced away that instinctual brake grab into the take-off that has always been a habit on this set of jumps. Coming off the lip of the tabletop, I yanked up (I think probably way too early) and knew instantly the landing was too far away. I remember dead sailoring the bike in some desperate in-air attempt to reach the landing. I felt the front wheel touch dirt and I threw myself off the right side of the bike and tried to roll out. I must have hit right shoulder down. I remember the first roll, then black.

The next thing I remember was a guy asking if I was OK and trying to stand up. With the balance having been knocked clean out of my head, I didn’t stand a chance of getting on my feet. Then, it went black again. Next, bike patrol was there, running through their initial evaluation—name, where are you, squeeze my finger, where does it hurt? After a bit, I was finally able to get up with some assistance and walk to the patrol truck with my own power, if a bit wobbly and seeing wiggly stars. For the truck ride back to base, I felt physically drunk - wallowing through the immediate symptoms of a concussion. My vision was tunneled, my hearing sounded as if I was in a fishbowl, and my short-term memory struggled to keep terms. I asked the patrolmen four times what the back of my jersey looked like because I could feel the sticky, bloody scrapes and the jersey was brand new. Suffice to say, my head was rattled.

The author lays on the ground with her arms outstretched and a full-head helmet and goggles on.

Photo courtesy of Talia Peterson

I’m not sure if women just don’t crash as much or if we don’t talk about it, but I have recounted the crash so many times this week to a mix of reactions, mostly laced with concern and a little awe. I crashed out of my own foolishness and could have been hurt a hell of a lot worse than I was. But at the same time, every time I retold the story, the more critically I could examine where I had made mistakes and what I want to work on once I’m back on the bike.

In a past life, I’m not sure I'd be able to get back on a bike for quite a while. I think I’d have a hard time mentally brushing myself off and being able to power into a jump like that again. Right now, the scraping on my back has finally scabbed and my head still spins like crazy when I lay down. But, candidly, I’m excited to be healed enough to get back on a bike, to give that jump another try. Even if I’ll be a little afraid of falling and a little too stubborn to back down.

This is definitely a recent breakthrough for me, and I wish for the sake of the girlfriends in my life that I could explain better how I’ve grown from A to B. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a talented or rad rider. I can ride blues and blacks but I don’t jump well, don’t corner great, and technical trails seem to bounce me around like a ping pong ball on a speaker set to 11. But at the same time, I only know a few women who can or are willing to shred at my level and a couple more I know who ride much, much better than I do. Whether it’s fear, the embarrassment of not being good the first time they’re on a bike, or an aversion to the risks of the sport, I’m pretty sure the same fear that makes me dial back on a jump I’ve never cleared before is what prevents a lot of women from ever getting on a bike.

Someone jumps high on a bike and leans a little to the right side, twisting the front wheel more to the left than the back wheel. They look straight forward towards the camera.

Photo courtesy of Talia Peterson

Falling is scary, and it hurts. But without the falls, I’m not sure I’d be so driven to get back up and try again. And maybe this is why women’s extreme sports have so much room to grow. I know so few women who learned as a kid not to be afraid of falling. But I say this is the most optimistic and exciting way possible because the sky's the limit. I watched women at Red Bull Formation this past May taking drops and jumps that only men have so far stomped in competition. I saw Robin Goomes throw the first backflip in Crankworks history and a parade of tough-as-nails downhill racers rip on tracks that demand physicality and punish mistakes. It’s so inspiring to see women not afraid of falling. I can’t help but ponder how many falls they’ve taken before we see the race run or the trick thrown in competition and if they learn as much from it as I have this week.

It makes me excited for my sisters on bikes and excited for my own growth on a bike to know that fear is not the end all be all to the risk in this sport, and the reward of balancing fear and risk is so much fun. So the next time you’re on a bike, facing down a trail with sections you might be afraid of, give yourself the opportunity to let go of that fear. I unlocked a whole new joy in bikes when I took charge of my relationship with fear and risk. I realized we all fall down and it’s getting back on the bike and succeeding anyway that makes this learning process so fulfilling.

Like this article?
Share it with your network

Written By
Talia Peterson
Talia Peterson
Cycling Expert
I grew up constantly hiking, biking, and camping as a kid. Lucky enough to have a great single track system in the town I grew up in I pedalled quite a bit. After graduating from the University of California, Davis with a B.S. in Ecology I headed out to Colorado. That's where I fell in love with dow...
View profile

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

Read Next

New and Noteworthy