BY EGLE GERULAITYTE
We’re constantly told: face your fears. It’s a sound advice, but coping with fear when riding and exploring off-road, especially in the beginning, can be daunting.
We talked to rider Tammy Green, RTW goddess Steph Jeavons, and co-founder of sheadv.com, Shalmarie Wilson. All these women couldn’t be more different from one another, but they all had the same message: it’s ok to experience fear – but dare to explore regardless!
Fight or Flight?
For a lot of us, fear is a very physical sensation: fast heartbeat, the feeling of ‘freezing’, even panic. So how do we get out of it?
‘I most often experience fear with my thoughts, which then translate to behaviors that hinder me rather than help me. I just have a real hard time getting out of my own head when it comes to thinking about worst case scenarios. My fearful thoughts cause me to tense up – my arms get rigid, my grip on the bars gets really intense, my speed drops. It’s like I have this sense of intense focus where I overthink all the inputs my body is experiencing, rather than letting my experience and training take over. I am working on it, though’, – says Tammy.
According to Shalmarie, the key is not to let the fear win. ’I experience fear as a feeling is of nervousness, mixed with adrenaline. Over the past 25 years, I have done a lot of cool things and much of it in the backcountry of Alaska. If you are going to do anything outdoors in Alaska, you simply cannot let fear win! Otherwise, you would get to do nothing. So, I have trained myself to accept the fear head on. I would often ride my mountain bike, among many other things, alone and I can remember always having in the back of my mind the “what if” I were to have a close encounter with a bear and/or moose. I would still go and do my thing but always had a heightened awareness of my surroundings and I would never let the fear win’.
For Steph, fear manifests in a paralyzing sensation. ‘Fear generally causes me to stiffen up or freeze. I then try to talk myself out of it and get angry at myself. You have no choice but to get yourself out of it in the end but it can feel like anything you do will cause your own downfall. Muscles tighten and breathing becomes labored. It’s a horrible feeling. But you have to keep trying – ultimately, even if something feels too much, at least you tried; at least you gave it a shot. I think that counts’.
Fear can overcome anyone unexpectedly – but it turns out that steep hairpin turns, hard off-road conditions, and unpredictable traffic are the most common spooks out there.
‘For me, it usually involves a slippery downhill track, a big drop and an open hairpin bend! I can sometimes freeze up when it comes to exposure like that in the mountains! Stopping is the worst thing you can do when you feel that panic but fear can do funny things to you. I could have ridden 10 corners just the same before this one but something grips me and I lose control. I have the same thing when climbing sometimes. It hits me like a sledgehammer. It is a very physical thing’, says Steph.
Tammy has recently experienced just that, too. ‘I was riding up to a watchtower in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on my F650GS. The last little bit up was quite rocky with a switchback – exposed drops on the outer right hand side. I hadn’t yet dropped a tooth on my counter sprocket so my bike was geared quite tall. I was unable to slowly creep because my gearing would not allow it, and between the rocks and the sharp turn I was quite positive that I would shoot myself off the edge of the road! In my anxiety about staying away from the edge I chose a bad line for the switchback (too close inside), making my bad situation worse. I ended up unable to make the turn and hung up on a rock (factory low suspension). Ugh. I decided my only option was to rock back and forth while playing with the clutch and finally got myself oriented the correct direction and was able to continue up to the tower’.
Shal says riding off-road is second nature to her, but traffic still causes anxiety. ‘Honestly, I can’t recall having fear around riding off-road. Riding off-road is my “safe” haven. I love backcountry/off-road riding the best because I am removed from the potential hectic streets that is filled with inattentive drivers of today’s multi-distracted people. I also think that I don’t really have fears around riding off-road because I have taken specific training for off-road and I enjoy the challenge. Without that training, I know for a fact, that I would not have been able to ride all of those BDRs last summer. I feel like if there is ever a situation that I don’t think I can handle, well, I can just pick a different direction and take a different route. There is nothing saying that I have to ride through anything I don’t think I can handle. I spend little to zero time worrying about whether a route is rideable or not due to other people’s opinions. I like to access the situation myself because everyone’s perspective is different and conditions change often. Therefore, I just go and check it out for myself.’
Face it, experience it, forget it
We all love to put a brave face on, and the message we often hear is, ‘there’s nothing to be afraid of’. ‘Just do it already!’. ‘Don’t be a chicken!’. But the truth is, experiencing fear is only natural, and the best policy is to acknowledge its existence, experience it, and then, move past it.
‘If I get nervous about some technical stuff, I often find myself singing! It helps me to keep a rhythm going and stay relaxed. The more you do something, the less fear you feel. Fear is often due to lack of experience or lack of trust in your own abilities. Positive reinforcement is key to overcoming your fears.
People often call me brave for riding solo around the world. When I left I was terrified. I felt far from brave! I had no idea what to expect. Each challenge though brings positive results and eventually you need to push yourself more to feel the same buzz. Fear is not always a bad thing. The buzz of getting through it can be extremely rewarding and sometimes you find you want to do it again! It is a natural emotion. We all feel it. Don’t be too hard on yourself or judge yourself by others. Everyone is different and every situation is different but if I’m not singing in my helmet to get through it, I am getting angry and that sometimes gives me the kick I need. Feel the fear and do it anyway!’, – says Steph.
According to Tammy, having supportive people around you helps immensely, too. ‘Thankfully, I have been very lucky to be surrounded by people who are understanding and patient, so I have not really experienced the kind of negative feedback that I know others have experienced. Or maybe I have chosen to surround myself with those types of people? Either way I have not been made to feel like I should discount my fear. It is a real thing and no one else can tell you how you should experience it.
The most important lesson I have learned about fear is that the more you know about a given situation, the less there is to be afraid of. Training and practice go a long way to helping develop habits that can be pulled out of your toolbox when you are feeling fearful or stressed. I have mantras that I say to myself—things like “handle your bars like they are baby birds – don’t crush them!” I learned to watch my surroundings for cues about conditions- Are the tree branches moving? It may be gusty around that corner. I have strategies that I use when my exterior inputs get to be too much for me – like putting in ear plugs to drown out exterior noise and help me focus on my mantras! And the thing that is most counterintuitive to me – relax and go faster. That one is really hard because my brain is telling me to do that exact opposite’.
Shalmarie is a strong believer in training and patience. ‘Due to a near fatal motorcycle accident, in the past couple of years I have had to work through some serious fear while riding in traffic. I got through it all by taking baby steps. I first got back on the back of a bike to see what that would be like. I then eventually got back on my own bike and would ride in areas that I felt safer in. I would ride with others and have them lead. Even doing all these things, I’d still have some serious PTSD issues and have had to pull over and get off my bike a few times. Overall, I think by just taking those baby steps and putting myself in the safest positions possible and with time the fears started taking a back seat until they were tamed all together. I think that also should be said that I took additional training and increased my overall riding abilities which then lead to an increase in confidence and diminished my fear.’
What are your biggest fears while riding, and how do you cope with them? Let us know it the comments below!