Why Do I Ride My Mountain Bike for Mental Health?

Mountain riding gives me a sense of freedom I’ve never felt before. Trail riding makes me feel weightless, as if I’m flying through the trees while being grounded. I concentrate on the dust and the next twists, and I sense the presence of every rock and root I pass. Mountain biking, in my opinion, is the physical incarnation of mindfulness: it needs you to be present in the moment, because the consequences of your attention wandering might be serious. I am, for that little hour or two on the trail, the way people are supposed to be—free. Biking allows me to temporarily forget that I’ve been battling anxiety and sadness for years.

I can see how my experiences growing up as a second-generation Mexican American in an anti-immigrant climate influenced my mental health difficulties. I grew up in Palmdale, a conservative city in the high desert of Southern California. Palmdale was previously a predominantly white Los Angeles suburb, but in the 1970s, the promise of affordable housing drew an influx of Black and Brown people to the area, sparking resistance. White supremacist activity was rife in the city. A neighbour informed my family when my family moved there in the 1990s that he wishes the neighbourhood had stayed the same. I was vividly conscious of racism moulding my identity and sense of belonging—or lack thereof—from an early age.

My parents worked their hardest to provide for our family, but we sometimes struggled financially since companies would not pay immigrants reasonable salaries. My father would come home late from work as a cook, his clothing smelling of vegetable oil, a smell I still connect with the long and exhausting hours he worked. Cleaning houses was also a difficult task for my mother. They couldn’t afford day care, so I followed them to work and overheard the condescending remarks made by white bosses about where they were born. Because of encounters like this with white people in positions of power—no matter how insignificant that power was—I was nearly always prepared to defend my parents in front of strangers.

Growing up in the 1990s, I witnessed California governor Pete Wilson use rhetoric that painted immigrants as scapegoats for the country’s social and economic issues, as well as public measures like the infamous Proposition 187. Undocumented immigrants were denied services like as public education and health care under the proposition, which passed with over 60% of the vote. It also forced some public officials to report anyone they suspected of being undocumented to the authorities. Although it was later declared unlawful by a federal district court, the harm had already been done, and it prepared the way for further anti-immigrant legislation. Proposition 187 aggressively criminalised Latino and Asian American identities, creating a previously unheard of legal category—the’suspected’ illegal immigrant—and then subjected these’suspecteds’ to vigilante monitoring, supervision, and invasion of privacy, as researcher George Lipsitz puts it. In other words, regardless of immigration status, Latinos were viewed as “illegal.”

I felt ashamed of who I was as a tiny child working alongside his parents doing labour that was sometimes mislabeled as “unskilled.” It was not uncommon to hear folks driving by yell “spick” and “beaner” from their cars as you walked down the street. “America has to bring back policies like Operation Wetback,” someone said casually in a coffee shop, or my biology teacher said, “Mexicans don’t care about education at all.” I stared folks in the eyes who believed I was a monster. As a result, I dropped out of school and avoided social situations out of dread of someone saying or doing something racist. Before I learned the terms for these diseases, I suffered from anxiety and depression on a daily basis.

That anxiety never went away fully. While everyone is affected by mental health concerns, BIPOCs are also forced to deal with the long-term impacts of racism, antagonism, and anti-immigrant sentiments. Racism, according to research, causes not only psychological distress but also a physiological response in the form of chronic stress, hypertension, and cardiovascular difficulties. Racism-related stress can cause blood pressure to rise and the immune system to deteriorate. Inequities in the mental-health-care system, on the other hand, can lead to misdiagnoses and ineffective treatment for individuals of colour. Social crises can increase mental health difficulties as well: in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, 41% of Black Americans showed feelings of despair and anxiety, according to the Census Bureau.

My family used to go to the park on weekend in Palmdale and have carne asadas. We’d camp in the neighbouring Angeles National Forest whenever possible. My parents are from a little town in the state of Durango in Mexico. My father worked as a vaquero, carrying livestock by horseback and sleeping outside for days at a time. My love of the outdoors stems from my background.

Camping with my Mexican relatives was a sight to behold. We didn’t know about little camp stoves back then, and we couldn’t buy one. As a result, we brought the complete BBQ, grilling carne asada and heating tortillas, as many Mexicans do. Around the fire, we used to play Lotera with a lot of laughing and delight. Those recollections are the reason I still enjoy camping today.

Unlike in the movies, where the protagonist usually has a smart retort to make a fool of a bigot or a bully, I had a slew of excruciating memories of things I wish I had said or done differently.

My mother and I went for a walk near our campground during one of our camping trips. My mother enjoys going for walks with us, and she would frequently pick up aluminium cans to recycle so that we might earn some money. She pointed out an empty can on the side of the road for me to smash and pick up when we were strolling that day. I handed it on to her.

We kept walking when we noticed a forest warden driving by. I didn’t think much of it. The ranger abruptly slammed on the brakes and accelerated toward us. His pickup was parked just in front of us, partially blocking our way. My heart rate increased as my breathing became heavier. When the ranger emerged, he yelled at us to stop walking. He had a rifle, and despite not taking it out of his harness, he kept his hand on it. He requested to see my mother’s hands and ordered her to drop whatever she was clutching. He shouted, “I said drop it!” She was taken aback, so I whispered something in Spanish to get her to stop. I mustered the nerve to tell the ranger it was simply a can as she let it fall to the ground. He pretended not to hear what I was saying. Whatever his goal in halting us was, it appeared he had achieved it. He returned to his pickup and drove away.

I’ll never forget how my mother regarded me following that encounter. It still hurts me to think about her being treated so badly in front of her son. I was helpless. I didn’t know how much I was still subconsciously holding on to that memory, and others like it, until a decade later.

I began to analyse situations like these much later, as a university student with access to affordable therapy. Unlike in the movies, where the protagonist usually has a smart retort to make a fool of a bigot or a bully, I had a slew of excruciating memories of things I wish I had said or done differently. In my thoughts, I replayed them over and again, fighting with remorse and shame. When I think about my mother’s interaction with the ranger, I have to remind myself that I was only a child at the time.

My older brother, who was in his late twenties at the time, got me to come to Mammoth Lakes, California, when I was 18. He bought my first mountain bike there. My first ride was in the eastern Sierra’s Sand Canyon. I was concerned as we shuttled up a long and twisting road, because I’d never seen mountains so big before. How the hell are we going to get down? I kept thinking.

The track began at 10,000 feet and descended 4,000 feet over the course of 12 kilometres. I used to ride BMX as a youngster, but this was much more dangerous, with rock gardens, sandy roads, and high-speed sections that appeared to go on forever. I was astounded at how well my suspension absorbed rocks.

It took us three hours to reach to the bottom, but during that time, I focused solely on the trail. At the conclusion, my brother noticed me grinning. He said, “I knew you’d appreciate it.” I didn’t feel anxious on the route, and I didn’t feel inferior to anyone else. All of the dreadful recollections faded from my mind. I wanted to pursue that sensation.

I enjoyed speeding by trees and concentrating on the next feature. The more I rode, the more eager I became to advance. On a bike, I felt like the best version of myself, but I wanted to ride with greater ability and grace. Biking taught me to value small wins, such as traversing a rock garden or clearing a jump. I had what felt like 100 successes for every loss, such as a crash. Biking on trails allowed me to appreciate the beauty of the natural environment. On two wheels, there’s still so much I haven’t seen.

Biking can feel like medicine at times, but like other medicines, it simply treats the symptoms of mental illness.

Biking allows me to disconnect from the outside world. However, it also assists me in maintaining my health so that I may venture out into the world. My mental health has deteriorated greatly whenever I’ve taken an extended vacation from riding. Mountain biking offered me the mental toughness I needed to complete a master’s degree in sociology with a focus on racism and immigration. I wanted to help others find a riding community and see themselves represented in stories about the sport, so I cofounded @pedal2thepeople with my good friend Rachel Olzer, an online collective that spotlights people of colour who cycle. I also started working as a freelance photographer, and I enjoy including black motorcyclists in my visual storytelling. I was able to transform my anxiety into productive energy.

I don’t want to romanticise mountain biking’s ability to treat mental health, even though it has given me life-changing insight. And I’m still not forgiven for the bike community’s refusal to acknowledge its bigotry. On a recent journey, I commented to someone that I can’t picture having children, but it appears to be incredibly expensive. “That doesn’t stop Mexicans from having them,” they said. Biking can feel like medicine at times, but like other medicines, it simply treats the symptoms of mental illness. It isn’t going to help me with my depression or anxiety.

I can see how my fear is linked to our country’s long history of systemic racism. I still battle with it, despite the fact that I’ve come a long way. Some days I’m too nervous to ride at all. I take the day off rather than collapse because I can’t be present. I’m motivated to ride as much as possible since it boosts me up, even if only for a short time.

My father, who taught me so much about resilience, respect, and the outdoors, passed away in February. I’m suffering from despair and grief as a result of his absence, but I know he would want me to ride my bike. He understood how important biking was to me and how much pleasure it offered me. I grab my bike and camera most days and look forward to my tyres kicking up dirt. I recall what made my father happy: being outside and seeing me smile. I want to pay tribute to him by being happy. I arrive at the trailhead, sling my leg over the saddle, and pedal, daydreaming of feeling as free off my bike as I do on it.

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