The Importance of Staying a Beginner

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When you dismount a mountain bike going uphill, you end up doing a sort of bow. As you step off and swing a leg over the seat, your head naturally points down as you are admitting that the trail has you beat, this time.

After years of saying “I suck at fast/gravity/downhill sports,” I bought a mountain bike a few weeks ago. I have two goals:

1) I will not crash my new mountain bike hard enough to break anything on my body.

2) I will ride my new mountain bike enough times in the next year that its expensive-to-me-but-apparently-relatively-inexpensive-in-the-world-of-mountain-bikes price feels like an investment and not a foolish endeavor.

I’m a climber, I tell myself. I’m no good at these outdoor sports that require fast reactions: tree skiing, mountain biking, kayaking. I’m in my early 30s, too, which is old enough to know I don’t have to do shit I don’t want to do, like eat cauliflower, get regular haircuts, wait 30 minutes after eating to get back into the swimming pool, or ride knobby-tired bicycles on steep mountain trails. That’s the great thing about being an adult.

Which is also the bad thing about being an adult: thinking you know everything. You know what you can do, and therefore you know what you can’t do, too. I’m a bad cook. I can’t fix a car. It’s too late to go back to college. I don’t dance. I’m not a mountain biker.

The last word you’d ever use to describe my friend Elizabeth is “arrogant.” Three years ago, I would have introduced her as a boulderer, and a good one. Every year since I met her, she’s tried something new: Two years ago, she learned to snowboard. Last winter, she learned to tele ski. This year, she says she’s going to learn to roll a kayak. I admire this.

I remember learning to snowboard when I was 26, falling on my ass, and my face, repeatedly, cartoon-worthy crashes in the middle of blue runs while 9-year-old kids flew by me carving the hell out of everything as I wondered if I’d just given myself a concussion. I was humbled, to say the least. That year, I was able to tell myself, as Elizabeth does every year when she takes up something new:

I am going to try this, I am going to suck at it for an indefinite amount of time, and other people are going to see me fail, repeatedly.

My friend Jeff Weidman started learning to play the guitar at age 46, and everyone said he was starting too late in life. He stuck with the lessons and kept practicing, as his career brought big changes almost every other year. Nobody said it was too late in life when he played Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison” at his first-ever open mic six years later.

The earlier you can admit you don’t know everything, the more time you have to learn new things and make a richer life. The later you admit you don’t know everything, the less time you have. And if you don’t admit it at all? There’s a song lyric that says, “The older I get, the less I know, and the more I dream.”

Is anybody inspired by the guy who knows everything? I’d rather talk to the fat guy at the gym who has finally decided to do something instead of slowly dying in front of his TV, the divorcee going on her first first date in 25 years, the shy single guy at the cooking class, all the folks bumbling through our first time in a foreign country and stumbling through a new language, and non-teenagers crashing our new bikes, skis, snowboards, and sheepishly standing up again and believing you can teach an old dog new tricks.

I’m 4-for-4 so far on rides on my new bike without crashing. A couple weeks ago, I swear I caught two inches of air off a small bump in a trail near Fort Collins. If you were standing there and acted quickly, you might have been able to pass a sheet of paper between my tires and the ground. One friend of mine says we peak as bicycle riders at age 13, after which you start to get afraid to jump your bike off things. Another friend says 30 is the new 13.

Brendan Leonard writes Semi-Rad.

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{ 7 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Murph

    There is no age limit, have a blast with the new bike.

    You could say I’m on the other side of the boat from you. I started mt biking in the late 80′s when I was in my mid-30′s. Crashing was a regular part of the learning process, which can be pretty painful here in rock-strewn New England. I ended up getting to be a pretty good technical rider. Now that I’m 58, my skills are waning and I’m just plain wimpy a lot. I’m also recovering from rotator cuff surgery as a result of a very stupid mt bike crash. Oh well. Still love to get out.

    So, enjoy your new avocation. When I finally decide to take the plunge on something new, I’m like a little kid again. Have a blast.

  • Mary McKhann

    Love this post! I started windsurfing in my 40s and snowboarding in my 50s. I think it takes real courage to allow yourself to be humbled by a new undertaking. I used to teach skiing and the most difficult students were those who were really good at other sports and didn’t want to look foolish. Life is short; just do it!!!

  • greg

    Old is good. I started skiing at 50, biggest beater on the hill. Two years later, I telemarked for 2 years straight, 1000 faceplants and all. Back to alpine and moved to Montana 4 years ago. I am 60 now and the last 10 years have been nothing but feeling inept and stupid at things I love. I have also had more fun in the last 10 years than anyone has a right to!

    Don’t stop, ever….

  • RB

    If 30 is the new 13, then why does it hurt so much to be 27? Maybe after my kids finish college, I’ll start jumping off stuff again. Heck, I’ll only be 39. Primetime, baby!!!

  • Ken Ach

    The coolest thing about being a beginner? You see nothing but good times in all conditions. You haven’t progressed to jaded. No matter how good you get at something, always try to get better. Try to stay a mind beginner forever. Same logic applies to being a tourist in your own town. Never be the jaded local, always be the stoked tourist. It makes it easy to wake up happy.

  • Matt Freeman

    Love the attitude. As someone who’s taken up several mountain sports in the past 5 years (and have the scars/hospital trips to prove it), the irony is that at 41 I’m a far more engaged “student” at learning these passions through clinics etc then I was at17, though I was far more physically capable then.

    Just know, Brendan; every year you MTB your addiction to more suspension will increase. At my advanced age I’m considering adding a downhill bike to the stable; several bike park trips last summer convinced me of just how much damned fun they are. Be warned.

    Oh, and you will crash. Hard. But no matter how hard you crash, or the eye rolls you get from friends and family friends when you show up limping, scarred, bleeding or even worse, you will always want to get back out there. You’ll hobble out to wherever you keep you bike and stare at it, maybe still covered with the mud or dirt from your last ride and yearn to be ba k on it, to unleash those fierce-looking knobbies on the trail and to feel the suspension compress and extend as you run it through its paces.

    And hey, @Ken Ach, knowing you have that attitude means a lot. As one of the pioneers of snowboarding it’s refreshing to hear you think along those lines as so many of your, uh, vintage, exude a certain insouciance with new athletes in the sport. It’s also reassuring considering the complete ass I made of myself at Powder Mountain last January…

  • johnny

    Usually I think Brendan has a pretty cool, care free attitude, but one thing stuck out in this article, that makes me think he might not be that fun. He doesn’t dance? wtf?

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