What makes mountain biking the best sport in the world?

The other day Mutual of Omaha was in town interviewing people for the “sponsor of Life’s Aha Moments” campaign and I was asked to come in and tell them about my Aha Moment. I guess a guy that makes a living training mountain bikers is pretty rare and they assumed that I must have had some moment that inspired me to do it.

The truth is my actual moment isn’t that special – I was sitting in my living room in Tyler TX trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was managing a large gym at the time, making a comfortable salary and not having to work especially hard for it and yet I knew there had to be more. Something popped up in my head about combining my love of mountain biking and training since no one else seemed to be doing a very good job of creating good program for riders.

The rest, as they say, is history. I got a website, created my first program and started telling anyone who would listen why strength and conditioning was the key to improving their riding. MTB Strength Training Systems was born and 5+ years later and hundreds of testimonials from riders around the world later I’m going strong.

However, the best question they asked me was “what makes mountain biking so special”? I had to pause for a second to put my thoughts into words but here is essentially what I told them…

I think that mountain biking is the best sport in the world because it combines the “cardio high” of an endurance sport with the flow and adrenaline rush of an action sport like surfing or skateboarding. The combination of these opposites creates a sport that demands things of its participants that no other sport does.

I’ve had some of my greatest moments of clarity while my brain struggled for oxygen and my legs burned on a long pedal and I’ve had some of my greatest moments of “flow” ripping single track on the way back down. To me this is the essence of mountain biking – to conquer what the trail throws your way going both up and down.

This is why I don’t understand how some riders define mountain biking. I don’t get the gravity junkies who won’t pedal a thing (a lot of you who peg me as a gravity guy would be surprised to know how much pedaling I really do) any more than I understand the weight weenies who define every ride by how long they are going to pedal and just walk everything that presents a technical challenge. To me, a real mountain biker doesn’t hide behind what he’s good at, he seeks things that challenge him in order to grow and expand his skill set.

A real mountain biker doesn’t modify the trail to make it easier; he tries the same feature over and over again until he gets it. A real mountain biker doesn’t re-route trail to avoid something that scares him, he either faces his fears or he simply walks around it. A real mountain biker is never satisfied with his skill level and is always looking for ways to ride faster, longer and with more confidence.

This, to me, is what separates someone who mountain bikes from a mountain biker. The truth is that most “mountain bikers” aren’t really mountain bikers in the same way that a lot of you reading this are, they just happen to own a mountain bike and ride some trail every once in a while. We just need to know that, as mountain bikers, we need something different than the roadies on dirt or the lift access junkies.

This is also why training plays such an important role in the development of a rider. Your skill set is only as good as the base physical skills that support it and a lot of what riders chalk up to lack of natural ability is really just a lack of mobility, strength and body awareness. Your ability to tap into the essence and fun of mountain biking is being held back by your physical limitations, not the bike you ride or the size of your wheels.

Anyways, I just wanted to share those thoughts with you. I’ve recently realized that my message is not for everyone who rides a mountain bike, it is for the mountain bikers – the trail rider who competes with no one but the trail. You may race downhill or XC but at the heart of it isn’t “you versus the other guy”, it’s you versus the mountain. I think that, as a sport, we need to start drawing some lines in the sand so that we better understand what it is that we need to advance as a sport.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Bill Blomquist says:


    Kudos on your explanation on why Mountain Bicking is special.
    The “cardio high” and the rush of flowing thru the switchbacks is very real!

    I realized how tough the cardio and strength requirments were when a ripped twenty year old BMX’er rode the local MTB traiL with me. In short he could not complete the ride…he said he was in shock regarding the cardio & phsycial requirements
    Also have witnessed seasoned rodies drop out of the ride exshausted with new found respect for mountain bikers.

    Mountain Biking…She Dont Lie !

    Reply • August 11 at 10:31 am
  2. Marty says:

    James, you couldn’t have expressed that better. The constant striving to improve my skills, and the sense of accomplishment after riding difficult trails, really makes mountain biking worthwhile. It’s so much more than just grinding out the miles. Thanks for a great encapsulation of what makes our sport so great.

    Reply • August 12 at 9:28 pm
  3. Jason Murray says:

    James, this post was fantastic. Do you mind if I refer to it on my blog ( I’d like to quote choice sections and link back to it.

    BTW I’m a big fan. I recently did a ride at a very technical riding location. Last year clipped, this year flats, and lots of strength/core work. While my aerobic fitness needs work (2 kids under 3!) I had no problems cleaning most of what I did last time out. Only this time with proper technique.

    Reply • August 23 at 4:49 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Please feel free to share it, I’m stoked that it struck a chord with so many riders. Glad your enjoying the site…

      Reply • August 24 at 8:00 am
  4. Forrest says:

    Awesome explanation,great post James.

    Reply • August 23 at 8:54 pm
  5. Daniel says:

    That’s exactly how I feel about the sport. Sadly, finding people who feel the same way is incredibly rare to the point that it can be difficult to find people to ride with since there are so few riders interested in riding the whole mountain well. I’m glad that we have someone like you to help develop the specialists into better all around riders while helping guys like me to continue to hone their skills.

    Reply • September 8 at 9:11 pm
    • bikejames says:

      I totally understand what you mean, it is super hard to find riders who want to pedal epic rides, charge downhill runs at ski resorts, hit dirt jumps, ride skinnies and basically try anything. Unfortunately you end up having to cobble together a “riding partner” out of several riders that specialize in one or two things. I have my pedal buddy and my DJ buddy and my DH buddy – when you find another rider who is as dedicated to the entire discipline of mountain biking it is a great thing (I’ve had two riding buddies like that and I miss them both).

      Reply • September 9 at 7:08 am
  6. jack says:

    I agree that what makes MTB so great is that, as you said, it’s not “you vs. the other guy, but you vs. the mountain”. Like running, you focus on the sport, not mind games with other competitors. It’s pure in that way.

    But I don’t agree with what you said about what defines a mountain biker. Some people just want to get out there for a bit of fun. If virtually no-pedalling DH is your thing then I say go for it. Personally I don’t understand why have a bicycle when you don’t pedal, but that’s my problem – if you have fun DH’ing then great! If you have fun just mucking around, also great. If you want to push yourself, great too!

    MTB gives you the freedom to ride at whatever level makes you happy without playing an aggressive mind game with opponents. Don’t squander this.

    Reply • September 19 at 12:21 am
  7. Dave says:

    The passion you are expressing for mountain biking can certainly be found in all sports. The ability to give people the skills and motivation to find the “flow” and “zen” moments is a great gift for us all who love to ride the trails. Thanks James for that passion and drive.

    Reply • September 20 at 7:48 am

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