Kaitlyn Teer mountain biking

My daughter was five months old the first time I went mountain biking. As a new parent, when so much scared me, I wanted to prove to myself I could still take risks. But when I looked up through the cedar and fir trees and saw that the climbing trail consisted of a series of steep switchbacks, I wondered if I’d regret accepting my friend Sarah’s invitation to join her for a “mellow ride.”

Like Sarah, many of my friends enjoy mountain biking. Everyone I knew seemed to pick it up while I was pregnant, and I couldn’t wait to give it a go. As with parenting, though, I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I had to lean on friends. An experienced rider, and a mother of two, Sarah pedaled up the dirt singletrack ahead of me, shouting back encouragement. I pedaled after her on my borrowed bike, trying to keep pace.

Now, sizing up the switchback, where the trail cut between a massive boulder and a hillside of sword ferns and fallen tree limbs, I thought how hard it was to parent an infant, and how much harder it would be with a broken arm. I slowed to a wobble, then tried to put out a foot for balance, but my bike fell awkwardly into the dirt, taking me down with it.

I disentangled myself, stood, and dusted off my yoga pants, which now had a tear where a pedal had gouged my shin. “I’m good,” I yelled to Sarah, who had stopped to look over her shoulder. After giving her an I’m-totally-fine smile, I got back on the bike.

It took only a couple failed pedals to realize I couldn’t gain momentum on an incline, so I hopped off and jogged with my bike until the trail leveled out enough to get going again. The climb went on like this — I’d pedal uphill until I reached a difficult feature, then walk my bike over it, then jog until the trail leveled out and it was possible to resume pedaling.

How Learning to Mountain Bike Helped Me in Early Motherhood

After gaining nearly 1,200 feet in elevation, we reached the first viewpoint, a small clearing a few feet from a rocky cliffside. I leaned my bike against a wooden bench and sat down, panting, eager to catch my breath. Taking in the coastline view, I felt stoked — and we hadn’t even started the downhill ride, which Sarah had promised was the fun part.

Heading down a trail called Cedar Dust, we were soon biking through a meadow of wildflowers. Colorful swashes of bleeding hearts, fireweed, and foxglove flashed by while we sent dust clouds into the golden light.

The sun began to set as we started the final downhill stretch, Bob’s Trail. It was fast and flowing. Keeping my fingers on the brakes, I rolled along rooty drops and smooth, wide berms. When we emerged from the woods into the parking lot, I was absolutely buzzing. That night, my arms and legs ached, but I was hooked.

With so much of my time spent caregiving or working, mountain biking has become a way for me to pedal off the responsibilities of early motherhood — if only for an hour or two. Shortly after that first ride, I bought a used bike from a teenager who was upgrading. I found myself watching YouTube videos — on how to steer through switchbacks and improve my downhill speed — and shopping for essential gear, like shoes and knee pads. As often as I could, I joined Sarah and other moms on their rides. Eventually I built up enough endurance to shout out conversations about work and parenting while pedaling uphill. And on the downhills, we’d hype each other up to try new trail features, like drops or rock rolls, calling over our shoulders, “You got this!” Then, we’d hang out in the parking lot before heading home, leaning on our tailgates, sipping cold beers and chatting.

I celebrated my next birthday by going on an evening ride with Sarah and our spouses. We pedaled into the summer night, its long light ahead of us. We spent more time practicing our skills on the jump lines than we anticipated, and since none of us had packed headlamps, we had to bike downhill in the dark. It was a rush. I realized how far I’d come when Bob’s Trail was familiar enough to ride not by sight, but by feel.

I have never been a badass. Growing up, I wiped out every time I tried waterskiing and was miserably bad at snowboarding. Plus, when I was pregnant, part of me feared that once I had a child it’d be too late for me to try new things, that becoming a mother would mean I was done becoming anything else. So, I surprised myself by learning an extreme sport while also learning to parent. And I’ve found parenting to be its own kind of extreme sport — as exhausting and terrifying as it is thrilling, not unlike those moments when you emerge from the woods, spent from an uphill slog, only to be astonished by a view that makes you come alive.

Now that my daughter is four and riding a pedal bike, I’m looking forward to sharing mountain biking with her. My husband recently got a tow rope, and this summer we’ll take her for short hilly rides.

How Learning to Mountain Bike Helped Me in Early Motherhood

These days, when the weather cooperates, we bike at the local pump track (it’s a whole scene with ice cream, food trucks, a beer garden, and live music). At the track, my daughter looks over her shoulder at me, calling out, “Look at me, Mama! Look what I can do.” But I’m always already looking, already full of awe. For me, mountain biking is a chance to look at myself with that same fierce admiration. Now, when I try a new feature, a rock roll or a jump I’d avoided on previous rides, in the dopamine rush that follows, I think, Look what I can do.

How Learning to Mountain Bike Helped Me in Early Motherhood

Tell me, when have you surprised yourself by trying something new? When do you feel badass?

Kaitlyn Teer is an essayist and a contributing editor at Cup of Jo. She lives with her spouse and two kids in western Washington, where she teaches creative writing.

P.S. How walking (just walking!) changed my life and 5 tips for hiking with kids.