Why I Mountain-Bike for My Mental Health

Mountain biking provides a freedom unlike any I’ve experienced. Trail riding allows me to feel weightless, like I’m flying past trees, yet at the same time I’m grounded. I focus on the dust and the turns ahead; I feel the presence of every rock and root I roll over. To me, mountain biking is the physical embodiment of the concept of mindfulness: it requires you to be in the moment, because if your attention wanders, the consequences can be severe. For that short hour or two on the trail, I am how people are meant to be—free. Biking helps me momentarily forget that I’ve spent years wrestling with anxiety and depression.

I now understand how my mental health struggles were influenced by my experience growing up as a second-generation Mexican American in an anti-immigrant environment. As a kid, I lived in Palmdale, a conservative city in Southern California’s high desert. Palmdale was once a mainly white suburb of Los Angeles, but in the 1970s, the lure of affordable housing brought an influx of Black and Brown folks into the area—and with these changes came backlash. The city was a hotbed of white-supremacist activity. After my family moved there in the 1990s, a neighbor told us that he wished the neighborhood had remained the same. From a young age, I was acutely aware of racism shaping my identity and sense of belonging—or lack thereof.

My parents did the best they could to provide for our family, but since employers wouldn’t pay immigrants livable wages, we often struggled financially. My father would return late from his job as a cook with the smell of vegetable oil on his shirts—a smell I still associate with the long and strenuous hours he worked. My mother’s job, cleaning houses, was also grueling. They had no resources for day care, so I often accompanied them to work and heard the condescending comments white supervisors hurled at them because of where they were born. Because of interactions like this with white people in positions of power—no matter how marginal that power was—I almost always anticipated defending my parents with strangers.

Growing up in the nineties, I saw California governor Pete Wilson attack immigrants with rhetoric that depicted them as scapegoats for America’s social and economic problems and with public policies like the infamous Proposition 187. The proposition, which passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote, denied services such as public education and health care to undocumented people, and required certain public officials to report anyone they suspected of being undocumented to the authorities. Although a U.S. district court later found it unconstitutional, the damage was done—and it paved the way for future anti-immigrant legislation. As scholar George Lipsitz puts it, Proposition 187 “effectively criminalized Latino and Asian American identity, creating a previously unheard of legal category—the ‘suspected’ illegal immigrant—and then subjecting these ‘suspects’ to vigilante surveillance, supervision, and invasion of privacy.” In other words, Latinos were seen as “illegal,” regardless of their immigration status.

As a small boy working alongside his parents, doing labor that was often described, incorrectly, as “unskilled,” I felt ashamed of who I was. It was not uncommon to walk down the street and hear people driving by yell out “spick” and “beaner” from their cars. I remember hearing someone at a coffee shop casually say, “America needs to bring back policies like Operation Wetback,” or listening to my biology teacher say, “Mexicans don’t care about education at all.” I looked into the eyes of people who thought I was subhuman. As a result, I disconnected from school and often avoided social situations, fearing that someone might do or say something racist. I lived in a constant sense of anxiety and dealt with depression, before I ever knew the names of these conditions.

That anxiety never completely went away. While mental health issues affect everyone, BIPOC have the additional burden of being forced to grapple with the lifelong effects of racism, hostility, and anti-immigrant sentiments. Research shows that racism not only creates psychological trauma but also evokes a physiological response by way of chronic stress, hypertension, and cardiovascular problems. Racism-related stress can elevate blood pressure and weaken the immune system. Meanwhile, inequities in the mental-health-care system can lead to misdiagnoses and improper treatment for people of color. Social crises can exacerbate mental health issues, too: the Census Bureau reported that 41 percent of Black Americans experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

Most weekends in Palmdale, my family would go to the park and eat carne asadas. When possible, we’d head to nearby Angeles National Forest to camp. My parents come from a rural village in the Mexican state of Durango. My dad was a vaquero, transporting cattle via horse and sleeping outside, occasionally for days at a time. Their upbringing gave me my passion for the outdoors.

Camping with my Mexican family was a sight. Back then we didn’t know about small camp stoves, nor could we afford one. So, like many Mexicans, we brought the entire BBQ, grilling carne asada and heating up tortillas. We often played Lotería with laughter and joy around the fire. Those memories are why I love camping today.

Unlike the movies, where the protagonist always has a witty comeback to make a fool out of a bigot or a bully, I had countless agonizing memories of times I wished I would have said or handled things differently.

During one camping trip, my mom and I went for a walk near our campground. My mom loves to take walks, and as we went along, she’d often pick up aluminum cans to recycle, so we could collect extra money. While we were walking that day, she saw an empty can on the side of the road, and she pointed it out for me to crush and pick up. I passed it to her.

We continued on our walk and saw a forest ranger drive by. I thought nothing of it. Suddenly, the ranger hit the brakes and headed toward us. He parked his truck right in front of us, partially blocking our path. My breathing became heavier, and my heart rate shot up. The ranger got out, shouting at us to stop walking. He had a gun, and although he didn’t take it out of his harness, his hand remained on it. He demanded to see my mom’s hands, insisting that she drop what she was holding. “I said drop it!” he yelled. She was taken aback, so in Spanish I mumbled for her to drop it. As she let it fall to the ground, I mustered up the courage to tell the ranger it was just a can. He pretended not to hear me. Whatever his objective was in stopping us, it seemed he had accomplished it. He got back in his truck and drove off.

I’ll never forget the way my mom looked at me after that interaction. To this day, it kills me to remember her being treated in such a manner in front of her son. I felt powerless. It wasn’t until a decade later that I realized how much I was still subconsciously holding on to that memory, and numerous ones like it.

Much later, as a university student with access to affordable therapy, I began to process incidents like this one. Unlike the movies, where the protagonist always has a witty comeback to make a fool out of a bigot or a bully, I had countless agonizing memories of times I wished I would have said or handled things differently. I replayed them over and over in my head, wrestling with the guilt and shame. When I think about the encounter between my mom and the ranger, I still have to remind myself that I was only a kid.

When I was 18, my older brother, who was in his late twenties, moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, and convinced me to join him. There he bought me my first mountain bike. I remember my first ride, at Sand Canyon in the eastern Sierra. We shuttled up a long and winding road, and I was nervous because I’d never seen mountains that big. I kept thinking, How the hell are we going to come down?

The trail started at 10,000 feet, descending 4,000 feet over 12 miles. I’d ridden BMX as a kid, but this felt treacherous, with rock gardens, sandy roads, and high-speed sections that seemed to go on forever. I was amazed by how much my suspension soaked up rocks.

It took us three hours to get to the bottom, but for those three hours, I paid attention to nothing but the trail. My brother saw me grinning at the end. “I knew you’d like it,” he said. On the trail, I didn’t experience anxiety; I didn’t feel less than anyone. I forgot about all the awful memories. I wanted to chase that feeling.

I loved the sensation of rushing past trees and focusing on the next feature. The more I rode, the more I wanted to progress. I felt like the best version of myself on a bike, yet at the same time I wanted to ride with more skill and grace. Biking helped me appreciate the little victories of navigating a rock garden or clearing a jump. For every failure, such as a crash, I had what felt like 100 victories. Biking on trails helped me see the natural world and appreciate its beauty. There’s still so much I haven’t seen via two wheels.

Sometimes biking feels like medicine, but like most medicine, it only alleviates the symptoms of mental health issues.

Biking helps me escape the world. But it also helps me sustain myself so I can go into the world. Anytime I’ve taken a long break from riding, my mental health has suffered tremendously. Mountain biking also gave me the mental fortitude to pursue a master’s degree in sociology with an emphasis on racism and immigration. I wanted to help others find a biking community and see themselves in narratives about the sport, so with my good friend Rachel Olzer I cocreated an online collective called @pedal2thepeople that highlights people of color who bike. I also became a freelance photographer, and I love to include bikers of color in my visual storytelling. I’ve been able to channel my anxiety into productivity energy.

While mountain biking has given me life-changing insight, I don’t want to romanticize its ability to treat mental health. And I haven’t forgiven the biking community for its inability to acknowledge its racism. I once mentioned to someone on a ride that I can’t imagine having kids, but it seems very expensive. They responded, “That doesn’t stop Mexicans from having them.” Sometimes biking feels like medicine, but like most medicine, it only alleviates the symptoms of mental health issues. It is not the cure for my depression or anxiety.

I now understand how my anxiety is connected to a long history of structural racism in this country. Even though I’ve come a long way, I still struggle with it. Some days I feel too anxious to even ride. Rather than crash because I can’t be present, I just take the day off. I’m driven to ride as much as I can because it lifts me up, if just temporarily.

In February, I lost my father, who taught me so much about resilience, respect, and the outdoors. I’m grappling with depression and grief from the loss of his presence, but I also understand that he would want me to ride my bike. He knew what biking meant to me and how much joy it brought me. Most days I grab my bike and camera and look forward to my tires hitting the dirt. I think about what made my dad smile: being outside and seeing me happy. I want to honor him through my happiness. I get to the trailhead, throw my leg over the saddle, and pedal, dreaming of the possibility of feeling as free off my bike as I do on it.

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