Where MTB Meets Mental Health

Ryan Oldfield of TotalMTB speaks on embracing labels, hitting the trails to quieten his mind, and how he organically created a space for thousands of bikers to connect, ride, and speak openly about mental health.

Written by
Kitiara Pascoe
·
7
min read
Summary
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Ryan Oldfield has one purpose in life and that’s to help as many people as he can. This is the overriding impression I get throughout our conversation and it pervades throughout his Community Interest Company (CIC), TotalMTB. His story is one of pure, natural evolution: this led to that, that led to this. Guided by his all-consuming desire to provide support for others, he’s created something special. 

TotalMTB is a community of mountain bikers with a difference. You don’t need to know the lingo, you don’t need to shred like the pros, and you don’t need to own a full-suspension bike. You can do and have all of those things, but you’re also welcome if you’re riding your local trails on a rusty steed from the 80s or if you’re not riding at all.

TotalMTB is a community without barriers – any race, gender and sexuality are welcomed and every skill level is the right skill level. 

Ryan Oldfield (left) / TotalMTB / Photo Credit: Pedal Slip

The story of the community is really a story about Ryan – he’s the heart of it all. Like many people who live with anxiety disorders, Ryan had no idea about his for a long time. Getting upset and zoning out as a kid and behaving sometimes erratically, it wasn’t until he was in his late twenties that he finally got a diagnosis. And just like that, it all made sense. 

‘Although I’d always suffered with my mental health, it wasn’t until I was in my mid to late twenties that I found out what it was. Looking back, the symptoms of anxiety were always there and always on show – I couldn’t hide them – but I didn’t know what they were. No one was talking about mental health and anxiety back then like they do now.’

I hear this so much and it’s been my experience as well – before mental health become a buzzword and widely accepted as something we could all talk about, it wasn’t something I really knew about. To me, you were either seriously depressed or you were fine. This black-and-white aspect made my own journey to diagnosis challenging. Finding out I was dealing with anxiety helped me greatly, and for Ryan it was a similar experience.

‘I see it as a label and I enjoyed having a name for it. I know some people don’t like the label but for me, it helped. I almost wanted to go through all the people I’d known in my life, particularly in school, who’d seen me behaving in those ways, and tell them that it was anxiety all along, that it wasn’t all me. That’s what I now have with TotalMTB, a platform where people can come and get help, talk to others and just see mental health issues in the open because I didn’t have that.’

TotalMTB / Photo Credit: Pedal Slip

So much of dealing with mental health is simply having the space to talk about it, listen to the stories of others and know that you’re not alone in your experiences. This is really what Ryan is building – a safe space.

I always find it interesting how people get into the sports they do, so I want to know from Ryan how he went from his mental health struggles to using mountain biking as a tool to help. 

‘I started mountain biking with my family when I was young,’ he tells me, ‘there were a lot of places around to go biking, like Clumber Park (Nottinghamshire), so it was just something we did together. As a kid though, it was just a good way of getting from A to B. It could’ve been a road bike, but I just happened to have a mountain bike.’

Mountain biking fell by the wayside as Ryan got older but he picked up his bike again when he started working, as the easiest way to commute. 

‘It phased out again though. So it’s always been there in the background, and it’s been useful for different parts of my life. It really connected to mental health when I realised that downhill riding quietened my mind. Instead of racing thoughts, I had to fully concentrate on the trail otherwise I’d be off my bike. I also like riding to different spots around where I live and just sitting by a river or amongst the trees. You can sit there for as long as you need and it’s just so calming.’

TotalMTB / Photo Credit: Pedal Slip

Plenty of people move into outdoor sports to aid their mental health, be it through the act of exercise, the act of being in green and blue spaces, or a mixture. When Ryan made that connection, he couldn’t stand the idea of others having to wait for so long to have this realisation. Many people never reach out for help, never find a person or community they feel comfortable opening up to, never have the accessibility to get outdoors and discover what it could do for them. 

‘Once I worked out how good mountain biking was for my mental health, I wanted to inspire others to get out and do the same. I started the Instagram channel to share other people’s stories and mountain biking no matter who they were or what bike they rode. I’ve never been one for being in front of the camera or anything, but the channel grew because I shared everything people sent to me. It didn’t matter if you were at Whistler with all the glamorous tracks or at your local hill, I wanted to show everyone’s trails.’

‘When it came to mental health, I didn’t deliberately put it in the channel – I wanted to do it subtly. I focused on sharing trails and growing the community so maybe one biker saw a local trail pop up and then they could connect with that person and go riding together. I don’t know the moment the channel interlinked with mental health, but it slowly and steadily happened and took off even more.’ 

TotalMTB / Photo Credit: Pedal Slip

One of the amazing things about the C.I.C is the sheer number of campaigns and projects it runs. Who comes up with these? Ryan, of course. 

‘We fundraise for mental health and bike charities like Mike Jones’ charity where he restores old bikes and gives them away to those who need them (Free Bikes 4 Kids). We’ve also raised the money for 20,000 trees to be planted through Ecologi and about £10,000 for a mental health charity. I have a lot of ideas and no big plan, so I just try whatever comes into my head and see what works. What I’d really like to do is something similar to the Make a Wish Foundation, you know? I want to help people on a big scale. We’ve done six or seven surprises like that so far and just seeing those peoples’ faces, it’s amazing.’

TotalMTB has tens of thousands of mountain bikers among its ranks and it never loses momentum. If one project doesn’t gain much ground, no problem, they’ll try another. Ryan and those that help him are people of action. So, what’s his end goal, where does he want TotalMTB to go?

‘I just want to help and inspire as many people as possible. We’ll just keep doing different campaigns and projects, some might die off and some might grow. We’ll see where it goes.’

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Author Bio

Kitiara Pascoe

Kitiara Pascoe is an author and freelance outdoors writer. Based in the UK, she spends her time either trail running, mountain biking and hiking or writing about those things and the people who do them. You can find her at kitiarapascoe.com or follow her on Instagram.

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