Old timers on a break at Coldwater Mountain, AL. Photo: Chris Callahan

Old timers on a break at Coldwater Mountain, AL. Photo: Chris Callahan

Any mountain biker, at some point – on the trail, in the car on the way to the trail, while twirling wrenches, over a post-ride beer – will say to themselves, “Jeez, I wish I’d known that!”

“Connecting the dots” is a part of getting better at anything, but sometimes wisdom is a long time coming.  As I look back at over 33 years of mountain biking, I can see myself holding to stupid theories, illogical setups, or clinging to equipment that was long past its expiration date.  Like a lot of my knobby-addled brethren, I got too concerned with confirming my biases, rather than overcoming them.

As that life of the party, Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

If only I could get inside my head as a 32-year-old, with the knowledge I’ve gained over a generation-span of mountain biking.

Here are eight (sometimes contradictory) gems that I would have shouted, persuaded, cajoled or otherwise imparted to that brash beginner:

1. Set a Goal

Use tools like a cyclocomputer to capture what -- and how -- you're doing.

Use tools like a cyclocomputer to capture what — and how — you’re doing.

A race, an epic ride, a faster lap time, miles per week, a longer duration, just outriding your buddy… any of these will suffice.  The operative thought here is to set up a way to measure your rides, so that you can compare your performance over time.  Use your mileage, your max speed, total calories burned, race finish position – something that will let you track your progress toward a goal.  I used racing as a goal, but didn’t start that until I was over 50.  My best season was when I finished second in my class state-wide.  Think of what I might have done had I started tracking toward a goal in my thirties.

What I would tell my 32-year-old self:  “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

4. Race More

Racing puts you in situations you won't encounter merely riding. Photo: Chris Callahan

Racing puts you in situations you won’t encounter merely riding. Photo: Chris Callahan

I waited 14 years before I entered my first race.  All that time, I was a fledgling rider who struggled with “flow.”  I crashed a lot.  I struggled with clipless pedals.  I focused on the people I was riding with rather than my own experience, the trail, or my bike handling.  “Racing improves the breed” is a tried-and-true aphorism.

When I started racing, I still crashed a lot.  However, over time my bike handling skills began to supersede my fitness level, which had always been my competitive advantage.  Now, at 65, my bike handling skills are what keep me riding safely – again, think of what I might have accomplished earlier had some Bell V1-helmeted sage had taken me aside and dispensed this insight.

What I would tell my 32-year-old self:  “If you want to excel in the woods, get thee to the starting line.”

5. Slow Down

Going slow puts you in touch with the Tao of bike and trail.

Going slow puts you in touch with the Tao of bike and trail. Photo:  Chris Callahan

There’s a lot to be said for speed on the trail.  There’s also a lot to be said for The Mellow Ride.  For starters, going slow allows you to absorb the scenery better; part of not riding on the road is enjoying the trees, fresh air, desert vistas or just being away.  Secondly, by going slow you can focus on what your bike’s doing.  How are the tires hooking up at this psi?  Does the rebound in the fork work well in this terrain?  Does the shock need more preload?  By monitoring how your bike responds at lower speeds, you can tweak your setup to be the optimum when you start to hammer.

The scenery is just a bonus.

What I would tell my 32-year-old self:  “Find the Tao in your ride, but remember that your bike has a Tao of its own.”

6. Train on the Road

Training on the road offers immediate access to intervals, sprints, climbs...and fitness. Photo: Chris Callahan

Training on the road offers immediate access to intervals, sprints, climbs…and fitness. Photo: Chris Callahan

While the trail is preferred, playing “roadie” has distinct advantages.  For me, access is as close as the end of my driveway; in contrast, my nearest challenging trail is a 45-minute drive away.  Riding on the road develops a foundation of fitness that provides an extra margin of oomph when on singletrack.  When I was racing consistently, I did 90% of my training on the road.  Hills, intervals, long slow rides, sprints – on the road, you are in control of your training.  Off the road, the singletrack you’re riding will itself define the level and duration of your cardio work.  Relying on trail riding for all of your training will build your high-intensity/short duration ability, but you won’t get that reliable “base” needed to finish strong.

What I would tell my 32-year-old self:  “To excel in the woods, skinny tires are your friend.”

7. Pamper Yourself

Buttering up means more comfort for more hours in the saddle.

Buttering up means more comfort for more hours in the saddle.

Life chafes enough, and there’s no need to add to the suffering.  Think chamois butter.  Use sunscreen.  Chamois butter will make your post-ride beer that much more refreshing, if only because it will enable you to sit down.  Sunscreen will help you avoid having pieces of your face removed by CO2-wielding dermatologists when you are on Medicare.  You’ve indulged yourself with the best kit and equipment… don’t skimp on doing things that will extend your riding lifespan.

What I would tell my 32-year-old self:  “Slather up before you suit up.”

8. Take a Weekend Off

Get off the bike once in a while. Variety keeps you fresh. Photo: Chris Callahan

Get off the bike once in a while. Variety keeps you fresh. Photo: Chris Callahan

Deeply enjoying being on a mountain bike relies on recognizing what it means to be off a mountain bike.  In areas of the country where the riding season is short, this might be all too obvious.  Locations where riding year-round is a given require a more Zen-like approach to the sport.

Once a month, take a hike, jump in a kayak, hit the gym, or even belly up to the bar.  Perform some much-needed maintenance on your bike – check tires, chain, chainrings, brakes, cassettes, bearings.  Wash your bike.  Skipping a ride keeps you fresh, engaged, and passionate.

What I would tell my 32-year-old self:  “Breathe.  If you want to keep mountain biking in your life, don’t make your life about mountain biking.”

Everyone’s experiences are different; these eight observations come from years of riding woods, deserts, bike trails, Western vistas, rooty New England singletrack, and Swedish lake footpaths.  Pick just one or incorporate all eight into your own deal – I guarantee more smiles and better rides.

# Comments

  • mongwolf

    Some interesting thoughts Chris. Having started riding at the age of 50 and this being my fourth full season, I find getting into mountain biking shape to be quite difficult. I find the only way to get in shape for mountain biking is to ride trails. As Greg has said in the past, many people have no idea how physically demanding mountain biking is. Though I have no desire to do road rides, I have been trying to improve my base by adding road miles at the end of trail rides whenever I can. I can come off the trail quite fatigued, and then push myself to bike home instead of taking the “easy way out” and jump into the truck with my riding partner.

    I don’t think I will ever race, but I have found that goal setting is really pushing me to be on the bike more.

    I think of all your advice, I do “slow down” the best. Ha!!!!!!! I do slow really well. =) You gotta smell the roses while you’re out there. I’m afraid that I am destined to never become a hammer head.

    • Chris Callahan

      Mongwolf —

      Good on ya for just being out there. There are many ways to get into shape other than road rides. That’s what’s worked best for me. Having said that, weight training is a great way to cross-train for mountain biking. Prior to riding four days on the Kokopelli Trail, I spent two months integrating upper body work and squats into my exercise routine. It paid tremendous dividends on the trail.

      At 54, I hit a plateau at which I needed a lot more time to recover. Factor this into your riding schedule as well. I’ve found the need for recovery time only increases as I’ve aged. Riding six or even five days a week isn’t sustainable. But with one day on and two days off, I can still hit max performance levels and feel good. Using a HR monitor helps — when you see that you’re not able to get to 90% of your HR, take a day or two off. That will allow your body the recovery time it needs.

      Enjoy your ride!!

  • triton189

    Took the words right out of my mouth Chris when you mentioned days off. I am 55 and finally realized that I am better off staggering my rides with rest days. Legs really appreciate it. Nice article!

    • Chris Callahan

      Triton189 —

      It IS amazing how a day off (or even two) will benefit your legs and stamina. For me, it’s the difference between being knackered at the end of a ride and having just enough left in the tank to enjoy simply being there.

      Ride safe!

  • blundar

    I know that I get bored very easily if I ride the exact same trail repeatedly again and again. “Mixing it up” is a sure fire way to keep things interesting and having fun when you ride. Here is a link to a short article I did about this exact same subject a few years ago.


    Now-a-days I have added even more variety to my riding season. Weight lifting, treadmill, hiking, long street rides on my mountain bike with suspension locked out, travelling to and riding to different distant trails that I have never been to before, and any other kind of physical activities that adds fun to my routine.

    I used to think that “I mountain bike so that I can more enjoy getting into shape”. I found that the riding season is often too short and too weather dependent so most of the times I do not get to ride enough. I then re-adjusted my thinking to “I get into shape so that I can enjoy mountain biking more”.

    • Chris Callahan

      blundar —

      You’ve hit it right on the head: “I get into shape so that I can enjoy mountain biking more.” Looking at the big picture, I think, gets me to a better space when on the bike.

  • genepires@hotmail.com

    #1 was so important that it counts for 3 total advice points? No #2 and #3.

    I would totally agree with the need for goals but I dislike the idea of races. I come into mtb through a long history of mountain climbing, rock climbing and snowboarding. Activities that are better without hordes of people around. My goals are more like just get up some trails in our local mountains, free of the hordes. We make our own goals. Thanks for article.

    • chris_callahan@live.com

      genepires —

      Not sure what happened to #2 and #3 in this post: #2 was “Mix it up,” as in ride different trails and in opposite directions as trail rule permit. #3 was “Upgrade as you can” to keep your bike tech equal to your burgeoning skill set.

      Goals are indeed personal; racing worked to keep me motivated, but solace is certainly a sweet motivator as well. Whatever keeps one on the bike!

      Thanks for the comment!


  • Cchapline

    Thank you for reposting this well written article. As a beginner at 65, I can still learn from these hard learned tips. I am a road warrior trying out a new riding style (single track) and I am having so much fun! I do agree with one response that said “it’s a lot harder than it looks”
    I think a race might be in my future!

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