The prevailing reason why I love mountain biking is that it provokes the pure joy of childhood that I otherwise obscure behind the heavily counterfeit curtain of adulthood. I once raced a whole season with golden mailbox stickers on my handlebars that read “keep the kid alive,” and I now think of that phrase often while riding. I like to holler loudly on the trail, any time I feel frightened or excited — which happens frequently. A good holler is the best way to let the inner kid sing.
Maintaining the warm and inviting glow of mountain biking that I connected with as a kid requires frequent modifications to my riding style, bike setup, gear, skills, trail partners, race genre, and overall focus. Finding fresh trail challenges keeps the sport turning anew. Over the past year, I shifted several elements of my mountain bike experience, most of which proved beneficial. If any of them sound intriguing, give them a shot for the 2020 riding season. There’s no need to call it a New Year’s Resolution. Instead, you could make some changes that actually stick.
Some of the first elements I swapped in had to do with how my hands manipulate the helm. I read about how and why professional gravity racers run their handlebars far higher than mine were perched. Throwing a few spacers under the stem allows you to better moderate the amount of pressure you place on the front tire on steep tracks, and lets you keep your elbows bent deeper for increased agility. I moved about 15mm of spacers from above my stem to the lower position, and my bike feels far better on steep trails. It took a little while to get accustomed to, and a few spectacular OTB somersaults, but I am now able to apply front tire pressure more precisely.
The second control component I decided to relocate was my brake levers. I had noticed a horizontal lever orientation on most of the top ten EWS bikes, and a good friend shared some of the potential reasoning behind it. She said that higher levers shift your riding posture, resulting in a higher head angle that allows you to see further up the trail.
I don’t fully understand that story yet, but the next point that she mentioned made a lot of sense. Raising your levers angles the top of your hand back toward your upper forearm, bending your wrist and dropping your palm just slightly. When you hit larger square edge impacts with your hands in this position, your hand slides down and is caught by the length of your fingers instead of launching over the top of the bar — resulting in a headlong crash. It’s a similar theory to dropping your heals to keep your feet planted on the pedals, while improving rear-wheel control and traction. In addition to chopping the number of times my hand slips off the bar annually, moving my levers up a hint relieved some pain I was experiencing in my thumbs. I can only guess that this is because my hands are sliding back and down during larger impacts rather than forward where all of the pressure is placed on my thumb joints.
The other bike bit that evolved across my quiver this season is tire casings. In the interest of riding harder on rough trails and never flatting, I made a point to only try tires with serious sidewall and tread protection. Most of those carcasses included “downhill” in their names, and all are intended to skip through jagged rocks like a catamaran through ocean waves. The rigid sidewalls are more challenging to mount up and require a few small riding adjustments, but I did not manage to puncture a tire once this season. Not flatting was worth any penalty that the heavy sidewalls presented.
On the skills front, there will always be pieces to improve, thankfully. My loudest trail yelps come out when I am riding fast, and the inescapable element of a fast run is corner speed. Anyone can let go of the brakes on a straight stretch, but proper body and bike position in the turns is the key to truly gaining speed on a trail. This season I was laser-focused on completing the braking process before the turn to improve cornering grip, leaning the bike deeper into the turn to dig the shoulder lugs into the soil, weighting the front wheel to increase grip where it counts, and looking up fiercely toward the exit. I broke those elements up and worked on them until they felt cozy, and my overall descending speed has increased massively over last season. I am buzzing tires with friends who used to drop me in the first three turns and loving every second of it.
Riding steep chutes is less of a skill I learned this year, and more of a psychological moat I needed to swim across. I have always enjoyed steep tracks but after a few broken bones, I had been shying away from the full commitment I once enjoyed. After some reluctant meditation, and a lot of focused letting go, I now enjoy a good rock wall more than I ever have.
Pushing the bars deeper into turns and weighting the front tire on rough trails requires additional upper body strength, and I had a lot of work to do therein. Since I like going to the gym about as much as cleaning someone else’s toilet, I decided to put together a home workout plan. I loaded a set of daily reminders in my computer that prompt me to take a brief pause from work once every hour and do a set of exercises. This strength training program keeps my blood flowing at my otherwise inactive typing roost, gives me a 3-5 minute brain break, and has noticeably improved my upper body and core strength. This adjustment will be sticking around for the foreseeable future.
Getting up to those steep trails and sharp turns for maximum practice requires some assistance. This season I decided to fully give in to the shuttle and chair lift frenzy, and it paid off in a variety of ways. I made new friends on the ride up and was able to practice a wider variety of trails throughout the weekend. I’ll still climb to the top on weekday rides at home, and there’s plenty of time to pedal in the ten descents that a van or chairlift allows. If only we could get some solar-powered vans rolling.
On the gear front, I vowed to strap it all to my bike in 2019, riding bagless whenever possible. I appreciate all of the casual elements of MTB style that keep things chill, from flannels to jean-shorts and pocket-burritos. Riding without a bag or hip-pack slots nicely into the chill, and more importantly unencumbered category, and I have managed to stuff everything I needed in my pockets or frame bag on rides under three hours. On shuttle days this move comes even easier, as I can leave all but a tube and air can in the van.
The final element of riding gear that I swapped out was my chamois or “liner shorts,” and out they will stay. I have always disliked wearing underclothing that has to be adjusted and de-bunched throughout a ride. I don’t wear skivvies off the bike and decided to try doing the same while riding this season. It took two or three long rides to toughen up my saddle skin, and now I can roll for 4-5 hours without issue. This is definitely not a change that will work for everyone, as a lot of folks experience saddle sores, but if your anatomy abides, it can be a refreshing change. I have a friend who wears merino wool boxers instead of a chamois, and that works well for them. The bonus bit to not wearing liner shorts is that you have one less piece of expensive gear to purchase, and one less thing to pack.
So, those are my 2019 challenges and changes in review. The coming year will unfold with a whole new set of challenges to keep things spicy. How do you plan to improve or change your mountain bike experience in the coming season?