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
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
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
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
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
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
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.