I recently joined a group of highly skilled mountain bikers on a trip to Sedona –a mountain biking paradise in the Arizona dessert. From pro Enduro racers to mountain bike instructors, these women were a great bunch to shred with and learn from. As the only rider in the bunch who hasn’t (yet) fully switched to the “dirtside”, I learn something new every time I go out for a mountain bike ride.
1. Come as you are
With a laid-back, nature-loving and come-as-you-are culture, the mountain bike scene tends to be friendlier and more accepting than the road scene. In any given group you might see lycra, baggies or cut-off jeans as well as the newest carbon full suspension bikes alongside steel, single speed hardtails.
As long as you shred, no one really cares…just don’t use your roadie fitness to hammer it on the uphills!
Along with the enclosed, car-free environment, it’s this welcoming mountain biking culture that’s credited for a fast-growing interest in dirt riding among women. Everyone is welcome, post-ride beers and socializing are a fundamental part of the ride, and the only requirement is to have fun.
This laid-back approach is something the gear-, apparel- and raceweight- obsessed roadies could learn from if they are to bring more new people into the sport.
2. Celebrate progress
Mountain bikers are constantly learning or “sessioning” as they call it. Big drops, rock gardens or skinnies –often, the ride will come to a complete stop to learn how to properly ride or clear a particularly technical feature on the trail. And when you do, the whole group will cheer and high-five and acknowledge the progress made. It’s an incredibly empowering feeling when those around you celebrate your progress, no matter how small. As a result, you’re more likely to try new things, overcome fears and stay with it.
We don’t do that enough on the road, I think. Cycling is filled with ever-evolving goals and objectives. Whether it’s someone’s first century ride, criterium race or successful ascent of a big climb – even if these things don’t seem like a big deal to you, these are all accomplishment worth acknowledging. Every positive experience can lead to a life-long love of cycling.
3. Take a break
Whether it’s to session a feature or to take in the view on top of a climb, mountain bikers stop during a ride constantly. It used to agitate me. (We’ve been riding for less than 2 km –do we have to stop, again?! ) But over time, I learned to appreciate it. There is something to be said for taking the time to work on your skills or simply to take a break to enjoy your surroundings, to refuel, to take in the view you just worked up a sweat for, snap an Instagram photo or just find a moment of Zen.
Most of ride as a hobby, as a way to escape the many deadlines and demands of our daily lives yet far too often, our rides are hijacked by intervals, power zones and Strava segments. There certainly is a time and place for those, too, just don’t forget why you’re out there in the first place.
4. Knowing your limits and asking for help
Knowing your limits doesn’t mean you’re weak. Especially in mountain biking where at times, a mistake can result in serious injuries or worse (like going off the edge on Sedona’s infamous Hangover Trail). Sometimes you have to know when to say “no” or ask someone else to coach you through it. Mountain bikers are some of the most patient people I have ever ridden with (see point #3). They’re always willing to help you session a feature, set your shocks, fix a flat or regroup at the top (and bottom!) of a trail. As a result, it has created a stress-free environment in which riders can comfortable ask questions and grow.
Whereas the mountain bike scene has done a great job at attracting new riders through learn-to-ride clinics and workshops, there aren’t many “learn to ride your road bike” clinics. Perhaps if we’re all a bit more proactive about asking for help and providing advice, there may be less “hold your line” barking in the peloton.
A note about skill benefits
If your main focus is on road –be it racing, gran fondos or hanging with bunch –the best training is that which is specifically tailored toward the road, however, spending the off-season or occasional weekends in the dirt does have its benefits:
Bike handling skills. Loose dirt, slippery roots, banked corners, etc –in mountain biking you’ll learn how to maneuvre your bike on all sorts of technical terrain. By playing with your body position and weight distribution, you’ll learn how conquer them all, making a wet or cracked pavement and cobbles seem like no big deal at all.
Using your smaller gears. See that teeny chainring in the front, and that massive cassette in the back? Well, you’re going to need them in mountain biking. There’s no stomping or grinding in mountain biking, which is a great exercise for all those big-ring mashers among us.
Upper body strength. Mountain biking requires a lot more upper body and core strength, which are also highly beneficial for sprinting and climbing on the road.
Explosive bursts of power. Muscling your way up short, steep hills or features requires a lot of small ramp-ups of power. These will help you with your explosiveness on the road as well.