Saturday, 16 May 2015

How Mountain Biking Can Help You be a Better Cyclist and Triathlete

A few years ago, I was big into mountain biking… jumps, trails…all that fun stuff.  But then I got into triathlon and I haven’t ridden much MTB since.  My brother Matt on the other hand (who I just got back from visiting in British Columbia), lives and breathes everything mountain biking.  So it was only natural that he wanted to take me on a bunch of local trails (like Whistler, one of the biggest downhill bike parks in the world) when I came to visit.  I wasn’t too keen about the idea of “rippin laps” with triathlon season right around the corner, but I decided to give it a go anyway.  Luckily, I didn’t crash, and I managed to make it through some pretty cool trails.  No, I wasn’t boosting off the jumps or tossing tricks like Matt, but as the day went on, I got more and more comfortable on my bike.  Now, although downhilling is inherently dangerous, it pretty much forces you to ride well (or you will crash).  Here are some of the things I took away from riding in the mountains that can be transferred to the road.

First run of the day!


In downhill mountain biking, proper braking is probably THE most important skill to know how to do well.  With steep descents and tight corners, too much speed can cause you to go out of control in a second.  Improper braking can also cause the wheels to lock up, and it is very easy to skid out of control (especially on slick surfaces like large rocks or wooden beams).  Whenever you are on the brakes, most of the stopping power should come from the front brake.  Too much back brake leads to wheel locking and skidding.  It is also important to brake before the turn, not during the turn.  This allows you to take a better, more predictable line through corners.  Both of these principles apply on the road.  Brake early and use more of the front brake to avoid skidding at higher speeds, and don’t brake while taking corners.

This can happen if you lose control

Finding a Line

Finding a line is another very important skill in mountain biking.  With downhill, you are going very fast over a very unpredictable surface.  You may be riding along and suddenly find a giant rock in the middle of the trail, or encounter a section of really loose gravel (or a combination of both).  On the road, this is comparable to someone flatting right in front of you, or having a large pothole in the middle of the road.  It suddenly becomes very important to be able to find the safest route as quickly as possible. Quickly deciding on how to navigate the obstacles can make the difference between staying up or crashing hard.  This is primarily accomplished by keeping your eyes on the trail (or road), and always having an escape route in mind.  If your mind starts to wander while descending a mountain, or riding in a big pack of riders on the road, you won't see obstacles soon enough, and you won't have the time to make a split decision....increasing your risk of a crash.

Keep focused on the trail/road!

I had one instance where I had to make a quick decision and take an alternate route to avoid crashing.  During a group ride, we were climbing in a pack up a hill, when a guy at the front flatted.  We all had to slow down, but the guy behind me didn’t.  His front wheel hit my bike, and I was pushed over to the side of the road.  Instead of panicking and trying to stay on the road, I found an alternate route through the grass on the side of the road.  I road through some dirt for a bit, and then came back onto the road unscathed (kind of like Lance does here).  +1 for MTB skills.       

Body Position

Mountain biking also requires some fast re-positioning of your body to deal with the terrain.  Whether it is riding uphill, downhill, or around corners (or off jumps or wallrides), you don’t approach them all the same.  Riding downhill requires keeping your weight back, staying low and compact, and keeping your arms bent to absorb impact.  You are always standing when descending trails, but this is not usually applicable to the road.  Riding uphill however is quite similar.  Uphill riding requires you to shift your weight pretty far forward, but you also need to keep weight on the back wheel to keep traction, since it’s easy to skid the rear wheel if there are loose rocks and mud (or if the road is wet).  Keeping a nice smooth cadence and pedal stroke up the hill will help the wheels keep their traction with the ground, both on the trail and the road.   

If you are going to crash, do it with style

Cornering is probably the most difficult to get the hang of.  The trick is to shift your body weight into the turn, and keep the handlebars quite straight.  Turning the bars too much will cause you to oversteer and skid out in the turn.  Same applies to the road.  Turn with your body and look where you want to go.  It also helps to push down with the foot that is on the outside of the turn for extra stability.
Pin corners like a pro!

Final Note

Thanks for reading!  If you find yourself in a position to do some mountain biking, I highly recommend it.  It can be a lot of fun if you approach it safely and stay within your comfort zone.  And, as I found, there are some really good cross training benefits to be had!

Brotherly Love