I find a great deal of irony and amusement in the thought of "cyclocrossers" discovering mountain biking. It was the exact opposite for me as I discovered the nuances of road riding from getting into cyclocross. If I had a dollar for every time a mountain bike inspired move, tactic or skill has at once come under scrutiny from roadies I was with and/or has saved my tuckus, I would have enough kale for some silly carbon wheels. No matter how much road riding (or cyclocross for that matter) I do, I will never get all of the dirt outta my veins. Is it any wonder that the best CX riders started in BMX and mountain biking and not road? I think not.
The Girl with the Cowbell Tattoo: Gaining Technical Competence, One Crash at a Time
For the past two weeks, I’ve been traveling and playing in the dirt so much that it almost feels like cyclocross season again (is it here yet, is it here yet?). I just spent the weekend at DirtFest with Rebecca Rusch as part of her Gold Rusch tour, where she goes all over the world getting women excited about mountain biking. So far, it’s working. Her other goal is to get women in the cycling media involved. As a woman in a male-dominated sport, she knows how tough it can be for us to get where we want to be. It’s an awesome cause, and she’s a seriously badass lady. Stay tuned for some great cornering skills videos and photos from the event, but for now, we’re talking about mountain biking.
As I’ve said before, I’ve never been a mountain biker. Until a month ago, the closest I came to a mountain bike race was an Xterra triathlon, and then I got yelled at for dismounting to run over logs. Suffice to say, I’ve had a lot to learn. But luckily, I’ve had some awesome teachers.
So what have I been learning from my mountain bike exploits?
- If you’re not the most technically competent person in the world, starts are everything. Getting out ahead of the group is great if you’re like me and not so good with passing on single track, plus it forces competitors to pass you. Like in cyclocross, go for the holeshot. It doesn’t matter quite as much in mountain biking if you’re a great technical handler, because you’ll have time later to pass. But if your major skill is speed and power, the sooner you get ahead, the better off you are.
- Cornering is all about looking where you want the bike to go. Rebecca Rusch did a lot of skills work with this concept and I feel like I’m finally, finally starting to understand it. When you see a corner, don’t focus on it. Focus on the exit instead, and your head will lead the bike. Apparently, this is similar to horseback riding, though I can’t speak from experience. Though I heard at the clinic that if you turn your head while riding a horse, theoretically, the horse will turn with you. I figure your chances of that working are even better on a bike, since it doesn’t have a mind of its own (kind of, anyway).
- Just go with it. Relax, and the bike will relax. Freak out, and the bike will freak out. I learned this the hard way on the pump track sections of the trails at DirtFest, and man, did I learn my lesson. Turns out braking midair on a pumptrack is a very, very bad idea, because it makes the bike point down, and makes you go over the handlebars. If you do end up in the air, the best bet for survival is to just go with it, scary as that may be. Or, you know, slow down beforehand. But that’s no fun!
- It’s not all about the bike. Disc brakes, 29″ wheels, caliper brakes, 26″ wheels … sure, a good front suspension versus a beat-up or a rigid one will work better on some stuff. But frankly, handling is handling. I finally got an amazing mountain bike, and you know what? I’m actually really thankful that my first few races were done on a beat up old junker, because it taught me so much more about handling and technique. The crappier your bike, the more you need to be the one doing the handling and learning the skills, rather than just relying on the bike to get over anything and everything.
- You and your bike can get over more than you’d expect. I’m working on learning how to bunnyhop, j-hop, and generally hop with the intention of one day doing a wheelie. It’s not going great, but what I have been noticing is that with even the slightest tug upwards, the bike, be it cyclocross or MTB, is capable of getting over things I never would have thought it could, like big roots I normally would have avoided.
- Speaking of trying new things, don’t be afraid of crashing! I made it a goal to crash at least once in every mountain bike ride I do. And it’s oddly been working out great. I’ve gotten less nervous about trying new things or adding a bit of speed on tougher trails. Yes, I have bruises and a few scrapes. But come cyclocross season at Cycle-Smart International when I’m up in the root-y, windy section, I’ll be a heck of a lot faster and more confident.
- Last but definitely not least, especially in the off-season, it should be all about the fun. I spent a weekend out playing on mountain bikes and houseboats instead of really seriously hitting up a race. I learned a ton, had a blast, and most importantly, got excited about racing again. Sometimes, you need the weekend off to just play on your bike and remember why you love it so much. During cyclocross season, those weekends are few and far between, so I’ll take them now while I can. And I won’t feel guilty about it.
If you want to read more about my training, racing, and editing exploits, check out mollyhurford.com.
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