Here, Paul works to perfect his cyclocross form. This year, mountain biking will help him with that.

Here, Paul works to perfect his cyclocross form. This year, mountain biking will help him with that. © Paul Warloski

Cyclocross Magazine columnist Paul Warloski returns this week as he continues profiling his return to cyclocross after a near-devastating injury. Follow Paul as he takes us along for a ride of trials and tribulations of a cyclocrosser with a refreshed perspective. If you missed it, check out Paul’s last column Orange Hair and Peaking.

Following Russell’s Wheel: Learning to Trust the Bike and Find Those Mad Cross Skillz

by Paul Warloski

Like most riders who come to ’cross from the road, I sometimes struggle with technical skills.

I’ve learned a lot in the past five years. Yet I still grab too much brake, don’t trust my tires enough, and slow down too much before barriers and corners.

The remedy this season? Lots of practice in a park nearby and lots of mountain bike riding.

Before the crash, I definitely had more power than technical skill. I’d sometimes get the hole shot, then crash into the first barrier. I’ve needed be extra friendly to riders I took out in those crashes!

After the truck collision in 2009 though, I have to learn to get everything out of my body that I can. I can’t run quickly up hills or through sand. My legs and hips just don’t move very solidly any longer.

On a reasonably mild Sunday in January, I went on a mountain bike ride with Russell J. and several other local riders, the local “mofos.” We started in Hoyt Park in Wauwatosa, just outside of Milwaukee. The trails wind along the Milwaukee River on both sides, and snow was deep enough in some places to make the riding a bit sketchy.

It was my first time on a mountain bike in a group for a long time. And even though it was an easy group ride for most, I had to really concentrate on cornering to not hold up the other riders.

And like many of us, when I concentrated too much, got too tense, I forgot how to drive the bike. I was forcing corners and slowing down too much through corners. When I relaxed and just let the bike go, I felt better through the corners.

I remembered my first mountain bike race back in the 90s. I had zero idea what I was doing, and I fell more times into trees than I ever wanted to do. Even a few years ago, when my road skills and power had improved, I still couldn’t drive the bike, I fell over multiple times in mountain bike races at the southern Kettle Morraine.

At the end of the group ride, most people drifted to their cars. I wanted to ride more. Russell suggested a back loop. I decided, since Russell is a skilled mountain bike racer, to glue myself to his wheel, study his lines, and pay attention to nothing but his rear tire.

So we took off. I rode around trees and through snow faster than I ever had before. As I removed the thinking from my own brain and just followed Russell’s wheel, I flowed through corners and up and down the small hills.

I let the bike ride free on the trails, just pedaling. I set my critical self on the ground back in the parking lot. I allowed myself to just trust the bike and tires. I felt so good I even forgot to watch Russell duck to avoid a low-hanging branch.

I plan on riding the mountain bike a lot in 2011. I plan on doing many of the Wisconsin Off-Road Series (WORS) and the Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series (WEMS) events. I plan to ride the mountain bike at least once a week, learning to corner and descend smoothly and quickly.

Plus, the mountain bike scene in Wisconsin is pretty laid back. My goal is to ride hard, have fun, and enjoy the after-party with new friends.

If I can learn to navigate trails on the mountain bike, barriers, corners, descents, and off-camber courses will be much simpler, and I will be able to make up time that I lose on uphill run-ups.

And in addition to the mountain bike riding, I’ll be spending a lot of time this summer on the ’cross bike. Mike Heenan, who runs the “my wife inc” cyclocross team, has a set of PVC barriers. I’ll drag him and other teammates out to Mitchell Park and practice my skills so I can run through barriers like Tim Johnson and carve corners like Todd Wells.

I want to be able to ride my ’cross bike like I was following Russell’s wheel on trail.

Paul Warloski races cyclocross for the my wife inc cyclocross team in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is 47 and a middle school English teacher. He was nearly killed in a 2009 crash when a large pick up truck broadsided him on a training ride. In this column, he is documenting a year learning how to be positive and content regardless of results as well as physical training. He maintains an irregular blog at