Lee Waldman temporarily trades in his cyclocross bike for a spin on his mountain bike. © Lee Waldman

Lee Waldman temporarily trades in his cyclocross bike for a spin on his mountain bike. © Lee Waldman

This week, Masters racer and Cyclocross Magazine columnist Lee Waldman talks about what he’s learned this summer from racing his mountain bike. If you missed it, be sure to check out Lee’s previous column, an interview with his wheel-builder, Rob Curtis.

The bikes; different than our ’cross bikes; have weird frames; fat, overstuffed tires and flat bars (where do my hands go?) but in reality, I’ve learned a ton from riding and racing my mountain bike this summer. Lessons that, I’m certain, will come in handy as I make the transition from rock gardens and stream crossings to 40 cm. barriers.

Lesson #1:  Always, always, look ahead. In cycling, as in life, plan. Know where you’re going to end up; focus on where you’re headed, where you want to be. It’s so important in developing cornering skills, to be focused on where you want to leave the corner because the bike will go where you look. As I learned the hard way, not looking can have disastrous consequences for your ribs!

I’m not the quickest learner. It’s been said about me that sometimes I need to be hit right between the eyes with a 2×4 before I start to pay attention. I think that this was one of those times. But, when I finally did get it, my balance on the bike improved astronomically. Sharp corners going up and downhill on my mountain bike were always my nemesis. For years I’d been coached to look ahead, and I thought I was, really, but then — I had my epiphany. Through a random YouTube clip, I finally figured it out. It’s only partially about where my eyes and my head are. It’s also about how I position my entire body. What a difference. I started looking at photos of good technical mountain bikers and saw that not only did they look where they were going but they literally led their bikes there with upper body “English”. I tried it. It worked! When it’s done correctly I feel like the bike is riding on rails. It works: I’m fresher, not fighting the bike and the course, but flowing with it.

Lesson #2: Soft hands. Or, less is definitely more. Through corners and on the descents, have soft hands. Don’t strangle the bars. Give up the death grip and let the bike dance. The less I fight, the more solid I am. My friend and team-mate Lee Rivers gave me that advice early in the season. Because I’m a terminally slow learner, it took a lot of time and a switch to full suspension for something so simple to begin to make sense. As with everything I’ve learned this summer, I’m still in the trough of the learning curve, but building confidence on every ride.

Lesson #3: Trust yourself, trust your gut. Don’t be afraid to unclip. There are lots of corners that other, maybe better, riders can negotiate while clipped in. I wish I was them, but I’m not. There are times when I can corner better with my leg out for safety and moral support. I really don’t need it much of the time, but the confidence it gives me counts for more than the appearance of being “cool” that I’d get with my foot secured to the pedal. It’s decidedly uncool to bite it in the middle of a corner so the little bit of embarrassment is worth it to me. I feel more balanced and relaxed and ready for whatever comes.

I remember a race last year where I was warming up, unclipping for a particular corner, just like I do on sharp downhill switchbacks. Another rider, warming up at the same time passed me and commented on my lack of courage. (I don’t think that’s the exact wording he chose, but … you get the idea).  I won’t lie, it bothered me for a while and on my next warm up lap I rode with my feel clipped in.  I was slower so – I ignored him. Funny thing is, I beat him as well. Sometimes just warming up unclipping shows me how much faster I can ride a corner. It gives me the confidence to stay clipped in during the race because I’ve safely pushed the edge of the envelope in warm-ups.

Lesson #4: If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. No matter how much it hurts, I know I can always go a little longer, maybe a little harder, and above all, I remember that the pain will lighten up soon. The more I prepare myself mentally and accept the pain, the better chance I have to ride through it and come out on the other side. Like everything, some days are better than others. Sometimes I relish in the hurt. Other times, I’m just not willing, and I have to accept that as well.  Which leads to the corollary lesson: Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.

Lesson #5: Minimize your losses, play to your strengths. Learn to live with your limitations. I know I’ll never be the best mountain bike descender. It’s likely I’ll get better cornering and descending. After all, practice does at least make permanent.  (Hey, maybe that should be another lesson). I’ll never be the best. On the other hand, I am a stronger climber. So I keep my competition as close as possible on the parts of the course where I’m weakest and then put it to them as hard and as often as possible where I’m stronger. It may be on the corners, over the barriers, who knows, but I use it.

Lesson #6: Smile and definitely have fun. Sometimes, when I’m suffering like a dog I have to remind myself that I chose to do this. So, I make myself smile. I always find is that the smile gives me energy to ride up to and above my expectations. The reality is, I’m not getting paid to race ’cross. If I’m suffering, it’s my own doing. I chose to put myself through it. And, I get back much, much more in improved physical fitness and mental strength. I sometimes have to laugh at myself because there are times when cyclocross is just, well … silly.  I mean, come on! Running with a perfectly rideable bicycle on my shoulder. Racing in snow and frozen ruts. Silly doesn’t even begin to describe it sometimes, so I have to smile.

Lesson #7: Keep moving. Braking hard is not your friend. The only times I have trouble in corners or on descents is when I ride the brakes too much. On the other hand, don’t be stupid. Don’t ride over your head, because the goal is to finish the race, not overcook some corner and end up on the ground watching the race ride away from you.

Lesson #8: Age is simply a state of mind. I’m 61, older than dirt and certainly older than 98% of the guys I race with. But I beat a ton of them. Why? I haven’t gotten younger. I’m not juiced — I promise — but I just don’t let the calendar bother me.  And every younger guy I pass gives me incentive to go a little bit harder, race a little more aggressively and to push myself all that much harder.

Last lesson (for today at least):  Races are short, life is short, enjoy it while you can because, who knows what comes next.

OK.  Enough of that.  Now, go ride!