Ease on off the road

How I stopped battling and started loving my mountain bike

Outdoor Explorer (6/2/2002)

Brion's comments:
'This piece, done for the inaugural issue of the dearly departed Outdoor Explorer, epitomizes the magazine's mantra of "Real Adventure for Real People" by introducing readers to a sport that almost anyone at any age can enjoy.'

Feature article:

You're in trouble. Big trouble. Once again, you've fallen under the spell of that evil Svengali, er, sibling, the one who lives out of the back of his 12-year-old Subaru wagon, the one who's perpetually smiling, the one with no spouse, no kids, no mortgage, and, more often than not, no job. You've been here before with this impertinent youngster, risking concussion while strapped to a snowboard, or hanging by a harness from the ceiling of a climbing gym. Now you're straddling a mountain bike, panting and watching the kid brother do his best gazelle imitation as he bobs and weaves effortlessly over the roots and rocks of his favorite ski area singletrack. And you think: "One false move, and this is going to hurt -- bad."

What to do? First, pull seniority. Those halcyon days of youth, when you tore up the dirt paths between home and your best friend's house on that stylish Schwinn Sting-Ray, are long gone. Remind the impetuous kid brother (or husband, wife, girlfriend, etc. etc.) that the wisdom of age has taught you to tackle these new adventures with a modicum of caution. You'll go at your own pace, thank you very much.

Second, be prepared. Prepared for what? Well, that depends on how you define mountain biking. Riding a "mountain bike" on a smoothly paved road or a level, immaculately groomed carriage trail won't present many surprises. But if that twisty hiking trail or steep fire road down at the local state forest beckons you, the game changes considerably.

Water barriers, mud bogs, banked turns, tree branches, ruts, loose stone, big rocks, roots, sudden drops and ridiculous climbs -- all are common off-road fare, and all require certain skills to manage without dipping into your HMO deductible. Acquiring the skills to guide your mountain bike over, around and through these obstacles is just part of this sport's alluring learning curve. Here's where to start.


Bottom line -- mountain biking can be tough. An inescapable truth of the sport is it offers the greatest rewards for those in the best shape. Mountains, after all, present a challenge whether you travel by foot or by fat tire. Don't fret, though. There's a happy corollary -- cycling is one of the finest methods to work yourself into shape. Again, moderation is the key.

If your idea of a leisurely weekend includes a competitive 10K run on Saturday, followed by a little channel swimming on Sunday, you can probably skip this section. If the mad dash for the train or unloading a dozen grocery bags leaves you gasping for air, read on.

Whether the reasons are just practical or legal, most every exercise program today cautions restraint. The concept is sound -- build a strong foundation with a steady diet of exercise that you slowly add onto. First, take an honest assessment of your present condition. If you've been sedentary, mix a few power-walking sessions in with a few casual rides around the neighborhood. Increase the intensity gradually, until you feel comfortable venturing off-road.

Spinning is all the rage, and accurately simulates pedaling mechanics while improving your cardiovascular fitness. So will any stationary bike, though to a lesser degree. One caveat -- a mountain bike is a dynamic tool that you have to interact with. In other words, you can take a little mental vacation while chugging along on a stationary bike. Try it on a mountain bike, however, and you're looking at a quick ticket to the emergency room.

Mountain biking also requires better overall fitness. This sport promises to tax your upper body as well as your legs. Any workout regimen that you undertake to prepare for the rigors of mountain biking should include exercises for your arms, shoulders and midsection (which will also protect your lower back).


Regardless of your fitness level, mountain biking isn't going to be much fun if the bike doesn't fit. Frame size is crucial. The best way to compare bikes, and frame sizes, is to ride them. Here's one area where ski resorts provide an excellent service. Most have a fleet of top-quality rentals (and the ones that don't can usually refer you to a nearby shop). Call ahead and be ready to provide your height and inseam, so the shop folks can get an idea of what size you'll need and put a bike on reserve for you.

"All to often I see new riders on ill-fitting bikes struggling with an awkward bike position more than the challenge of the new sport," says Rod Kramer.

Kramer, development director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, is a co-founder and former director of Dirt Camp, a highly acclaimed instructional program. "A mountain bike," he says in the words of a true convert, "is a platform upon which you will learn to perform the dance that is the mark of a skilled rider. It is critical that you are in a relaxed and comfortable stance to be successful in negotiating demanding trails."

Essentially, you want to feel "centered" on the bike, your weight equally distributed between front and rear wheels. A more upright position might feel nice and comfy on level ground, but it will also shift your weight too far backward while climbing hills, causing your front wheel to break free and lose traction. Conversely, an aggressive position favored by some racers might place too much weight on the handlebars for novices, making it difficult to unweight the front wheel to get over obstacles and often leading to shoulder, wrist and hand problems.

The general rules of bike fit include: Your back should be at roughly a 45-degree angle when seated; with the pedal in the 3 o'clock position, your kneecap should be directly over the pedal axle; handlebars should be shoulder-width, and about an inch below the saddle; keep the saddle level; saddle height should allow your knee to be slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Again, any reputable shop that rents or sells bikes should also have the personel to make certain your bike fits properly.

Look for a nice symmetry between comfort and efficiency. A front suspension fork -- a lightweight version of what you'd find on a motorcycle -- is a worthwhile consideration since it can help soak up the bumps. It's not necessary, but can go a long way to adding smiles to your miles. Keep in mind that suspension promises added comfort, but also presents some riding nuances (the rebound of the shock in particular) that can confound the uninitiated.

"Before venturing onto the trails plan to spent sometime getting used to the bike," says Kramer. "Time spent here will later allow you to concentrate on the obstacles of the trail without the distraction of operating unfamiliar controls to brake and shift gears."


First and foremost, get a good helmet. Mountain biking by it's nature is an unpredictable sport, and even experienced riders take the occasional pratfall. Today's helmets typically weigh less than 11 ounces, are well vented, fit snugly with the help of clever retention systems, and even feature visors to keep the sun at bay. In short, they're cheap protection for your noggin. Look for a skid lid that has been certified by the Snell Memorial Foundation, ANSI (American National Standards Institute) or ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials). To simplify things, all cycling helmets manufactured after March 1 must meet the federal government's Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standards.

Unless you venturing out into foul weather, don't worry about the myriad of cycling-related clothing. A T-shirt, gym shorts and decent hiking boots will work just fine. As you spend more time in the saddle, you'll appreciate a well-made, padded pair of cycling shorts, and the added efficiency of stiff-soled cycling shoes. Glasses not only provide sun protection, but can also ward off errant branches. Cycling gloves improve your grip on the handlebars, no matter how sweaty you get.

Another nice item is a water-pack system, such as CamelBak, that also allows you to stow food or energy bars. "A comfortable and successful day mountain biking depends on an efficient motor," says Kramer. "Make sure you have more than enough. Remember, hydration is especially important at higher altitudes."

To prevent your ride from inadvertently disintegrating into a hike, equip your bike with a saddle bag, and stuff it with a spare tube, patch kit, basic tools such as tire levers, a chain tool and a folding allen wrench set that features a flat and a phillips-head screwdriver, and sunscreen. Take the time to learn how to fix a flat or broken chain beforehand -- there are few fates worse than attempting trailside repairs for the first time after a swarm of mosquitoes or black flies find you. A pump is also a crucial accessory.

Clipless pedals, those wonderful devices that allow the rider to attach themselves to the bike via spring-loaded teeth and shoe-mounted cleats -- much like ski bindings -- are another issue. There are two schools of thought on clipless pedals. The first is to switch after you've gotten used to platform pedals. The second holds that you'll learn the art of mountain biking more quickly if your more connected to the bike. If you opt for clipless pedals, you'll need cleat-compatible shoes. Spend time on a grassy field practicing snapping out of the pedals at every point in the pedal stroke since falls can happen anytime.


So what do you need to know to get under way? In addition to general fitness and a gung-ho attitude, you need skills -- bunny hopping, track stands, weight shifts, a smooth pedal stroke and a trained eye for the trail. As her chosen moniker -- the Goddess of Balance -- would indicate, Blair Lombardi preaches the bible of equilibrium. Balance, or lack of it, can rob beginning cyclists of confidence and energy when they over-react and fight the bike, or, worse, crash. Lombardi, a 43-year-old California-based elite cycling coach, says improving your balance is the fastest way to improve your riding. The three basic tenets are:

* Keep your head upright and your chin pointed in the direction you want to go. * Focus your attention on a reference point at least five feet above the ground. * Look and think about where you're going, but ride by feel.

One of Lombardi's pet tactics is to have her students whistle or hum a tune as they ride. The idea, she says, is to "distract your mind, so it leaves the body alone and let's it do it's job. That unleashes your innate ability to balance, it unleashes the athlete in you." If this all sounds very Zen-like, join the club. Still, it's tough to argue with success, and Lombardi's legion of fans include World Cup racers and one of mountain biking's forefathers, bike designer Gary Fisher.

It breaks down like this -- the biggest obstacle facing mountain bikers is fear, and the natural survival instincts that kick in when we get scared. That explains "panic braking." Fear forces us to look down at the very rock we want to avoid, to tense up when we need to stay relaxed. By honing our innate balance skills, Lombardi says, we can retrain those survival instincts. "Errors are body language for lack of confidence," she says. "Exceptional athletes learn to deal with fear, not deny it. Even if you’re not completely confident, act like you are, and you will be. It's a positive self-fulfilling prophesy."

What Lombardi wants you to do is trust the big picture. Central to Lombardi's methodology is our basic sensory organs -- eyes, inner ears and proprioceptors -- and our ability to tap those resources. Avoid taking a mental inventory of everything on the trail that might trip you up. Instead, pick your line, and trust your central nervous system to do the work for you. "If you use your peripheral vision, you will time your jumps perfectly. You’ll lift your wheel just a hair before the obstacle."

While leading with your chin might be bad in boxing, it's fundamental in cycling. Keeping your chin up allows the inner ear to do its work. It also naturally helps you shift your weight back, lightening the load on the front wheel. Lombardi suggests imagining a line strung from your chin to the top of your front wheel. As you pull up, the front wheel follows, allowing it to roll over obstacles more easily. "Mountain biking is all about weight shift, balance and finesse."

Climbing, on the other hand, is still grunt work. Lombardi teaches classic climbing techniques, including butt on the nose of the saddle, chest to the stem, and pushing back and down on the handlebars to increase traction. Add to this the ability to focus on the best line, rather than obstacles, and you'll have more energy to put to the pedals.


It's easy to get in over your head on a mountain bike, especially as you peer over the handlebars from atop a ski area, following an oh-so-tranquil chairlift taxi to the summit. Speed, as fat-tire aficionados like to say, can indeed be your greatest ally. For the uninitiated, it can also result in a whole lot of hurt.

Know your limitations. The old adage, "when in doubt, chicken out," applies. There's no shame in walking a particularly nasty drop-off -- just watch the pros hopping off their bikes at Bailey's Bail-Out on the World Cup course at Vail. They're not about to let a broken collarbone ruin their chances in the race.

"Ride at your comfort level," cautions Kramer. "'Oh, come on, you can make it' is often the last thing you hear before you fall."

Here's a solid guideline. Concentrate on one new skill each ride, like a particularly mischievous singletrack or a long, steady descent. Regarding tricky portions of trail, employ the "three strike" rule -- if you fail to ride the section cleanly after three attempts, save it for another day.


Even the best skiers take a break from their deep powder bowl runs to spend a few minutes with the man -- instructor, coach, guru. Again, many ski areas host bike schools, but you can also probably pick up some valuable pointers during the beginner rides offered by many bike shops and clubs. Don't be shy. Ask questions.

Want to learn more? In addition to traditional weeklong sessions in areas such as Patagonia, Arizona, Moab, Utah, the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina and Durango, Colorado, the folks at Dirt Camp will host a series of weekend camps for those short on free time. The camps will be held at ski resorts -- Northstar-at-Tahoe in California, Fontana Village in North Carolina, Waterville Valley in New Hampshire and Keystone in Colorado -- that provide plenty of off-the-bike distractions for family members (or significant others) that may not be as excited about biking as you are. For more details, call Dirt Camp at 1-800-711-DIRT (e-mail; info@dirtcamp.com) or check out their web site at www.dirtcamp.com.

If your looking for quick tips to take with you, Lombardi offers a nifty little fact-sheet for less than $10 called The Mountain Bike Coach (1-888-876-4472). She's also available for private coaching. She can be reached at 415/456-4251, or inbalance@earthlink.net (web site: http://home.earthlink.net/~inbalance/).


Caveat emptor. If you've already rented or ridden a number of bikes, and know what feels comfortable for you, don't be swayed by a sales pitch. Too many novice cyclists get taken for a ride by less-than-reputable sales people. The standard ploy works like this -- a bike shop or department store has a bike in stock that may or may not fit just right. However, with minor modifications, such as adjusting the stem length or seatpost height, they can usually make the thing rideable.

To avoid this scam, talk with friends and colleagues who ride. Find the name of a respectable shop. Here, the sales staff will provide a proper fit and then offer to order the right size bicycle frame if it isn't in the shop's inventory. With all due respect, be wary of department store chains -- the bikes are generally inferior and the staff are not likely to be well-versed in the intricacies of bike fit.

The price point for a decent bike with decent front suspension is about $500. You can spend less, at your own risk. Designs for full-suspension bikes (shocks fore and aft) have made a quantum leap in the last few years, but the price point here is still a shade over $1,000.

Don't be overly concerned about the material used to make your bike. Steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, titanium -- all are used to produce excellent bikes. But frame material can be a lot like blue jeans -- you want to find the brand that fits best. Ride them all, decide which one suits your style and pocketbook, and take it home along the path less traveled.

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