“Get the balance right.” Depeche Mode
The killer singletrack. Nasty drop-offs, slick off-camber roots, steep switchbacks littered with tombstones. Every rider has a favorite. On a real good day, when your riding that flow train, you clean about 75 percent of it. Most days, it's closer to 50.
What's worse, you know guys that regularly rip the whole thing without a dab. What’s the difference? In a word? Balance.
Bike shops and book stores are brimming with fitness how-to books and magazines for cyclists. You can find out everything about yourself (maximum heart rate, resting heart rate, lactate and anaerobic thresholds), and how to go faster on the bike (interval training, periodization, weight training). Remarkably, though, it's almost impossible to find anything about balance.
But balance, or lack of it, can rob cyclists of valuable energy when they over-react and fight the bike, or, at worse, crash. Enter Blair Lombardi, the 42-year-old Goddess of Balance, an elite cycling coach who says improving your balance is the fastest way to improve your riding, on- and off-road.
Lombardi's techniques are rapidly gaining popularity. Team Ritchey star Caroline Alexander of England won a breakthrough World Cup race shortly after adopting some of Lombardi's basic principles. Mountain bike guru Gary Fisher has signed on for lessons, and former national coach Chris Charmichael is beginning to employ her methodology. Here’s a snapshot of Lombardi's methods, proven tips to dicing the singlestrack:
1) Analyze mistakes. Too many cyclists offer up crashes to the Cycling Gods and just go on their way, feeling fortunate that they can still pedal. What they need to do is take a hard look at why they went down. Lombardi doesn’t claim to have invented a new training technique. But by studying her mistakes on the bike, she was able to rediscovered basic balance tenets learned through dancing and gymnastics.
2) We have nothing to fear but ... The biggest obstacle facing mountain bikers is fear, and our 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 more confident. It's a positive self-fulfilling prophesy."
3) 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. The eyes, relying on reference points and peripheral vision, keep riders oriented by pointing the head in the right direction. The key is to 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."
4) Lead with your chin. Bad in boxing, great in cycling. Keeping your chin up allows the inner ear to do its work. It also naturally helps the rider to shift his 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."
5) Whistle while you work. One of Lombardi's favorite tricks is to take students on a twisty trail, and have them start whistling a tune as they ride. "I’m distracting their mind, and they immediately start applying balance techniques. They’ll start flowing through turns and over obstacles. It’s effortless," she says. "Riders have to let their bodies sense and feel over the terrain. We need to let our mind go on remote control."
6) Practice stationary balance. For most riders, balance refers to keeping the bike upright while moving forward. This "momentum" balance is all fine and good, but it won’t help you much on really technical singletrack. Lombardi advocates learning trials routines, such as a track stand, to develop "stationary" balance, or the ability to stay upright when you’re not moving. "Stationary balance improved my dynamic balance. It sharpened my balance sensory orgrans, and increased my innate ability to balance."
7) Climbing is still work. Lomabardi 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.
8) Shelve Mr. Macho. Hey, it's OK to admit you don't know it all. Lombardi says the biggest roadblock for men is taking advice, especially from a woman. Must really sting when she goes screaming by them.
Lombardi offers a number of training programs through three Marin-area recreation centers. She's also available for private coaching. She can be reached at 415/456-4251, or firstname.lastname@example.org.