Saturday, April 13, 2013

Rocks are hard, and other lessons I learned while in Arizona over Spring Break. This Coach/Triathlete is Learning to Mountain Bike (and you should too)

(as originally published on

  Over the past year I’ve learned the many benefits of mountain biking as they apply to triathlon.  Here are just a few:
1.       Bike Handling.   Triathletes are notoriously BAD bike handlers.  We ride low slung aero machines designed to go fast in a straight line which doesn’t help.   We seek smooth low traffic roads for training hearts and legs.  An unfortunately positioned pothole, an inattentive pedestrian or, heaven forbid, a little sand on the road and down we go a sliding heap of lycra, carbon fiber, aluminum and skin on asphalt.

Mountain biking requires constant adjustments to the terrain, picking a line, staying straight in the sand.  These constant adjustments will improve your balance and confidence in your ability to maneuver your bike.    Sure there are drills we COULD all do to improve our bike handling – riding a line while looking back (preferably in the safety of an empty parking lot), navigating cones, picking up a bottle off the ground.  How many of us do?  Those sound boring don’t they

Think of the hilliest tri you’ve ever done. Now imagine you are on the longest climb in that race.  What do you hear?  Usually I hear the grinding clanks of drive trains shifting under incredible duress.   These shifts cause unnecessary chain wear, risk breaking your chain, dropping your chain off the rings, or potentially damaging the more expensive components of your drivetrain.

A hilly rocky trail will require you to anticipate your gearing prior to hitting that uphill.  If you wait to shift until the “oh crap” moment when you realize the big ring is not where you want to be, you’re likely to meet the trail up close and personal.  Fall avoidance is a strong motivator.  Once you start to anticipate your gearing on the trail, this will carry over to the road as well.

2.       The View.  Roads and bike paths take triathletes to some pretty spectacular places with some great views.   Break free from the asphalt chains and you’re in for even more spectacular views without car exhaust.  At the beginning of the descent on the 401 trail outside of Crested Butte, CO you truly feel like you are on top of the world.   Closer to home, you can lose yourself riding the river bottoms out of Shakopee in the Minnesota Valley Recreational Area.  Now doesn’t that sound better than riding paint lines and circling cones in an empty parking lot?

3.       Intervals/Strength.  A great way to get stronger on the bike is to ride harder for short intervals.  Riding the trails can force you to ride VERY hard for a short time.     On the short steep hills you’ll be standing, powering up the climb (now in the right gear due to your newly developed ability to anticipate the right gear).  These repeated bursts of power sprinkled throughout your ride will strengthen your legs.  Besides developing powerful legs and lungs, these climbs are almost always followed by smile inducing descents.
4.       The Equipment.  We tri-geeks love our gear.  With mountain biking there’s almost as many gear opportunities as in triathlon.  Let’s start with the perfect excuse to have another bike hanging in the garage.  Nuff said.  But, in addition, you get shoes you can actually walk in and still ride clipless and baggy shorts with chamois (although I’m not sure why you would EVER not want to wear form fitting spandex).

Be forewarned though – developing a love for the trials can lead to (gasp) giving cyclo-cross a go.  The next thing you know you will be purchasing yet another bike (a cross bike) and racing, carrying your bike up steps and over barricades, through mud, with a huge smile on your face.

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