RBR Newsletter

Get Dirty to Hone Your Road Skills, Part 3

This concept in a nutshell: Roadies can learn smooth pedaling, bike handling skills and more by riding a mountain bike. In fact, some like to get off-road during the off-season, just for the change of pace.

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks discussing how to best use off-road riding to enhance your on-road skills. Last week’s focus was on using off-road riding to develop a smoother stroke. This week we’ll finish the series with a look at improving bike handling by getting dirty.

If You Can Handle the Dirt…

There’s nothing like sliding on loose dirt through corners to make you feel at home when your rear wheel skids on wet pavement. One of the best ways to learn is to follow better riders. In mountain biking’s infancy, that’s how we all did it. There weren’t any instructional books or tradition. We simply rode, pushing our limits and observing riders who were smoother and faster.

Now you can find articles on how to pull every technical move imaginable. But guess what—learning from better riders is still the most effective way. Watching as your hero rides around a switchback, tackles a rocky section or bunny hops a log imprints the technique in your brain. Then all you have to do is imitate his or her moves—and practice!

Find good mountain bikers in your area to serve as your role models. Look for them in cycling clubs or on group rides. Here are ways to learn from their example:

Play follow the leader. My descending skills improved markedly after I followed Skip Hamilton down a singletrack near Crested Butte called, appropriately enough, Deadman Gulch. A top off-road technician, Skip won the Leadville 100 several times. He floats effortlessly over obstacles, seeming to defy gravity. In trying to keep up, I crashed immediately. 

After dusting myself off, I figured out how to follow at about 40 feet, focusing on the trail ahead but keeping Skip in my peripheral vision. Then I simply imitated what he did. I followed his line, adopted his relaxed, cat-like stance on the bike and mimicked his speed. It was like magic. His skills became imprinted on my brain. I became a Skip clone. Try it and you’ll see how well it works.

Follow good riders on climbs and technical sections, too. Imitate their gearing, cadence and line through obstacles. Often, problems stem from pedaling at the wrong cadence or not setting up correctly for the next turn and ramming the front wheel into something and stalling. Good riders get all these things right.

Ask for tips and help. Don’t be shy. Nearly all good riders feel flattered when asked to share their techniques. This includes pros when they’re out riding on the local trails. They remember when they started and how they learned from others, too. When I visited the Volvo-Cannondale team camp in Arizona, I made it a point to follow Olympic mountain biker Tinker Juarez on the trails and ask him questions whenever we stopped for a breather. (I needed a lot more extra breathing than he did.) Tinker was gracious and highly articulate. It was obvious that he’d thought long and hard about the sport’s techniques.

Watch a pro race. You don’t have to ride with top pros or coaches to sponge up their skills. Go to a race and find terrain on the course that mirrors what’s difficult for you. If you stall on technical climbs, spread your picnic by the meanest uphill section. Going over the bar on tough downhills? Locate the nastiest drop-offs and watch the action closely. You’ll be amazed at the racers’ agility and balance, but you’ll also see that their skills aren’t superhuman. They’re within reach once you understand what they’re doing with their bikes and bodies.

Go to a camp. Expert instruction is a quick way to get better. A coach will demonstrate skills, watch as you try various moves and cajole you into improvement. When you get coaching in a group of like-minded riders in a great mountain biking area, it makes the whole experience that much more effective.

Watch race videos. No pro races nearby? No vacation time to attend a camp? No problem. Simply watch a mountain bike race video, and learn. Repeat some sections so you can study a certain move again and again. Pause and slow it down to examine techniques in detail. Visualize yourself riding the same trail and handling the technical sections with the same relaxed assurance. Soon, other riders will be asking you for tips.

These skills, honed on dirt, transfer directly to the road. They’ll make you smoother, stronger and more powerful on hills or in big-gear situations on the flats. And they’ll keep you upright in perilous situations. You’ll be more confident on pavement because of the time you spend off it.


Adapted from Coach Fred Matheny’s Supercharge Your TrainingCoach Fred Matheny has decades of experience as a competitive racer and cycling coach. He is the author of 13 RBR eBooks and eArticles.
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