Triathletes are always looking for new challenges, something to keep them pushing the envelope. Currently, many athletes are being drawn to mountain biking and XTERRA to complement their other tri-related training and racing. And for good reason: Mountain biking will improve cycling fitness and skill and can add variety and fun to your training.
As your season prepares to wind down, you may want to consider getting off road this fall to give your body and brain a change of routine while building strength and skill that can help your riding next season.
The primary difference between road and mountain biking is the consistency of effort. Due to larger-volume tires, lower gears, decreased aerodynamics and a rougher riding surface, mountain bikes will scrub speed more quickly, causing you to constantly reapply effort to maintain a steady pace.
In other words, while you can ride on the road for hours at a fairly constant speed, on the mountain bike you will notice much more speed fluctuation. This will help you become a more efficient rider. To that end, here are a few key points to consider:
1. Read the trail. Always look ahead. Shift at the bottom of climbs rather than grinding halfway up and then hoping you can drop to a smaller gear. Not only will this help you maintain speed and not overcook your legs but it will also keep you from breaking your chain during late high-tension shifts.
2. Brake smoothly. Again, read the trail and brake accordingly. You don't want to blast into a corner, lock up the brakes (scrubbing all your speed) and then waste energy dragging yourself back up to speed out of the corner. Rather, feather the brakes before you get to the corner while still riding on the straight portion of the trail. Then turn smoothly and use your momentum to accelerate out of the corner.
3. Spin don't mash. Ride gears that let you spin at about 90 rpm. This will allow you to maintain momentum over undulating terrain while also helping to keep your shifting smooth. Your bike probably doesn't like shifting at anything under about 60 rpm, especially if the drive train is under load.
4. Visualize circles. While maintaining your spin at around 90 rpm remember to be smooth and pedal circles. You should never feel yourself starting to bounce on the seat. Think of scraping something off the bottom of your shoe at the bottom of the pedal stroke, and then gently pull up through the heel. Maintaining a smooth pedal stroke will help you maintain traction on loose surfaces and improve your overall cycling ability (road or mountain).
The first question everyone asks about mountain biking is: "Full suspension or hard tail?" Unfortunately there's no definitive answer; however, most riders now opt for full suspension, given the reductions in weight and improvements in performance of these systems. That said, bike set up is more important than settling the full-suspension vs. hard tail debate.
1. Suspension set up. Don't be scared to play with your suspension adjustment. Buy a shock pump and learn where you like to have the pressures set. Some people like the bike softer than others. Try different pressures and try different set ups on different terrain. Even if you don't change your set up, be sure you check it regularly, since shocks and forks leak pressure over time.
2. Tires. Be aware that mountain-bike tires will wear out much more quickly than road-bike tires. Also, while different trail surfaces can call for different tires, usually a good all-around tire will suffice. What is more important is tire pressure. In wet or soft conditions lower pressure can improve traction. However, keep in mind that the lower the pressure the greater the risk of suffering a pinch flat, unless you are using tubeless tires.
3. Take care of your bike. Not surprisingly, mountain bikes tend to get dirtier than road bikes, so you have to wash them more often to keep everything functioning. This means you have to lube the chain more frequently: nearly every ride is not out of the question.
When it comes to mountain biking, triathletes typically need to work on boosting their power and improving their technical skills. Each time you ride off road, experiment by taking different lines, within reason—don't jump in over your head. By doing so you'll find many steep climbs or technical section are easier than they look, and once you've done it you will have it down forever.
As for power, mountain biking often involves quick accelerations and short, steep climbs. Find a steep hill about a minute long and work on attacking the hill and spinning smoothly up. Alternate between sitting and standing and determine what works best. Also, spend some time on winding single track. Breaking into the corners then accelerating out is a great way to boost your power.
Getting used to the mountain bike won't take long, and once you've spent some time off road you will find it brings a new dimension of fun and fitness to your training and racing.
Jimmy Archer is a pro triathlete, coach, and freelance writer. During his career Jimmy has raced at all distances and formats of triathlon, competing for the U.S.A. on four national teams and finishing top 10 at five XTERRA world championships. You can visit his website at jimmyarcher.com.