Compared to most sports, triathlon has fairly shallow roots. This is a good thing, because usually athletes take themselves and their sport too seriously.
Road cycling is a classic example. Here is a sport so old, so steeped in tradition, that the fun has been sucked right out of it.
Road cyclists have forgotten how to laugh at themselves. Essentially, roadies have created an old boys club in which change happens slowly, if at all. Triathlon, on the other hand, is still defining itself. It is still pliable enough to grow in new directions.
Off-road triathlons, which continue to gain widespread acceptance, represent a good example of this variation. They are often wild, always fun and always difficult.
When you venture off-road, a whole new element of technique comes into play. Case in point: How many people do you know have been injured on a mountain bike? Perhaps they were just pushing their personal limits, challenging those dangerous winds when something went awry. Sometimes these injuries are just minor scrapes, but occasionally they end up threatening their actual existence.
And it's strange how our minds work in such circumstances. Sometimes it takes one of these life-threatening experiences, like an air-rescue trip to the hospital strapped to a backboard, to make you realize just how alive you really are. Fewer things are taken for granted after having awakened from a serious concussion.
To all of you who fantasize about escaping the grid of cement and asphalt, traffic and air pollution, this lesson plan is for you: Learn a few basic tricks, push your personal limits and have fun in the process.
According to statistics, most mountain bikes spend the majority of their time on pavement or gathering dust in garages rather than on dirt trails. It is my hope that this narrative will inspire the dirt devil lurking in each of you to break out.
Take heart: Some of the bravest off-roaders had road bike or no-bike beginnings. In short, it is never too late to rediscover your childhood on a mountain bike. Whatever your bike means to you, start with a fresh attitude about using it as a tool for self-exploration.
For those readers who are advanced kamikaze riders, let this reading serve as a mission statement: Keep challenging yourself with every adventure that the forces of sport and life throw in your path. But remember, risk ventures fall roughly into two categories: calculated and uncalculated. Do yourself and your new sporting flame a favor: Aim for the former and respect the latter.
So as you careen flat-out down a precipitous passage of no promises, try to clear your mind as to which form of risk fits your present situation. Most of you are extremely goal-driven animals. The competitive spirit that brought your gonzo energies to the trail to test yourself against others of the same ilk hardens you to the element of risk.
If you are a beginner, you should be here not to test your limits, but merely to play. An early goal should be to cultivate the art of the instinctive response. It may seem like a gross oversimplification, but this natural human resource will allow you to push aside the limiting effects of fear and doubt.
Once you are motivated by desire rather than fear, the trail is yours. Out of desire, we respond naturally to every condition the trail throws our way. Downhill mountain bike racers can learn a lot by watching practiced downhill skiers. In both cases, the athlete learns to anticipate several moves ahead of the most visible object in route.
Experienced mountain bikers and skiers usually test a particular course by "pre-running" it again and again before actually riding it at racing speeds. They imagine themselves performing smoothly and quickly over difficult course conditions and visually reinforce these positive images.
On a difficult technical section, start by parking your bike and walking. Course conditions may seem intimidating at first, but by familiarizing yourself with the terrain, you can visualize a positive image of yourself in motion. As you walk, mentally and physically work yourself through a technical move until you are comfortable with the conditions. Before you get on your bike, close your eyes and mentally retrace every bump. Now you are ready to ride.
Notice how effortless and smooth the same particular set of conditions seems. Your learning curve will increase dramatically if you learn to enjoy each ride. All advancements in technical skill will come about only when the body is relaxed. Remember, you're supposed to have fun.
Four-time NORBA National Champion John Howard writes about his off-road experiences in Dirt! The Philosophy, Technique and Practice of Mountain Biking. He also conducts off-road and road camps and clinics through the School of Champions.