Mastering the Ups and Downs of the Off-Road Bike Leg

When the going gets rough, speed is your friend.

The idea for this article occurred to me as I watched a friend roll his mountain bike into T2 at the XTERRA race in Crested Butte, Colorado, last summer. Somewhere underneath the blood and mud was a strong and talented triathlete, but he had made the crucial mistake of believing superior fitness could compensate for poor mountain-biking skills. I couldn't resist yelling, "Didja have fun?"

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It was sad, really, because he was on some of the sweetest singletrack in the Rockies, and the glare he shot back at me was evidence that he hadn't enjoyed his ride at all. I was too late to spare my buddy a lot of frustration, but here are some key tips to help you enjoy—rather than simply endure—the mountain-bike leg of your next off-road tri.

Tackling the Hills

Most off-road triathlons include at least one significant climb. A combination of skills and pacing will get you to the top quickly and with enough energy left to stay focused on the descent. Specifically:

  • Manage your cadence. The right cadence keeps your legs fresher and helps with traction on singletrack trails. Your back tire can lose traction if you're either stomping on a big gear or spinning a super-light gear very quickly. Try something in the middle, around 70 to 85 rpm.
  • Watch your gears. Both the pitch and difficulty of mountain-bike climbs change frequently, and it helps to be able to shift gears accordingly. As much as possible, you want to shift only your rear derailleur while climbing. This means using the front derailleur judiciously to keep the chain near the middle of your rear cog set.

    Why? If you're riding in the middle chainring and with your easiest cog and you reach a steep pitch, your only option for shifting into an easier gear is to move the chain to the small chainring. Even with new, more precise drivetrains, this can be problematic because the chain is under tension and you risk dropping the chain off the front rings completely.

    Riding in the middle ring and easiest cog is roughly equivalent to riding in the small chainring and the middle of your cassette. The difference is that you have more flexibility when in the granny gear to shift up and down a gear or two when necessary.

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  • Master tight uphill corners. Switchbacks can be the novice mountain biker's nemesis, but with a little focus and practice you can stay on your bike and gain a lot of time over your competition. Approach the corner far to the outside of the turn, keep the bike upright (don't lean) and steer your front wheel around the outside of the corner. The inside line may look tempting, but it's often too steep, too tight and too hard to gain traction on.

    Interestingly, on really tight turns, your rear wheel will take a shorter route and almost pivot instead of following your front wheel. Experiment with gearing during training rides—you may find that a slightly bigger gear helps you maintain traction and get back up to speed coming out of the switchback.

More: Mountain Bike Skills You Need to Know

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