Sunday, July 31, 2011

Zen and the Art of Dirt

Zen tip number one for dyed-in-the-wool-jersey roadies just building basic dirt skills: Hit the trails early. Mountain bikers are slackers, and will never show up at the trailhead before 11 a.m.  As the old koan goes, "If a biker falls in the forest and no one is there to see it, did he really fall?"

I'm so thoroughly enjoying taking my new Salsa Vaya (a dirt-road touring bike with 35 millimeter tires) onto single track to see if I can pick up a thing or two about trail riding. Here are some of the principles that seem to be arising, like satori sneaking up on an unsuspecting monk sweeping the hallways.  Like most of Zen—another study of how to deal with rocky and unpredictable paths—they're often counter-intuitive:

- Handlebars are not for steering. Use your hips instead; wither points thy pupik, so goes thy bicycle.  If you have enough momentum, the front wheel will flow in the right direction, no matter how rooty or washed out the trail. Body English, first, last and always.

- The old chestnut, "Look where you want to go," could not be more true. The sharper the turn, the more you need to point your nose through the apex (your shoulders and hips tend to follow). Scary at first, but works like a stinkin' charm.

- Momentum will cover a multitude of sins (though a better line will always win in the end). If you don't got the mo' when you meet an obstacle or ramp, you'll have to manufacture it with a sudden surge. This will make you strong -- eventually. Better yet, just go a little faster generally. Again, scary, but right.

- Braking is not helpful for anything except a full stop, or scrubbing speed before a sharp turn. You can't do almost anything else well or safely while you're braking. If you're scared, the last thing you should (and always will want to) do is grab a handful of brakes. Go back to look more closely where you're going. Keep your grip as loose as possible (all the more necessary with a fully-rigid road bike).

- Finally, don't shoot low on your gear choice; you might not be able to power through that next scary patch. Again, not logical; I mean, if you see obstacles, you want to be able to have torque, right? Wrong; you'll spin like a pinwheel and land on your side in the dirt (at best). See "Momentum," above.

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Like any new zealot, I'm feeling all wise and accomplished today. Yeah, well. That wise old Zen master, the Mountain, just smiles. Tomorrow, bike and body are bound to part again, in a fascinating new way. And that, too, will be learning, will it not, Daniel-san?

Well, I'm off polish my bike. Wax on, wax off.


BIGWORM said...

Good call on your list of advice. One of the first things I try to teach newbies who want to improve is quite simply, lay off the brakes. Learn to trust your machine and physics. Before disc brakes, my crew would hit the flat trails with the brakes disconnected. No cheating that way. Made for some exciting trips through the woods.

Velosopher said...

Thanks for the affirmation, BW. From what I hear, you know a thing or two about dirt.

No brakes at all? Woah... Don't think I'm up to that...

Herringbone said...

When I taught xc skiing, we would always start with no poles.