At the time, it was alien to me, this feeling of teetering off on two wheels down trails I might hesitate to essay in hiking boots. Being a roadie for thirty-plus years, biking meant smooth speed, the feeling of flying while still on the ground. The most technical I ever got was leaning the bike, not my body, into a turn on a fast, winding descent.
Variable traction, sizable obstacles, branches flying at my head? These were not part of my picture. Mountain bikes, to me, were inelegant. Lumbering, steampunk contraptions, elaborately contrived to navigate places bicycles just weren't meant to go in the first place.
When I first rode the fabled Earl's Trails in Amherst, Mass., however, all that went out the window. This was fun, with a capital F! I was riding not by the forest, I was in it, right amongst the breathing trees and living soil. And the challenge! No longer did I need to ride for five hours through five towns to feel I'd actually accomplished something. A couple hours straight up and down the side of a mountain was plenty.
My lust for this new challenge knew no bounds. Starting at 50, though, meant there were few peers who would take me under their wing. People my age who were mountain biking had been doing so for decades. The beginners were mostly 20- and 30-somethings, who made up for lack of skills with the innate strength and grace of youth. I couldn't keep up with them, either -- though that hasn't stopped me from trying.
Most of what I learned, I picked up through sheer diligence, or that failsafe library of the people: the Internet. Here are some lessons that have accrued as I've gone from rank novice to almost-skilled beginner.
Where you look is where you go.
This most familiar rule reflects the Karate Kid nature of so many mountain bike skills. When riding any trail I don't know by heart, I have to be constantly aware of my focus, which can be quite meditative in its own way. If I'm navigating a narrow, off-camber section with a steep drop on the outside edge, it simply becomes urgent.
The act of forcibly turning my gaze and attitude away from the drop and toward the bend in the trail, repeated over and over as I meet new obstacles, seems to me as much about personal growth as about skill-building. Who wouldn't want to take a more constructive focus into their daily life?
The tighter you grab, the less control you have.
Really, it's amazing to me that a school of Zen hasn't grown up around this sport—some monastery in a remote mountain fastness of Tibet, replete with a garage full of tools, tubes, and grease-stained rags. Unlike road biking, so many off-road skills are counterintuitive.
Flying down a boudler-strewn descent, every brain cell wants to cinch up my arm muscles to brace me for the next impact. (Especially on a rigid bike like mine.) Locked elbows, hands, and wrists, however, will lead to dangerous rebounds off of obstacles, and will eventually twist my front wheel perpendicular to my path, sending me flying over the bars or skidding off the trail into a tree. Over time, I'm learning to keep a loose-but-sure grip on the bars, with deeply bent, flexy elbows absorbing most of the shock. It's amazing how the front wheel will find its own path through rock gardens when I use my hands only to keep it from the most extreme angles.
Speed is not always your friend.
The popular idea that "faster equals more flow" is perpetuated by young riders, who can afford to crash--financially, physically, and temporally. This is one case in which intuition can be your friend.
Sometimes a little more speed will, indeed, get me over the scary obstacles just down the trail, and certainly, braking out of fear is usually a mistake. But you have to learn the limits of your bike and your skills. Often, scrubbing speed and proceding carefully over slippery roots or a craggy rock garden is best.
I like to focus on momentum more than speed. If I shift up or gently squeeze the rear brake, and pedal so as to constantly apply moderate power, I can usually make it all the way through a sketchy patch with little trouble, and more control than if I'd tried to bomb it.
Speed can also be just plain dangerous. My motto, oft repeated to myself on gnarly descents, is, "Don't ride faster than you can see." If the jarring of the front wheel means that my glasses are doing a flamenco dance on my nose, I can't see the what's coming up. We all know what comes after that.
Which leads to the next axiom:
You have to go slow to go fast.
Yup, another "wax on, wax off" moment. Slowing into a turn to accelerate out of it, dealing with craggy rock gardens at the pace that's right for you; these will help you stay upright.
Upright is faster than not upright.
Not only are you slower if you fall a lot -- that's obvious. You're also slower if you simply get off-course a lot by blazing into sharp turns and correcting too late, or if you have to dab your foot every few minutes. Staying upright isn't as sexy as "ripping" a trail (a phrase I have very mixed feelings about) but you may very well beat your more impulsive friends to the next intersection.
When I was learning to solo on the guitar, I had to constantly, willfully slow myself down while practicing complicated sections. It was painful speeding them up so slowly that I barely noticed the difference, but before I knew it, I could play the passage at speed, sounding like I'd been born playing it. You don't get that kind of finesse by bombing trails before you're ready. All you get is either injury, or a rush of relief that you didn't die.
Personally, I get more satisfaction out of skillfully cleaning a section of trail at five miles an hour than I do blasting it at 15 miles an hour and barely escaping with my neck intact.
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Now, I wouldn't undertake to try and prove to you that I've become a more focused, relaxed, and self-assured person as a result of applying these principles every time I swing a leg over my hybrid Mukluk. But, as I see it, just writing this post is evidence that the ideas are taking root, however slowly.
That's a heck of a lot more personal growth than I could have claimed if I'd chickened out and tried to find yet another road biking challenge.
Well, Daniel-san, I have to get back to catching flies with chopsticks.