Yesterday I rode with Mike D.--it was the first time ever in our long friendship. I met him at his local stomping ground (literally, because Mike runs here all the time), Aliso-Wood Canyon Regional Park. It's amazing to have such an extensive network of challenging trails right in the heart of a city--miles and miles of trails both difficult and easy, with lots of nature's beauty surrounding you--cool!
The mountain bike experience is different than the road bike ("ten-speed") experience in some interesting ways. On the road bike, it's all about speed and distance. Improvements in your performance creep up on you; you manage to ride for three hours instead of your usual two; you cover 50 miles instead of 35, you manage a 19 mph average speed instead of 18, etc. These are important markers and tangible in their way and feel good. But on the mountain bike, even small improvements feel like big achievements--why? It's the terrain--and the technique.
Example: I have now ridden Aliso-Wood three times in the last two weeks. I've taken the same 10 mile loop each visit, and it contains one major climb. It's nothing a good mountain-biker would sweat, but for me it was tough! I had to stop many times on my first visit, and even walk the bike up a few stretches. This failure to get up the hill clean is not all about fitness, (though I need improvement there, too). A lot of it is technique. On a road bike you're never off the pavement so you never have to really worry about balance, or choosing the most passable line through an uphill hairpin on a slippery trail of sand and rock--but it's real different in the dirt! So the first time up this hill I was wobbling on the bike and bouncing against the rocks and losing traction because I'm not positioning myself correctly on the bike. Next time up, I'm a little less ragged, and therefore able to carry my forward progress further with less energy expenditure, and also I know the trail a little better now, so it just feeds on itself and each ride gets easier and at the same time better (read, "less life-threatening").
Another tricky thing to get used to technique-wise is the small front chain-ring on a mountain bike--we call it "the granny gear." For the steep hills you need a low-resistance way to crank the pedals over, because your forward (and upward) momentum evaporates if your pedal-speed slows. Either you have monster, Lance-Armstrong leg power to crank the big gear uphill, or you whimper and fall over. So your thoughtful MTB manufacturers added a chain-ring the diameter of a tea-cup's rim to your typical MTB--it looks impossibly small next to the already dainty saucer-sized small cog and the salad-plate "big ring" of yr typical road bike. But it tri-partite goodness opens a new level of power and versatility to the MTB'er.
If you're just riding on the flat-o-the-land and downshift to the granny gear (also known as "the weenie wheel"), you find your legs spinning like a lumberjack dancing on a log in a lake. Your first thought is, "What could you possibly use this for?"--your very next thought is, "Well, I'LL SURE NEVER NEED IT!"
Amazingly, on yr first true dirt uphill, you can't find that gear fast enough.
But the problem (in addition to fitness) is the technique it takes to not (1) bounce out of the pedals when you are spinning up such rough terrain with both (2) so little resistance from the pedals themselves, and (3) so much downward pressure from the grade, trying as you do this to keep from losing any fwd momentum, knowing otherwise you'll (4) come to a stop.
We try to avoid (4). At all costs.
Which results in some funny pictures! Like trying to force the bike forward even when you misdirect your front wheel and hit the berm along the trail-side--and this little ramp redirects your furious forward-and-upward effort so that upward takes-over, and you are suddenly trying to reign-in a bike that's reared-up, and is going over backwards (ouch!). Etc., etc.
But by the second visit, (yesterday, with Mike D.), I was much better on the hill, and my near-crashes were fewer and my (gasping, panting, chest-clutching) stops less-frequent.
And then today I made it up the complete hill without a stop or mis-step (just one steadying foot applied to the ground as I snail-paced up).
My fitness level hasn't improved all that much over one week (if at all!), but because of the easily measured challenge (a single half-mile uphill trail), suddenly I've got a very tangible sense of accomplishment. God bless the little goals.
So that's cool about mountain bikes!
CREDIT to "Cousin Steve," who rode with me today and last week--you're picture is up next!
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