It might be comforting for you to know that it's not unusual to be frustrated going from being a strong road rider to feeling like a disaster on the dirt. So what happened? Why isn't mountain biking just a natural extension of road riding?
What happened is there are a few things in mountain biking that are not intuitive and in fact some of these things you'd never consider doing on a road bike. Other things you just didn't know because no one told you. In short, "you don't know what you don't know."
I want to help you make the transition to mountain biking easier because I believe the mountain bike can make you a better cyclist—it doesn't matter if you like to tour, time trial or road race. I've spent a good deal of time with roadies looking to get dirty and this column contains some of the tips I've shared with them.
Pick a Trail That's Good for Beginners
Sadly, many roadies have been directed to a mountain bike trail that is much too hard for beginners. You'll have a better experience if you begin on a relatively easy trail and increase difficulty as you improve skills. If this isn't possible, for whatever reason, be willing to walk your bike across the hair-raising, death-to-the-left sections.
Pedal, Pedal, Pedal
Most of the time, power to the pedals and momentum are your friends. It is tempting to stop pedaling right before an obstacle. Your inner voice is telling you that the obstacle looks scary and you need to take a second or third look at the thing. Assuming you are beginning with a trail that is appropriate for beginners, much of the time just keeping the pedals moving and keeping even power to the wheels will get you around or over the technical section. Steady, even power will also help you climb a loose section of trail.
Tell yourself, "Pedal, pedal, pedal!"
Look Where You Want to Go and Trust the Bike
You have to be looking well ahead of the bike. Decide where you want to go and keep looking ahead on the trail. Don't look at a section of trail and keep your eye on that section or obstacle until it's under your front wheel. If you're looking at what's under your front wheel, there's no way you can be ready for the next section of trail.
Once you've decided where you want to go, trust that your fork, shock and bike can handle the rough treatment. Mountain bikes, unlike road bikes, like it rough.
Sometimes you Need to Aim for the Rock
This tip is completely counter-intuitive for roadies. On the road bike we all try our best to avoid obstacles—including rocks. In mountain biking, sometimes aiming right for the rock and riding over it is your best line.
Equipment Selection and Set-Up Makes a Big Difference
Of course you want a bike that fits you correctly, that's step number one. After you have the right bike, have your local shop help you set up the fork and shock pressures. If your suspension system is set up correctly, you'll be capable of riding much more of the mountain and do it more comfortably. Know that your suspension set-up will likely change as you gain more experience riding, improve your skills and increase the difficulty of the trails you ride. Some riders change suspension settings between the beginning of the season and the end of the season as their fitness changes.
In addition to suspension, tire selection and tire pressure have a big influence on your ability to ride different types of trails. Of course, a larger and more aggressive rider will want to ride higher tire pressures on technical trails than smaller and more timid rider that is staying on mostly easy terrain.
No matter the terrain or your riding style you want to set-up the equipment for you. It's all about optimizing performance and making it easier to ride the terrain that makes you smile.
Lower Your Seat on Descents
If you feel exposed and less confident on technical descents, try lowering your seat for only the descents. Know that many companies make seat posts that you can adjust on the fly. You may or may not want a full-time adjustable seat. In fact, you may find that after only a handful of rides, you can put your seat back to the optimal position for climbing and leave it there.
Use a Bigger Gear to Climb
On the road, most riders use a relatively low gear and try to "spin up" a climb. On the mountain bike, sometimes a bigger gear allows you to get over obstacles and it prevents you from spinning out. Be willing to try a bigger gear on some sections that give you trouble and see if it helps.
Stand Up and Move Around
In the same vein as the last tip, sometimes it takes a combination of a larger gear and a change in body position to help you clear an obstacle. Standing up allows you to move the bike—or yourself—to a position that helps you ride a particular section. This can be true going uphill and downhill.
If you are a strong road rider, you can be a strong mountain biker as well. Knowing a few of the tricks can help speed up the learning curve. This column is only a beginning for tips to help you improve your skills. Additionally, riding with other people that are interested in helping you be successful can make a big difference. If you can see how someone else rides a technical section of trail, it becomes less intimidating.
Riding off-road is not only fun, it will make you a better road rider. Get dirty.