For many readers, riding off-road might be second nature. For me, that’s not the case. After spending three summers now racing tarmac most weekends, I fancied a change this winter, so I decided to waggle my toes in the world of off-roading with a loaner Cyclocross bike.
CX riding has given me a brand new avenue to explore my favourite sport. I adore the diversity and the freedom of getting out on the trails with no cars, and time seems to whoosh by as my concentration is focused on the new challenges of tackling rocks and wooden ledges and tree roots.
It’s now been two months since my first trip out on the CX bike, and I’ve learned a couple of things that I wish I’d known from the very start.
Experienced mountain bikers – step back – I’m going to make you yawn. Here’s my advice for those taking to the trails for the very first time:
Get ready to roll!
1. PSI – tyre pressure
Rock hard tyres will help if you’re using your MTB (or Cyclocross bike in my case) to commute as you’ll lower the resistance. Off-road – a sturdy tyre will not grip anything, and it won’t roll over the terrain. That means you will feel every bump, and obstacles like wet tree stumps will be a nightmare. I’m now going for a max of 50psi, often 40 – more experienced riders will go for less.
The bike I’m using came with tyres fit for commuting and a little off-roading – this means they do two jobs ‘ok’. I’m not that fussed about rolling easy on tarmac – so I got myself some Specialized Terra Pro tyres. The tread pattern on the tyres is designed not to get clogged with mud, and these did the trick. The mud tyres turned sections that I was initially slip sliding around on into perfectly manageable trails.
3. Give it some attitude
Now your bike is ready – are you? One of the things I’ve learned riding on knobblies is that they’ll usually do what you tell them to – as long as you say it loud and clear like you mean it.
I’m not suggesting you start vocalising instructions to the bike – but when you want to go forward, left, right, up or down, decide that’s what you’re doing and make confident movements.
It’s November, so a fair few of my rides have been in boggy wet conditions. At first I just tried to roll through the expanses of mud without making sudden movements that might throw me off balance. A few attempts and some muddy feet later I realised all it took was a few heavy decisive pushes on the pedals and I was through.
Wavering about on the edge won’t get you anywhere – point the handlebars where you want to go, pedal strong – if the bike slips just keep going. It might feel like you’re riding an ice rink as the back wheel skids a little, but I promise I’ve yet to get stuck in the mud this way.
5. Don’t take it (too) slow
When it comes to speed – taking it slow isn’t always the safest way. There were times on my first few rides when I was feeling nervous, and spending far too much time clinging to the brake levers. After several attempts at braking at the sight of wet roots and rocks, I soon found just confidently rolling over them in a straight line was much more effective.
6. Clip and push
I graduated to riding clipped-in after 3 rides, mainly because I couldn’t stand climbing on flats – I’m too used to riding a road bike clipped to be comfortable with that. When riding off road there were several incidences where I’d need to unclip, then get myself back into the pedals on an incline.
For some reason I just couldn’t do it smoothly without multiple attempts and pep talks. The major problem in the chain was me having the confidence to believe I would get the left foot in before toppling over.
So what did I do? I did it 10 times, on the same hill. Once I’d conquered the fear that I wouldn’t be able to hit the pedal, it got much easier. It’s a tiny skill to master, but I got an immense sense of satisfaction from it.
7. Practice and learn
Keeping up the habit is quite important if you want to make this new hobby a regular occurrence. I seem to struggle for the first 10 minutes every ride as I acclimatize to the new sensation of riding on anything other than concrete.
The longer it’s been since my last muddy excursion, the longer it takes me to settle – but as soon as I’m sorted I just love the freedom and the diversity of the woods. If you enjoy that feeling – make sure you experience it often, as I’m sure that initial nervousness fades over time.
Once you’re happy with the basics and you can roll on your favourite trail – look for a new challenge. It’s easy to get comfortable and not push the boundaries – but testing yourself will help make the slightly tricky techniques seem easy.
I’ve found the weather has thrown plenty of new challenges my way as waterlogged land gets boggier, and just finding new places to ride with different surfaces has added to the variety.
For a real challenge, I also had a go at night riding. My heart was thudding throughout the ride, but next time I was out in the daylight I felt more trusting of my own abilities. After all, I’d done it all in the dark.
Whatever you do on your new found knobblies – smile, enjoy it, and have confidence. And if you fall over, just laugh – it’s all part of the fun.
Have you taken up a new riding discipline lately, or perhaps been riding off-road for years? I’d love to hear your tips.