CHAPTER FIVE: Obstacles
Obstacles are unexpected impediments to movement.
I learned a valuable lesson about mountain bike riding from my friend Randy, who had been doing it for many years and was much better at it than I was. During the first six months we rode together I would bumble along behind him through the trails, while he smoothly hopped rocks and jumped stumps without ever falling or even putting in much effort—at least it seemed that way to me. Unlike Randy, I fell a lot and that sapped my energy.
Every time I crashed, I would curse the trail and the gods of mountain biking. Sometimes I would curse Randy too because he was the one who had gotten me out there. That always made him laugh if he happened to be there to hear it. Usually, he was far ahead because he never fell.
On the trail we rode most often there were several narrow bridges (about four inches in width) over the shallow gullies that traversed the site. Until he taught me his valuable lesson, I don’t think I ever successfully crossed a single one. I always veered off into the gully, no matter how hard I tried to keep my front tire on on the bridge.
After a few months of riding with Randy, I noticed that my stamina had improved to the point that I could stay with him on the smooth portions of a trail, but as soon as we hit the Obstacles, he would leave me behind because I would usually fall and he never did. While I had become a stronger rider, I didn’t seem to be getting any better at negotiating the rocks and stumps—which (after all) is the point of mountain biking.
One day I fell in a particular rocky patch that I had never successfully traversed and decided to just give up. My failures had finally convinced me that I was never going to be able ride well enough to stay with Randy, so what was the point of continuing to try. So I just stayed on the ground gazing up at the treetops and the blue sky. Eventually Randy circled back to look for me and found me lying inertly beneath my bicycle.
“What’s going on?” He asked.
“I’m done,” I said. “I’m tired of falling. I think I’ll go train for a marathon instead. It would be easier.”
“Okay,” Randy replied, “but do you want to know why you fall so much?”
“Because I suck at mountain biking?” I responded.
“Yeah, you suck, but not for the reason you think.” Randy said, laughing.
“Okay, why do I suck?” I asked.
“Because your head’s not right.”
“Yeah,” Randy said, “your body is fine. It’s your head that’s the problem.” Randy told me.
“What does that mean?”
“Let me ask you this. What do you think about when you are approaching Obstacles on the trail?” Randy asked.
He got me there. I had never really thought about what I thought about when I saw some rocks, stumps, or a narrow bridge in my path.
“I guess I’m thinking about the best way to get through them.” I said.
“You mean the best line you should take?” Randy asked.
“Yeah sure, the best line. Isn’t that what I should be thinking about?
“Nope. Because thinking like that makes you decelerate.” He told me.
“Maybe,” I said, “but it doesn’t feel that way though.” I said, unsure if I agreed with him about that.
“Maybe not, but that’s only because you’re too busy trying to find that perfect line. You start thinking and your pedaling slows down, so what happens is that you hit the rock or whatever without any momentum and you’ve got to have that get you through. It’s the speed that gets you through the Obstacles, not the accuracy of the path you take.”
“So what should I be thinking about when I approach an Obstacle?” I asked.
“Only one thing—pedal faster. Just focus your energy on making that that tiny sprocket spin faster. That will make the tires turn faster, and that will give you the speed you need to get through the Obstacles.”
“Okay, but what about the line? Shouldn’t I be thinking about that too?”
“Nah, that will take care of itself. Look at this way, if you were hiking this trail instead of riding it, you wouldn’t be actively thinking about the line you should walk, would you? You would just do that instinctively, right?” Randy asked.
“Yeah, I’d just walk.” I replied, beginning to see his point.
“Same thing on a bike. Just ride. The line takes care of itself. On a mountain bike, speed trumps line and momentum is more important than accuracy when you are hopping rocks and jumping stumps.”
“Okay,” I said. “But what about these freaking bridges?”
“Same. When you come up on one, pedal faster. That makes your front tire steadier.”
I wasn’t sure about that one, but the very next Obstacle on the trail happened to be one of those narrow bridges that I had never successfully crossed. In fact, I’d given up on trying long before. I would usually just dismount and carry my bike through the shallow gully instead of falling in because it was faster that way.
Randy, who was riding behind me, must have seen me hesitate because he yelled, “no! not like that. Pedal faster. Don’t slow down.”
Only half-believing that it would work, I decided to give it a try—the worst thing that could happen would be that I would tumble into the gully a little harder than I usually did. But that’s not what happened. As soon as my bike began to accelerate, the front tire straightened out and I shot right across the bridge without wobbling.
“What the hell!” I yelled at Randy when I got to the other side, hardly believing what had just happened. “You were right!”
“I know I’m right,” he responded. “Now just do that every time you approach an Obstacle. The only thought in your head should be ‘pedal faster’. Don’t think about anything else. Just keep moving.”
Randy’s valuable lesson completely changed the way I rode my mountain bike. Instead of trying to carefully pick my way through the Obstacles, I just adapted to what the trail gave me and focused my energy on accelerating rather than choosing the best possible path. I still fell, but a lot less and usually from poor technique rather than lack of momentum.
I don’t think he would have expressed it this way, but if Randy had a razor for mountain biking it would have been when confronted with an Obstacle, think less, pedal faster and stay in motion.