Triathlon training is already tricky: you finally get your running on point, but all of that extra track time has you feeling not so snappy on the bike. So then you put in a cycling intensity block. Now you can blow the doors off everyone for the city limit sign sprint, but your running turnover feels like, well, you've been eating nothing but turn-overs. And in the off-chance that you line up all of the planets, get yourself firing on all cylinders on the terrestrial disciplines and yup, your swimming goes to Hell. Trust me, we've all been there. So why, on God's green Earth am I about to advocate adding something else into the mix? Because it'll help all of the above. And no, it's not Nordic skiing (well, you should do that too, but that's a topic for another day, like here). What I'm talking about here today is mountain biking.
Right about now you're probably thinking, "Aw crap, I hate mountain biking." Or maybe you do like it, but it's a guilty pleasure, as you've always harbored this lingering doubt that miles on dirt somehow don't count, or somehow count less, but no matter how your slice it, mountain biking slots in there right in-between online gaming and water aerobics. No matter where you are on this curve of self-loathing and disbelief, hold on to your hat because I'm about to blow your mind.
Let's start with the best part, mountain biking is fun, and please never forget that all of this nonsense is supposed to be fun. By keeping training fun, you'll not only do more of it, but you're much more likely to stick with it for the long-haul, like, forever. I've been around the block a few times and I've seen my fair share of athletes come charging in to our sport, hit it hard, then flame out. Sure, racing is hard, but by preparing correctly, you'll be in it for life, which is how the most important race is won - the race against a helpless, sedentary lifestyle that unfortunately has seduced, conquered, and fattened so many Americans these days.
Next, in this age of distracted drivers, mountain biking an excellent, safe alternative to road riding. Texting while driving is the drunk driving of this generation and since sadly, most law enforcement view cyclists as second class citizens, distracted motorists can kill cyclists and get off with a ridiculously minimal fine, simply by hiding behind the, "I didn't see them," defense. I hate getting all "doom and gloom" here, but both my good buddy Jordan Rapp and I have both been picked off by motorists who "just didn't see us," with Jordan coming perilously close to losing his life. I had a very close call, but Jordan's was even closer. We both still ride the road, but these close calls have caused us both to greatly re-think how we approach road safety. Whew, it got dark in here all of a sudden, didn't it? Let's go back to the fun stuff, for as noted above, that's why we're all here anyway.
So, picking back up where we started, you either don't like riding dirt or you do like it, but you aren't convinced it's as good as the road. I'll take these in order. My guess is that if you don't like riding your mountain bike, you probably have a crappy bike or a crappy attitude. Or both. I will fix both of these problems right now. The fix for a crappy bike is easy - go get a nice bike. Pow. You're welcome. The question then becomes, "What kind?" In addition to the usual dizzying array of brands, mountain biking has the added complication of having lots of different sub-disciplines: there are cross-country bikes, trails bikes, enduros, downhill bikes, gravel grinders, ‘cross-overs,' you name it. On top of this, you're probably also wondering, "Do I have to get a tattoo and wear one of those stupid flat-brimmed hats? What about if I don't want to jump over car-sized boulders, ripping through the woods at 60 mph or descending down stairs like a bat out of hell in some god-forsaken third world country?" All of these are excellent questions, so get ready for some excellent answers.
Yes, mountain biking has evolved greatly in the past 10 years and now offers all sorts of options, but this is a good thing, as it is now easier than ever to find a bike that perfectly fits your needs. Since I love bikes (and I'm a very, very lonely man with WAY too much time on his hands), I got on the blower with my friends at Trek and proceeded to spend the better part of a week pestering them with every sort of imaginable question regarding frame angles, weight, shock travel, bar length, you name it. Thankfully, the FBD is a big, powerful man, so as tempted as they may have been to reach through the phone to punch me in the nose, they kept it pro and dutifully answered every single one of my queries. In addition to being big and powerful, I am also quite lovable, so these fine folks even sent me a bike to test and anoint with my stamp of approval, which I am about to do with pleasure.
The ultimate winner in this highly intellectual, two-wheeled Game of Thrones was the Trek Top Fuel 9.8. It technically a cross-country race bike, but since XC race bikes now offer the perfect balance of suspension travel, weight and climbing chops, this is a excellent fit for the tri roadie looking for a mtb quiver of one. You can race it, cruise it, and even rip all but the gnarliest of downhills, and that's a clear win in my book.
I could write for days about the tech side of the ride, but suffice it to say that this bike checks all of the boxes for those looking to do it all with "only" one bike (we all know that you have way more than one bike, as you should, but humor me here). The highlights are that the drivetrain is SRAM 1x, so shifting is smooth, simple, and offers a wide range of gearing. I hit several different trail systems and never felt like I had too much or too little gear. Another enormous benefit of going 1x on dirt is this configuration gives you the ability to have "right hand shifting," and "left hand handling." What the hell am I talking about? I'm glad you asked. The TF 9.8 comes with a single lever lockout that controls both the front and the rear suspensions, which is very slick. But wait, there's more. You can also discreetly mount a dropper post control immediately adjacent, therein giving you the ability to lock and unlock both shocks, as well as drop and raise your seat, all while never moving your greasy mitts off the bars. Very pro and very important. All of this control and ease of use also significantly contributes to the whole, aforementioned "fun factor," as mountain biking is way more fun when you're on your bike, not under it. And the best way to stay on it is to control it. And the best way to control it is to use your suspension to its full capabilities, which means locking and unlocking the shocks, for those of you keeping score at home.
I don't want to get too preachy here (though I do have every right to be, as I AM an ordained minister), but please, please, please, do yourself a favor and figure out what all of the knobs and dials on the suspension do - not just what they control, but what they can do for you. By investing a fairly minimum amount of time in understanding the impact of more of less rebound, dampening, shock air pressure, tyre air pressure, etc, you can easily tailor the bike to not only your size, but also your style and even different conditions. It's a small investment that will go a long way in making the whole experience more enjoyable and besides, who doesn't like learning new stuff? Go into this with a good attitude and you'll be surprised not only how much you can learn, but how fun it is to figure out easy ways to go faster.
That takes care of the haters with the crappy old Huffy sitting in the garage, but what about the devotee who is panicked that even one day off the roadie will send his bike splits into the shitter? Well fear not my perfectly tan-lined, shaved, OCD friend: riding on your new MTB is going to make your stronger mentally and physically. Firstly, relax Francis, you're still pedaling a bike, so whatever minor changes in frame geometry, hand position and whatever the hell else you're obsession about, are exactly that - MINOR. And here's the kicker - lifting that front wheel over logs, through streams and over the hills to grandma's house will work your upper body to the point that you'll look like Arnold compared to your Tyranosaurus Rex-biceped road brethren.
Next is the fact that, with all due respect people, road triathletes have reputation of not exactly being the best bike handlers out there, so while this is largely a myth, there is a kernel of truth to it simple due to the fact that it's hard to be comfortable bike handling if you never bike handle. This make not seem all that important, but there are plenty of courses where handling skills equate to free speed and these skills will be applicable on EVERY course when it rains. I was pit crewing in IM Lake Placid a few years ago on a very rainy day and I saw many an athlete end their day with a crash due to slippery roads and inferior handling skills. Don't be that guy.
All right, so now you have a new bike and a new attitude, what else? Oh yeah, you've gotta look good. Don't get sucked into that stupid debate about "lycra vs. baggies," as we've all got bigger fish to fry. If you want to geek out and rock your road kit, have at it Hoss, just be sure to rock sleeves, that's a MUST. If you do want to be able to venture into conventional places of business without lots of pointing, eye-rolls and comments behind your back, buck up for baggies. I do both. I'm an old skool XC racer, so I usually train in lycra, but in particular if I want to grab a few beers after a ride, get groceries, or to just generally to avoid getting my ass kicked in any number of places in Philly, I'll rock the baggies. Kitzbow is my brand of choice here. Yes, they are a bit pricey, but they are well worth it. I have a jacket that I bought from them over 6 years ago and it's still going strong, versatile and comfortable as hell. Their flannel riding shirt and xx short is also killer. And remember people, there's nothing more important than looking good.
Well, actually there is one thing more important, being seen. The fine folks at Bontrager also included an amazing set of lights w/ the test bike. Not only was it a very thoughtful and classy gesture, but I was so impressed with their performance that I wanted to throw them a little love here too. No bigger than a pair of dice, these rechargeable beauties throw out a remarkable amount of light and vastly increase your visibility. Obviously this isn't an issue if you're on trails for your entire ride, but I feel a bit funny driving my car to ride my bike, so getting to and from the trails without getting run over is a real plus. I know this isn't an option for some of you and everyone out there needs to do what they need to do, and I'm neither preaching nor judging, but if you are going to be on the road, do yourself a favor and make the massive $20 investment for a set of these at the very minimum, or perhaps even something more powerful.
Finally, if the road tri grind is getting a little old, being proficient on the dirt opens up the wonderful world of Xterra racing. Xterra races are super fun, a great change of pace and a perfect chance to put those new bike handling skills to the test. It is also an excellent way to try something new, while still supporting all of your goals on the pavement. Who knows, maybe this will become your new jam? Maybe not, but again, that's fine too. Just make sure that you're keeping it fun. Remember, we're all in this together people, so regardless of what you're riding, driving, running or rubbing, have fun, be safe, and be awesome.