It was mid April when I moved away from tarmac and over to the dark side of off-road, having entered a 300 mile off road event called the Great British Escapade which is now less than 2 weeks away.
From long distance road rider to off roader.
- Trails are so much nicer than roads. You get to see things from a different perspective than when you have to stick to the routes of the roads. That ridge you can see from the road, is so much better from the top, surrounded by birdsong and buttercups. You can sit on the grass at the top and admire the view. Or you can immerse yourself in ancient woodlands and maybe spot a herd of deer, or an elusive hare bounding across the fields. You can get back to nature with all the mood enhancers that come with soaking in the great outdoors.
- Forget everything you once knew about speed… 10 mph could be a very good average, but so can 6 mph. Some trails will be fast and exciting, whilst at other times you might be pushing up a steep rocky bank, or ankle deep in mud. It’s not the speed thats the adventure, but the ride. Ok…sometimes the speed as well!
- Be prepared to push your bike sometimes. There is no shame in it, no matter how strong you are normally on the road, rocky steep climbs are just not worth ruining your legs for. Save the peddling for the climbable climbs, and there will be plenty of climbs that you want to have the legs for.
- You do not need to stay sat on your saddle. In fact its often safer, as well as a whole lot more fun to hang off the back of your saddle and let your bike find its way over the lumps and bumps. Developing your bike handling skills before a big ride will be well worth it. Find a local trail with gravel, dips, tree routes and some loose rock and practice slowly at first. Unless you are on a full suspension mountain bike your body can play a very useful role in smoothing out the ride. When you come across an obstacle, lift your bum out of the saddle and loosen the tension in your arms. Having your legs in a quarter to three position gives you a lot of control. Look to where you want to go, and your bike will be able to find its best path. Trust me on this. Once you master this you can really start having some fun.
- Pedestrians rarely go the right way, even when they see you coming. I’ve never been able to fathom why people try to step out of the way directly into the line of the path you are clearly following. And don’t even get me started on dog walkers that make no attempt to control their dogs. For the record, most dog walkers are great, but the ones that aren’t are just dangerous.
- With practice you can learn to open many gates without dismounting your bike every time. Some gates are designed specifically so that you have no choice but to dismount. Kissing style gates particularly. But many of the kind found on natural trails can be negotiated whilst staying astride your bike, with a little practice. The types of gates found on the South Downs for example self close so you only need to be able to open them.
- Only use water bottles with lids, even when its not muddy. Trust me on this one, even when it’s dry they get covered in dust, when it’s muddy you really don’t want to take a sip. Remember that you will be in the countryside and it might not just be mud that splashes up!
- A hydration pack is an excellent thing, as grabbing a water bottle on a trail can be tricky, but sipping from tube that sits inches from your face is a wonderful. There are many different types, but if possible it is better to steer away from a full backpack style. A bag with a full hydration bladder will have a bit of weight, but with a larger rucksack you might be tempted to carry lots in it. But the weight on your back could lead to aches and pain in your back over time. You can however get very slim hydration bags that you would hardly know were there.
- Be prepared to grin lots and be constantly amazed at the scenery/views. Even when the going is tough it’s still amazing. See my first point
- If you are dressed in Lycra then roadies get confused, some will still acknowledge you and say hello. But once you are in shorts and a loose flowing top, they will not only ignore you, but actively avoid eye contact. As both a roady and now an off roader I like to remain polite to all riders, but it’s a sad fact that some kinds of riders have no regard for any rider outside their niche. As someone transitioning into off road I have yet to fully embrace the off road attire, so when I’m wearing my standard but comfortable gear it does seem to confuse some of the road clan. I don’t really care, but it just an amusing observation.
- As long as you were a reasonably fit road rider then the transition to off-road is easy. If you weren’t that fit to begin with, expect it to be a bit harder initially, although it will come. As with anything new, it takes time and practice to get stronger. Off road riding uses those muscles you’ve honed on the road, but also a whole load more besides. You’ll be giving your upper body a good work out – expect your arms to ache the first few times. And I have discovered muscles in my legs that I never knew I had, despite riding thousands of road rides each year. Yep, off roading is a full body workout.
- And finally, road riding will never seem the same again. All that time spend in one position in the saddle, the impatient drivers, and in my case the loss of super tiny climbing gears was a bit of a surprise. I had become immune to it all, but now I’ve seen the light. After a recent long road ride I discovered that I got saddle sore from being seated for so long, and that’s something that hasn’t happened for a long time. But, you can at least find all the cafes and pubs on the road, so I guess it’s all just a trade off.
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