So you want to get your feet wet (or dirty) on Mixed Terrain riding. There is a buch of crazy people who do these rides and they all come back raving about how much fun they have riding them so at least part of the hype must be true. Yes, it is true, and losts of fun. We are not crazy mountain bikers nor snobby roadies, just cyclist who enjoy good company and a good day on the bike.
From the perspective of a guy who has never owned a road bike this is what I recommend people when they ask about how to prepare and approach for these rides.
There are two critical aspects, your bike/gear and your body/attitude. But please take my ramblings here with a grain of salt. Ride whatever bike you have in whatever style meets you best, just ride.
- The bike and gear:
- Ride a bike you like. Whatever you have at hand, old mtb, cross , folder, tourer, it does not matter what the bike looks like. Important is how you perceive it. Of course the bike should be in perfect mechanical condition.
- Gear selection is a personal thing but if you are used to riding with road cassettes on regular hills, you better get a new cassette with at least a 28t sprocket. A 12deg hill on a paved road is not even close to the same grade on a fire road, effort and skill needed on a fire road is higher. I use (on 26" wheels) a 11-32 cassette. The 11t helps on the pavement. On the front is also good to have a wide spread. Again for my 26" wheels I use 48/36/26. I like to have the 48x11 on some descents and the 26x32 on some of those steep grades. Remember you'll be riding both on gravel and loose rocks and also on pavement, compromise. However if you ride single speed this should not apply to you and I have no clue what gear to recommend, clue-less I tell you but the same mixed-terrain-maxim applies, compromise.
- Shifter selection. I am a huge fan of shifters that can be used in friction mode, debris affects indexing but modern shifters seem to be less prone to problems when dirty. I'm cheap... I mean traditional, thumbies for flat bars or bar end shifters for drop bars. Just like driving manual vs automatic transmission. Single speed/fixed? see above.
- Tire selection is critical, probably the most important single choice you'll need to make. A good rider can do a route on skinny slicks but I think the same rider will be better off with medium volume tires with some knobbs on the sides for turning traction, think hybrid or touring bike tires. Full knobbies are not of much use on those long paved sections. What I've heard from my 700cc friends is 30-35mm is a good volume, however something larger than 40mm seems overkill to me. For 26" wheels I like 1.5" wide tires but they are hard to find so 1.75" is second best. I used to use WTB's All Terrainasaurus 1.5" x 26" (no longer available in that size but still available in 700cc sizes), but there are plenty of very affordable/suitable tires. Here are some tires I like : Club Roost's, Cross Terra, Forté's Gotham, Maxxis' Overdrive, WTB's Pathway and all other similar ones. Most of these tires are cheap but a tad heavy, a price I am willing to pay for toughness out on the boonies. Compromise again is the key here, traction vs rolling resistance on pavement... and also weight.
- Tire pressure is another important factor. I keep the same pressure during the whole ride and inflate tires to higher preassure than most riders but that is the way I am used to ride off road and, in my head, it helps a little on the road regardless what magazines/others may say. I like to find that sweet spot that works for me and leave it alone; I have no idea what tire pressure I run, never measure it with "instruments". I just lean my full body weight on a tire and if my palm goes close to half the tire height that means the tire needs more air. I'm not found of formulas. I don't like letting air out or pumping my tires during a ride, IMO it is just a waste of time. The fewer adjustments you need to do while ridding the more enjoyable the ride will be. On the longer rides saving every second is important; you can use as much as 15-30 minutes or more stopping to adjust brakes, tire pressure and other things; on a 80+ mile ride (or even the shorter 50 millers) with several transitions (paved/off road/paved) you need to save your energy and time for moving not fiddling with your stuff.
- Suspension? IMO Nope, not realy needed but some riders like the comfort. I ride a titanium unsuspended frame and use cheap foam grips on both handlebar and bar ends. My arms, hands and body are happy, I like the pure and raw experience unsuspended bikes provide but you body may think different than mine. Just like driving manual vs automatic transmission.
- A tested-by-your-butt comfortable seat.
- Brakes that can lock both wheels with human power (as opposed to super-human) This is more relevant to road bikes and I use the term loosely here (drop bar bike) Most mountain bikes and hybrids (BTW very good bikes for these type of riding) come with cantilever or v brakes. While riding on pavement, can you lock your tires using one finger easily? Good, if not go back to the drawing board and get your bakes adjusted or new brakes. Pads make a big difference, salmon pads work well for these rides as conditions sometimes change from very dry and dusty to very damp in some forests but I also have had very good results with other non-black pads (red, yellow and even blue!)
- Carry a decent tool kit and know how to use those damm tools! If you plan on doing longer mixed terrain rides you need to know how to fix more than a flat... or be lucky.
- Figure the best way to distribute your load. I always carry a backpack with 100oz of water and room for all the extra stuff. I don't like bike or seat mounted bags for these rides. My backpack expands so I can place extra clothes I peel off inside. Also can buy food along the way and carry it for those sections where there are no services. I use my backpack low on my torso but as you may have figured by now I follow my own drumbeat, find yours and your body will be happy.
- A helmet!
- Dress in layers. Plastic over wool? a personal choice but nothing beats layers. In our area (San Francisco) we can see changes in temperature of more than 30-40° on one ride. Just like Grandma said, dress for the occasion. I try to always cary more than what I think I'll need.
- Some sort of eye protection. Polarized glasses do not work well here. They can not respond fast enough to the lighting condition changes in forests. I like the yellow and/or orange lenses.
- A map of the area, and know how to use it.
- A light just in case you get caught after dark, I carry a small be-seen light in the backpack, however for longer rides I bring a real light. I also have tail lights permanently installed on all my bikes
- I also carry an extra and empty watter bottle. Good to refill the backpack bladder and to carry extra water for those sections where there is none.
- A camera is always nice to have. I use one of the Pencams manufactured by Aiptek. they are cheap, under $30 and take decent shots for posting to this website. I carry it on a pouch on one of the backpack straps and use the long wrist strap that comes with it to prevent it from flying out during the rough sections.
- Body and attitude:
- Be a good ridding partner. Help when others are in trouble and offer what you have for the good of the group/ride.
- Braking technique. The front brake is more powerful than the rear and has the potential to get you in or out of trouble easier. To much front stopping power and you'll go over the bars, too little and you'll hit that obstacle you are trying to avoid. I use my front brake to aid when turning on loose gravel, it takes lots of trial and error but if you learn to point the bike with the aid of the front brake the rest of your body will need to use less effort to maintain the line.
- Look where you want to go not where you don't want to go. Back when I was a kid and started playing tennis one of the earlier tips my trainer gave me was look at the ball and look at the place you want to put that ball. The same applies to riding. By the nature of the surface on many off road trails the best way may not be a straight line. I tend to lock my eyes on the destination and let my bike and body "absorb" the route. In other words float the trail don't fight it.
- Carry a first aid kit and know how to use whatever is you carry. Read a little about first aid, not need to become certified or anything but your partner may be thankful you had super glue to patch a nasty wound. (yes it works very well for that)
- Shift before the hill. This is more important off road than on paved sections. Some short sections may be steep and the right gear selection makes a difference between maintaining momentum or walking. Save energy by riding what can be ridden.
- Find the drink/s food/s that work for you. I like Gatorade and V8 and can eat almost anything from a convenience store... but can't deal with chocolate milk; some of my friends love the stuff on long rides. On longer rides I bring a burrito for lunch, they travel well and have all those beans and things Mama told you you needed to eat to get big and strong. Some sweet stuff is also nice to have. SPECIAL NOTE: In our group the champion for the best food is ussualy Jim E. (Cyclofiend), he tends to bring home made bake goods that bring back life to otherwise dead riders. Ride close to him if you can match his pace, you may be rewarded.
- Bring your conversation skills and sense of humor. We are not just ridding to see how fast/far we can get. There is also a lot of friendship and camaraderie, I think long rides paved or off road, bring that in people.
Am I full of it? maybe but I am having fun doing mixed terrain rides. hope to see you soon in one.
(First posted March-28-2008 at 11:19 pm)
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