This one’s for the roadies. I have friends who are dyed-in-the-wool road cyclists. The last few years have seen the numbers in their group rides dropping, and the media dedicated to what they do dwindling. The industry has, on some level, abandoned the old school road enthusiast, the watt counter, the mile piler, the all-things-paved-all-the-time sort of person.
People like me see riding bikes as all one thing, just riding bikes, road, mountain, other. Many roadies don’t. Riding off road, they believe, requires a different set of skills, and those rides are harder to measure in the ways road riders might feel compelled to measure them.
Road riding is governed by a set of rules. Those rules are mostly about safety, because cars, but they also take in the efficiency of the group riding together. There are cultural and stylistic rules that are a bit arbitrary, but most cultures and styles are like that. And the focus, on the road, is usually on what your legs will do for you on the day. Road riding is very effort and distance oriented.
To get off-road, you have to adapt your mindset a bit. You have to let go of a lot of those rules, and you might want to stop thinking about distance and effort so much, at least at first. Also, have some faith in your bike handling skills. Almost everything you’ve learned to do on the road will translate to the not road. I promise.
I learned to ski in middle age, and the prospect of having to learn new skills when you have a perfectly good set for another activity is humbling. It is very tempting to just stay with what you know, but I can tell you I am fanatical about skiing now, and I discovered that a lot of my mountain biking skills translated to skiing, which is so fun I can’t believe I put off learning so long.
But why would you want to get off the road? Let’s not skip over that.
First, the woods are good for you. I don’t think that’s controversial. The woods are beautiful, relaxing, and there are no cars there. The sense of adventure is rewarding. I could go on and on, but as I said it’s not controversial. No one is saying, “Don’t go in the woods. The woods suck.”
Second, riding on dirt will make you a better rider, and learning another type of bike will do that too. Nothing you do off road will have a negative effect on your road riding.
Third, it’ll get you out of your head. Off-road riding, whether gravel biking or mountain biking, is busy work. There is a lot of steering to do, a lot of terrain reading. You’ll forget your worries, and even, maybe, what’s going on with your legs that day.
Fourth, it’s good to be humbled. For sure there is discomfort in it. Frustration. But wow are the rewards there. That process of starting over and working your way back up has all these joyful little waypoints along the way.
So how to do it.
If you don’t have a gravel bike, get one. Or even just put wider tires on your road bike and take in some easy dirt. Incorporate some chill trails into your road rides. I started riding “gravel” on 28mm slicks, and I was hooked. To be sure, I was going more slowly on those tires than I do on 40mm gravel tires now, or 2.5″ mountain tires, but the fun was still readily available.
If you’re gonna make the jump to mountain biking, which I highly recommend, then I’d start with a budget hardtail. There is so much fun to be had with a bike like that without breaking bank, without going all in.
Find a friend who knows the local trails or use an app to find a place that’s open and easy, and then explore it. The biggest leap is the mindset change, to go from measuring miles or wattage or whatever, to simply riding around in the woods. Have faith, it’s still bike riding. It’s still improving your fitness.
Don’t be intimidated. Just because the mountain bike media is showing you kids hucking back flips off big jumps, doesn’t mean cruising around in the woods isn’t mountain biking. As you become familiar with one trail, another will quickly follow. Before you know it, you’re mastering whole trail systems or looking for ways to connect one set to another.