Thursday, October 16, 2014

You finish some and you DNF some...

Iron Cross was one of my target races this year and I was coming into it with a brand new super bike (Trek Boone) and some decent fitness. The day started off well with teammate Andy showing up at my house sometime around 5:45AM and keeping me awake for the drive up to the start line in Michaux.

The one thing that no one was prepared for was how friggin cold it would be at the start -- 36 degrees with close to howling wind. We all froze our butts off waiting for the race to start and took off like banshees at the gun. Immediately the pace was brutal and I'm never good at redlining at the beginning of races so I let a big group go so I wouldn't bonk half way through the race. As an aside, I'm not sure if this is mental and perhaps I should just try to redline the first 30 minutes of a race and see what happens. 

The bike felt great and I started working with a smaller group and we kept the front group somewhat in sight. All bets were off as soon as we hit the single track at Lippencote, though. My bike handling has improved by leaps and bounds thanks to mountain biking so I managed to ride pretty much the entire section and gained several spots. Close to the end of this section I came across my teammate Tyler who had flatted and was trying to put air in his tubeless tire with a quarter sized hole in it. I urged that he put a tube in it and gave him my CO2 and inflator. Thankfully he recovered quickly and managed to finish strong.

After this brief stop, I managed to tag onto a super fast paceline led by some Rare Disease Cycling folks who were really pushing the pace on the road section. I was feeling pretty good here and even took a (brief) pull. The climb up to the WigWam run up is tough but the legs were responding well and my switch to Infinit for nutrition was working great.

The run up or rather crawl up on WigWam was a chore and I got a few twinges in my lower back by the time we reached the top. But my resolution at the beginning of the year was to not waste time in races so I kept on moving and just stretched on the bike. Soon I felt fine again and made good time to check point 2 which was also the start line. Made a quick bottle switch and was off for loop 2, still feeling good.

The bombing descent off the ridge on a dirt road was just awesome. I hit close to 45 mph there on my cross bike and passed many folks. The new bike just inspires so much confidence and the hydraulic disc brakes are phenomenal especially coming from cantilevers.

But all good things must come to an end. At the bottom of this descent (and thankfully not halfway through it), I realized my rear brake was completely gone. So I stopped to see what had happened -- turns out my left heel was constantly clipping against the hydraulic line in the back and had knocked the bolt loose that connected the line to the brakes. So all the hydraulic fluid had drained out, doh! This was such an odd thing to happen, one in a gazillion chance and it had to happen to me on race day. oh well.

I knew there were several more testy descents coming up and taking those on a front brake alone would be daunting. But I tried for a bit and took a (minor) header on a turn and just lost interest in the race. Sucks but I couldn't get myself to get back in the game with just a front brake and a history of some bad crashes. So I called it a day and rode gingerly to a radio check in and turned in my number.

Crappy way to end the endurance season but the upside is that I felt great and was about 13-15 minutes up on last year's time at mile 40. Importantly I was feeling good at mile 40 this year whereas last year I was already ready to bonk so more time gains would have been had later in the game had I continued. Oh well. There's always next year.   

Time to switch to 45 minutes of suffering for the rest of the year. Maybe I'll learn a thing or two about redlining the whole race!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Minor Hill Repeats: Shenandoah Mountain 100 Race Report

Pre Race: 
The race was on weeks before the SM100 even started. The pre-race race was to lose some weight and gain back some lost fitness. Basically, I raced the Wilderness 101 at the end of July a good 10 lbs over my race weight thanks to a buttload of work travel and jet lag induced unhealthy eating. I was also desperate to gain back some fitness after being off the bike while traveling.

So the pre-race plan was to live like a monk for a few weeks, eat healthy, and bank some saddle time. For the most part I did eat healthy and managed to drop 5 lbs by the race eve. I was still 5 lbs overweight but that's significantly preferable to being 10 lbs overweight!

In terms of training, I was behind so coach Eric Sorensen and I concocted a brutal weekend of training a week prior to SM100. Maybe too much too late but the counterfactual doesn't exist (for me) so I'm going to confidently say no :)

The weekend consisted of 5 hours on the road on Friday riding no harder than tempo to simulate pacing at the race, 4 hours of endurance riding at the Schaeffer Farm mountain bike race on Saturday (somehow I got 4th riding tempo which boosted my confidence), and 3 hours of Patapsco singletrack on my new awesome cross bike on Sunday. This 600 TSS weekend simulated the TSS I would probably accumulate in one continuous effort a week later (turns out my TSS for the race was 619, so a pretty accurate prediction!) 

SM100 simulation part 1, Friday: 5 hour road ride with teammate Homer

SM100 simulation part 2, Saturday: 4 hour endurance race at Schaeffer Farm

SM100 simulation part 3, Sunday: 3 hours on the new cross bike on Patapsco singletrack. Side note: hydraulic disc brakes rock!
 Rice cakes, gels, and Skratch hydration worked well for me at Wilderness so I didn't mess with the formula. I added some pistachios to Allen Lim's rice cake recipe and they turned out to be quite delicious.
 
Rice cakes, yum!
The one big change I did make from Wilderness was to switch over to bottles instead of a camelbak and to strap my spare tubes, CO2, etc to the bike. Both these systems worked great and I didn't have any significant back pain throughout the race and it was much easier to monitor hydration and refill bottles at aid stations. I feared it would be difficult to drink from bottles on singletrack but it really wasn't that hard -- its a 100 mile race so slowing down for a few seconds to retrieve a bottle didn't hurt one bit.

Race Day: 
I drove down to the Stokesville campground/start line on Saturday afternoon and setup camp. At packet pickup I ran into Erin Conner and her Sticky Fingers teammates and they were all super welcoming and invited me over to hang out at their camp. That didn't last long as I was in pre-race jittery mode so soon retired to my tent.

I must have the worst luck in the world because I ended up camping right next to the loudest snorer in the world and I had forgotten ear plugs! So I was up well before the wake-up gong went off, but on the bright side had enough time to make coffee and eat a significant breakfast.


   
All geared up
Cheat sheet with elevation, distance, and aid station markers
The race started off a bit fast as usual, but my plan was to ride within myself and certainly keep heart rate below threshold on climbs. I felt really good for the first 45 miles or so and rode tempo, catching a few trains here and there on flat sections. The first three climbs all had significant hike-a-bikes but I was in a forward enough position to be able to ride big chunks of the trail, which saved quite a bit of time. 

Around aid #2, I caught an experienced racer, Marc Genberg, and wondered if I was riding too hard. But he reassured me that the remaining climbs weren't as difficult. That's hard to believe with an 18 mile "death climb" on the horizon! 

Turns out Marc was right. The death climb is actually the easiest of all the climbs on this course. Its long but its steady and you can get into a rhythm. The upper reaches get a bit steep and unending but by the time I got there I was having other far more pressing issues. Turns out I simply stopped eating around mile 40 because I couldn't stomach anything anymore. I also fell back on electrolytes and binged on a handful of salt tabs all at once which likely caused even more distress in my stomach. 

By the time I was on the death climb, my stomach was in serious revolt and I couldn't keep my HR up beyond 160bpm. But I found a couple other riders to pace with and we chugged along albeit pretty slowly.

Finally aid #5 showed up and I took an extended break here, mostly because of an urgent need to use the port-a-john. But finally I felt a bit better and managed to eat a bit of pringles and drink some coke.

The climbing wasn't close to being done yet but I managed to get my HR up a bit again. Got some more pringles and scud fries (yum!) at aid #6 and headed out for the final climb. By this time I had lost hope for a 10 hour targeted finish but was gunning to make it to the line by 11 hours. I really attacked the last descent (even when it went uphill, go figure), but missed the 11 hour mark by about 4 minutes. 11:04 is still a decent time and good marker to beat next year! Almost 13,000 feet of climbing is a big day on any bike.   
 
HR and elevation profile for the race. Note the dichotomy of avg HR in first and second halves of the race. I paced well in the first half but bottom fell out in second half. Nutrition and hydration? Fitness? Heat and humidity? Maybe all three?
 Post-Race:
This was only my second 100 miler so a lot  to learn still. As another experienced racer, Greg Rittler told me, it take a while to learn how to pace these races. I think I also have to learn how to eat throughout the race. I think I'm going to try liquid nutrition (infinit) in training and see how that works for me.

I also need to work a lot on my descending skills. I think most other people had way too much fun on the fast curvy descents, whereas I was on my brakes a lot of the time and too timid on many of the faster sections. Practice, practice, practice!


Finally I'd like to give big shout outs to the entire Sticky Fingers crew. They took such good care of me the whole weekend, got me water and other adult beverages after my finish, helped me patch up a small wound, and were super fun to hang out with. Sincere thank yous to Erin, Honey, Dierdre, Angela, Megan, Dave, Bec, Tim, Larry, Isabel, and Faith (pls. excuse if I missed anyone!). You guys rock!

Back next year for SM100 part deux.
    

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My First 100 -- Wilderness 101 Race Report

Lets do dis!
Wilderness 101 is part of the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) 100 mile mountain bike race series, run out of the small town of Coburn, PA about 3.5 hours north of DC. Its a very well run race with excellent course markings and extremely helpful race volunteers.

Importantly, this was my first 100 mile race on a mountain bike! I've done a few 100K races before and several road races/rides/fondos longer than 100 miles, but this was by far the hardest day on the bike I've ever had. My training stress score (TSS) of 610 was more than a 100 points higher than some extremely mountainous road rides I've done such as the Mountains of Misery double metric or the Garrett County Diabolical Double (both 200K), or hard Ultra Cross races such as the Hilly Billy Roubaix. As an experienced rider told me after the race, it takes a while to get used to these but then they get addictive!

I think I'm pretty hooked to endurance mountain biking already. But admittedly this first race was quite a struggle. First, I was coming into the race after a week of work travel to Africa, which meant that my lead up to the race involved a ton of jet lag and literally no time on the bike. Additionally, I ate a bunch of crap while traveling and was shocked to see my weight higher than its been in 2 years the day before the race! But 100 miles is a long race and I was hoping I'd lose a few pounds by the end of it :-) 

Second, I made a few crucial rookie mistakes. I carried a large camelbak and put all my race essentials (spare tubes, pump, levers, etc) in the bag along with my hydration. I was cursing this decision around mile 60 as by then my lower back was ready to give out from all the jarring. I also carried a large bladder (3 liter capacity) and absent-mindedly asked the super nice volunteers to fill it up at each aid station. Turns out I didn't need that much water and lugging up the extra weight up each climb was highly unwelcome. 

Third, I followed the well-intentioned advice from an experienced racer to over-inflate my tires to help with the incessant fire-road climbs in this race. What I failed to anticipate was that each one of these climbs was followed by extremely steep, nasty, rocky, jackhammer descents on single track! By mile 85 I couldn't feel my hands anymore and my butt hurt like hell. Only then did I actually stop and let air out -- should have done that at mile 40! I only have one data point but I'm pretty sure comfort trumps any marginal gains in speed from over-inflated tires plus I could have taken some of the later descent much faster if my body wasn't hurting so much. 

Fourth, I miscalculated the course profile and was shocked to hit a final climb that I didn't anticipate. One of the smarter things I did prior to the race was to draw the available course map on some masking tape and put it on my handlebar:      
Course profile cheat sheet
This worked really well for the first 70 miles or so but turns out the race profile had changed a bit this year and for some inexplicable reason my cheat sheet displayed a previous year's version -- hence my plight! Next time I'll make sure to double check everything and note course changes mentioned in the pre-race email!

But enough with the negatives. I had fun most of the race, kept nutrition and hydration going, didn't cramp or bonk hard (small bonks don't count), rode everything (including every downhill, rock garden, and dark tunnel), didn't have any spectacular crashes, and came out of the race wanting to do this again! 

As for the race, it started off fast, partly because there generally is nervous energy at start lines and partly because the weather was pretty amazing (slight drizzle and low temps). 
A wet start (Photo Credit: bobs-photogallery.com)
The first several miles were entirely paved or dirt/fireroads and I managed to get into a group of about 15 riders who worked well together to get a good paceline going up to the first aid station. Some of the stronger dudes kept saying that we're going too fast but it felt good and everyone kept pushing the pace up the early climbs and on the flats.    

Aid #1 came at mile 19 and everyone was still fresh. At this point I heeded my coach's advice and slowed the heck down to ride the next grassy climb at my own tempo. Turns out this was a wise decision as I came across several exploded riders later on in the race. 

We didn't hit the first single track till after mile 35 or so and it was pretty sweet. I've really started enjoying technical single track as of late and my Trek Superfly simply loves rocks. I flew through this section despite what the picture below suggests: 
This narrow bridge had steep drop-offs on both sides. Can you tell from my expression?! (Photo Credit: bobs-photogallery.com)
I rode with the eventual women's winner for a bit here and complemented her on her yellow shoes. Turns out she was just motoring along whereas I had burnt a few too many matches early and didn't see her at all after Aid #2 at mile 40.

I kept the aid stop short and soon was on the biggest climb of the day. It took forever, was mighty steep in places, and I couldn't help but curse the extra pounds I'd put on and the 3 liters of water I was carrying on my back (never occurred to me to dump some out). Never again! I'm getting down to race weight starting today and am going to switch over to bottles for the next race (or buy a smaller camelbak).

As soon as I crested the hill, some nice race volunteers ushered us into some single track. I felt happy to see some technical sections, which soon gave way to utter fright as it wasn't just technical single track, but rather a technical single track descent on some seriously nasty steep terrain! So no rest for the wicked -- I was off the back of my saddle, butt nearly on my rear wheel holding on for dear life the whole way down. Remember how I was bitching about over-inflated tires earlier in this post... yeah, restated!

The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. Each descent was followed by another ascent on fireroads and then some single track descents. I did enjoy a section of technical rocks which was relatively flat and rode strong through it, probably my favorite part of the race.

After what felt like an eternity, I hit the final aid stop at mile 95 with only a few more miles to go. Didn't stop for more than 2 minute to fill up (just a bottle this time!), and after a brief hike-a-bike section managed to ride home at a decent clip.

The final dark tunnel wasn't as tough as others had suggested, I just committed to a line and rode it fast, thankfully without incident. My goal for the race was to finish under 10 hours but I only mustered 10:39. Was a bit disappointed but others say that its a pretty decent time for a first 100 miler, especially since this is one of the harder ones. I think with the lessons I learned here and a better lead up and hopefully lighter body (and hydration) weight I can start the process of shaving off time from this first attempt. For now, I'm happy I finished!   


Finish line! (Photo Credit: bobs-photogallery.com)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kigali Kalling


Rwanda is such a fascinating country. There is much to be admired -- the road infrastructure is fantastic, cleanliness is a priority (e.g. plastic bags are banned), traffic rules are sensible and strictly enforced (e.g. bike helmets are mandatory), crime rate is very low, and economic growth is on the upswing. Its hard to believe that a mere 20 years ago this was the site of one of the world's worst human tragedies!

Work is what brought me to Kigali in July and I'm glad I came.  What I wasn't too happy about was my complete inability to kick jet lag for the week I was there. This meant operating in a zombie state for nearly all my meetings and conferences, though I managed to get through with a constant drip of coffee.

On the bright side, I managed to pursue my favorite travel activity -- running in the early morning hours to observe a city wake up in its natural cycle.

Dawn runs are the best
From a training perspective, the mile high elevation and steep terrain promised to challenge my running legs, but the random applause from locals and welcome company of school kids running alongside certainly made it a lot easier.  


The views were quite spectacular

Daily water collection


Bottles on a tree -- go figure!



Early sun in all its glory

I even managed to catch a flash mob of local dancers, mostly little kids, who put on quite a performance!





Some serious drum talent
And once all the conferencing was done, my work colleagues and I enjoyed some local hospitality and revelry offered up by our hosts. Of course, the coolest cat at the party decided to join our table and it was clear we were having a good time


Naturally, we had an internal bet to extricate his hat and turns out my colleagues have multiple talents -- needless to say I owe everyone at the table an expensive dinner!






Overall a fun fun trip and some good work output to boot. Hope to be back again soon!


No blog post is complete without a selfie

Monday, June 23, 2014

Hilly Billy Mud Bath -- 72 miles of it!



(Photo credit to Mike Briggs and Fred Jordan -- thanks for braving the weather to take our pictures, much appreciated!)

Hilly Billy Roubaix is a 72 mile ultra-cross race on graveled, dirt-filled, pot-holed, mud-bubbling, swampy "roads" with a shit ton of climbing that just keeps on coming! Last year I had to DNF after my crank broke before the first aid station so I had a score to settle.

Luckily we didn't have the 103 degree weather with 99% humidity like last year, but instead we had rain, rain, and then some more rain. Much of it fell on days prior to the race, but we had a drenching shower just before the start and some periods of rain throughout the race.

All this water had to go somewhere and combine water with gravel and dirt and it turns into mud -- who knew! So we had to race through this for many of the 72 miles:      
 
Its not so bad... till you realize the water is waist deep!
 
Mud treatment, anyone?

Car sized mud holes
 I was on my cross bike with canti brakes so knew this would be an adventure. Tyler Chapman, a teammate at Bike Rack Racing, was on his mountain bike with disc brakes and I was quite envious. But enough with the whining -- time to HTFU and race with what you got!

The race started off fast and I was with the front part of the peloton for a bit till we got strung out on the first gravely climb. I had a power meter on the cross bike and realized that I was deep in my anaerobic zone trying to keep up with the elite guys so eased off and got into a chasing group. Soon we hit the first of many mud sections and the guys on mountain bikes just tore up the course while I perfected my controlled slides. Soon I started following a couple guys in front who were taking different lines so I just picked the one that looked the best. 
 
I wish I had this guy's fat bike!

Keeping it together... barely
There was a brief respite on the road but soon we were back on dirt/gravel/mud and the climbing just kept on coming. My legs felt good and I was in good rhythm by this point but my bike started to make weird noises when I was in the 34-28 gear (my lowest available). Turns out my B-screw was just screwed up and the derailleur pulley was rubbing up against the 28 cog. Not that I could do much about it since I needed that gear on the climbs so I just hoped for the best.

The middle part of the race is a bit of blur but what I do remember is that the bit of rain on one of the road sections was quite welcome as it washed off some of the mud from my bike. My derailleur, however, was increasingly unhappy and finally my luck ran out after aid 3 just before a big hill. I downshifted to my lowest gear, got out of the saddle to hammer up but the quick link caught on the pulley and tore the chain in half. Luckily the rest of the parts were ok and after an agonizingly long quick link replacement (no dexterity left!) I was back on the bike and on the climb.

Turns out the stop didn't do me any good as my legs started cramping within seconds and I had to really nurse them up the hill. That was painful. 

Deep in the pain cave
  By this point my bike was in complete revolt as now the front shifting stopped working... so I just said f*** it and kept it in the small ring even on the descents. But I still needed my lowest gear to get over the final grassy mud pit followed by a super steep road section up to the finish.
 
Almost done
 I finished well under 6 hours (5:44, good for mid-pack finish) which isn't a super time but I'll take it and aim to break it next year. Tyler did really well, as did other teammates like Beth Durman who persevered and finished despite having a tough day. Likewise, Team Sticky Fingers reps Shauna Sweet and Erin Conner had great races even though Erin took a nasty spill and had to DNF (right decision, Erin!). Mark Cavey of CrossHairs finished with Shauna, both on single speeds!

This was such an epic race. Back next year for more!

Tyler and me at the finish. Muddy as heck but happy to be done

And finally, a parting moment of zen:

Smooch anyone? Yes, that's a pig on a leash!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

To the Maximus!

Ever since I got my new Trek Superfly late last year, my technical skills and confidence on the mountain bike have improved by leaps and bounds. This new confidence has led to insane amounts of fun on the dirt -- from riding slick rocks in Moab UT in November last year, to regular weekend trips to the rocks at Frederick Watershed and Gambrill, and fast flowy rides at Patapsco.

The Michaux Endurance Series is well know in the mountain biking community as being the toughest, most technically challenging race on the local circuit. Indeed, the single track on the race consists of miles and miles of rock gardens with no let up. The brief respite on double track and dirt roads consists mostly of lung-busting climbs and steep white-knuckle descents. So you get the picture -- this is one HARD race. Their slogan says it all: Don't limit your challenges, challenge your limits!

Yeah there are some rocks

Look Ma my back wheel isn't touching!
 At the start of this year I resolved to race the Michaux series and after consultation with some experts, I was directed to start with the 20 mile race and not the 40. Many accomplished riders have sworn off Michaux after attempting the 40 early in their dirt riding days. So the 20 it was for me on May 4th for the Michaux Maximus.  

Mountain bike racing is for the real enthusiasts. There is little fanfare, not much in terms of podium celebrations apart from a photo and bragging rights, and overall a pretty laid back atmosphere. What I really like about it is that everyone is super friendly, congenial, and even the expert racers are willing to help newbies out. After a riders' meeting where the race director gives a safety briefing and explains some other details like course markings, he or she simply points to a tree, calls it the start line, and yells go! This level of informality is quite refreshing, especially after experiencing the exact opposite in the world of triathlon.
Yes, that tree is the start line. Ready? GO!
 I was coming into this race with some pretty good form -- my fitness was good and legs were firing pretty well. Just the day before I had gone out with my new team, Bike Rack Racing, and ridden at the front in our weekend group ride and felt pretty good. So I took off with front group at the start and kept pace quite easily in the short sorting out section of dirt road. I hit the first single track 3rd wheel and felt great, kept pace with the two guys in front and got into a nice rhythm.

Yes, you're supposed to ride this... on your bike!

Mountain biking on rocks is so much about the head rather than legs. On this day, my head was screwed on right and I was in the game. We cleared the first few miles of single track and caught up to some of the earlier waves. I was still riding strong until we hit a really twisty single track descent. This was pretty gnarly for me and I lost some ground to the front two guys but stayed rubber side down. Soon, the trail opened up a bit and a bombing descent lay in front so I hung back off the saddle and dove right in.

About halfway through my left cleat unclipped (perhaps my foot accidentally twisted too much) and I lost control -- WHAM! my crotch went straight into the seatpost and I slid to a stop on some leaves (thankfully not rocks!). After wincing in pain for a good minute and being secretly grateful for already having produced a child, I got back on the bike and started pedaling again.

Umm, why did I sign up for this?

A few people passed me here while I recovered but got going again. A couple miles later on another descent my front wheel caught some root and I went flying over the handlebars. Surprisingly I didn't get hurt at all but was quite rattled by this second crash. Head went out the window and I soft pedaled for a bit and got passed by several other racers.

Soon, however, the descending was done and we got onto a long dirt climb up to the ridgeline. Once on the climb I got my head back and legs started moving again. Thankfully they had shown up for the day and I caught some people on this climb. We then entered the hardest 3 mile single track of the race. Here I felt determined and cleared it without a single crash and while riding throughout - quite an accomplishment given the trail is rated highly technical for hikers!

The exit from this single track signaled the end of the technically demanding sections of the race. This was also the location of a rest stop. Last year, rest stops had been my achilles heel in racing -- basically I treated them as a time to switch off, have a sit down, and leisurely consume calories. But this meant bleeding time and its a race damn it! So my racing resolution for this year was to keep stops to a minimum. On this particular one I didn't need anything so I didn't stop -- got a bonk buster out from my jersey and ate it while riding. Its the little things that save you time in a race.
 
The work wasn't done, however. There was still the final climb and some muddy single track before we got to it. The previous week's rains had rendered the trails very slippery so there was some sliding but I got to the climb mostly unscathed. I had lost track of where I was in my age group but I gunned it up the final climb and passed some people though not sure how many were my competition. Ended up 7th, but I know I could have been 3rd or higher if I had not crashed so much.

But its all a learning experience and I can't wait for the next race! Proud to represent Bike Rack Racing for the first time on a mountain bike and bringing back a respectable result. Hope to get more teammates riding and racing on the dirt soon. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Mountain Biking Primer -- for (and by) a newbie

My mountain biking skills have come a long way but I still consider myself a newbie in this sport. My first few months of biking in the dirt led to a broken collarbone and a subsequent trip to the ER for falling on my head (I had a helmet on). So basically, I started with low skills and even lower confidence.

But that has changed over the last year. The single most significant improvement has come in the form of a new, well-fitted bike. My first bike was bought off craigslist, generally in my size, but not really. Perhaps I was seated too far forward, too high, or the frame was just not right for me and this led to crashes.. lots of them. The new bike is awesome. I love the fit, the way it feels, and the confidence it inspires. So my first piece of advice for anyone interested in mountain biking is do not buy your first mountain bike off the internet! Test ride several models and spend the extra dollars to buy something that fits. Get fitted by a bike shop. Performance Bike is not a bike shop. It really really matters on the dirt.

But many people will tell you that. Now lets get into some seemingly trivial tips and tricks that really really help. First, unclipping. You really have to master unclipping. And this is not unclipping with sufficient warning or forethought as in road or triathlon, but immediate, sudden, and unexpected unclipping -- imagine riding through a rock garden and your front wheels jams into a rock... unclip and steady yourself; you're riding in some wet stuff and the bike starts to slide... unclip and avoid the fall; you're climbing at 0.002 mph up a 35% grade and you run out of gears or gas... unclip and hold on for dear life! Imagine any of the above scenarios with the inability to unclip -- the result is never going to be good. A fall on rocks, sliding on loose dirt, or falling backwards down the trail with a bike attached is an awful situation and one that I have experienced.

So, practice unclipping religiously. Note that unclipping from mountain bike pedals can be quite unnatural at first. I have eggbeater pedals and came to them from Look road pedals. For the first two months I could not unclip at a moments notice or at certain angles or crank positions. This led to a lot of falls. But I kept at it and now I can unclip at will. You can't imagine how liberating that has been. You can try riding stuff that you previously would have walked. You can try going over a large tree stump knowing that you can put a foot down on top if need be, whereas otherwise you'd be falling sideways several feet to the ground. You become a better, more confident rider. So practice this over and over, perhaps in your back yard or in a grassy field at really really slow speeds. Have your 5 year old shout unclip randomly, make it a game.

The next most important thing is to trust the bike. Granted trusting the bike is not easy. But the bike will clear rocks, roots, and stumps 95% of the time if you keep pedaling (for the other 5%, there is unclipping). In fact, it is arguably easier to send rock gardens with raw power and speed rather than slow nimbleness and precision. But this requires committing to and trusting what the bike can do. 29 inch wheels really roll over most anything, so trust that they will and go for it. Use movements in body weight to help the bike along (i.e. shift back, lift front wheel slightly to clear a stump or large rock, then shift weight a bit forward to let rear wheel through).    

What else? Oh yeah, look forward not down at your front wheel. This is so critical. My first several months were spent in a tunnel vision focused on my front wheel. I argued that I can see the rocks and roots better if I focus on them. Not true. Look several feet in front and trust your damn bike. It will clear those roots and your forward vision will help you see the best lines to take. If you have an experienced buddy, I've found it helpful to ride behind them and follow their lines. If your experienced buddy is attractive, focus on his/her butt.

What next? yeah, bike weight... but its not what you're thinking. The single heaviest thing on your bike is you. The angles at which we ascend and descend in mountain biking are much steeper than other bike sports. So where you sit on the bike and how you move your weight around really matters. So use body weight as a counter balance. What does this mean? well this means to unweight the front end for a split second while the front wheel clears a large barrier; this means sliding back on your saddle, even hanging your butt back off the saddle, inches from the rear wheel on very steep descents; this means leaning forward at the hips when climbing steep slopes to keep weight on the front wheel so it doesn't hop around. The consequences of not counter balancing can be devastating. Imagine endo-ing off your bike on a fast descent because you were too far forward. Not fun.

Tire pressure. Low pressure is good but too low and your tires will roll on tight turns and the bike will lose traction. The pressure recommendations on stans no tubes website, for instance, are too low. I followed their advice and crashed numerous times. I talked to my coach and he recommended adding 5 psi  and I've have no traction problems. Of course, don't go too high else your tire will bounce around. But keep in mind that there is such a thing as too low tire pressure. I weigh 150lbs and ride 24-26 psi. Previously I was at 19-20 psi and wasn't very happy.

Full suspension or hardtail. My first bike was a hardtail and my new bike is a full sus. I am biased. All else equal, I do not see why anyone would prefer a hardtail over a FS, especially since the newer FS models can be completely locked out to replicate a hardtail, or even a rigid bike. Yes, they are a bit heavier, but only just, and the advantages of rear suspension in technical terrain outweigh the costs. But others may disagree. Hardtails are cheaper though, so there's that. But know this -- a hardtail can go anywhere a FS can, so don't be held back if you prefer a hardtail. My gf and I even saw a fully rigid bike on slickrock -- go figure.

Happy riding (and less crashing)!