If you have been riding and racing on the road for many seasons, there is a good chance you have plateaued your performance. Adding variety to your training with mountain biking could be just the change you need to bring your road racing to the next level. This could mean an occasional off-season mountain bike ride, or even taking an entire season away from the road to race in the dirt. Changing disciplines within a sport can keep things fresh and position you in the sweet-spot of continual development as an athlete.
Elite off-road cyclists possess physiological profiles that are similar to elite road cyclists. However, mountain biking is different enough to provide new stimulations for positive adaptation and performance development in road racers. Here are some ways road cyclists can use off-road riding to get stronger:
Improve Bike Handling Skills
Riding in the dirt forces dedicated road riders out of their comfort zone and improves their bike handling skills. Basic mountain biking skills—like staying relaxed and keeping weight in your feet—translate directly to the road. Speeds in road racing can be high, therefore building lightning-fast reflexes and bike handling skills are real advantages to both your performance and safety. Road races are not often won on the descents, but they can be lost. Criteriums can be won with excellent cornering skills. Taking an off-road skills clinic from a licensed coach is the best place for road riders to venture into the dirt and start improving their bike handling skills.
Build Explosive Power
Dirt trails and singletrack have more varied terrain than paved roads. Short, steep rises and obstacles require explosive power bursts to ride without losing momentum. Singletrack with rocks, roots, switchbacks and other obstacles demand repeated power bursts and highly fluctuating pedaling forces. This is the same type of power required to wind up a sprint, accelerate out of a corner, or close a gap in a road race.
Increase Pedaling Efficiency
Dirt has less traction than pavement. Dust, mud and roots are all conditions encountered off road with low traction characteristics. Riding on these slippery surfaces requires precise timing and application of pedaling forces to keep your tires hooked up and your bike moving forward. This is a powerful stimulus for improve pedaling skills! Learning how to lay down an explosive power burst while maintaining traction will optimize acceleration and improve a road racer’s efficiency.
A Mental Break From the Road
Change can be as good as a rest. Riding in the dirt can be beneficial for triathletes, time-trial specialists, hill climbing specialists and any dedicated roadie. Venturing into the dirt will give you more training options, which can be psychologically refreshing. In my county there are only four good pavement road loops. When you are training five to six days per week, those routes get old. We have hundreds of miles of graded dirt roads and trails. The longest and steepest climbs in my county are all dirt roads. By expanding their riding scope into the dirt, athletes can access many more training routes and opportunities. Most regions have an infamous “radio tower climb.” A quick search online will help you find where the popular dirt rides are in your area.
Increased Bone Density
A health benefit to spending some time on rougher terrain is increased bone density. Cyclists are notorious for being very fit but having low bone density. In studies comparing road cyclists with mountain bikers, bone mineral density was higher in mountain bikers. The added impact sustained while riding off-road has a stimulatory effect on bone density. Switching out the road bike for the mountain bike during the off-season may make your bones stronger.
The gap between road cyclists and mountain bikers is closing with the rising popularity of gravel grinder events like Dirty Kanza. At races such as Crusher in the Tushar the best bike for the course is always a hot debate resulting in a mix of gravel bikes and mountain bikes on the start line. A rider with mountain biking experience has the upper-hand in these types of events where the surface conditions deteriorate regardless of which bike they choose to race on.
Mountain biking can take you to beautiful new places not accessible by road. Having an adventure and solid training are all rolled into one day on the mountain bike. The biggest danger with adding off-road training to your routine is that you may love it and quit riding on the road altogether!