Flying down a mountain on two wheels
Ever thought of riding your bike and getting paid for it? That's what professional mountain bikers like Travis Brown do. At a recent race at Mt. Snow, Vt., I got to see what it's like to be a professional mountain-bike racer.
When he was a kid, Mr. Brown used to ride his BMX bike on the trails by his house in Durango, Colo. (BMX stands for "bicycle motocross." It's a human-powered version of off-road motorcycle racing.) Not many people had ever heard of a mountain bike at that time.
Many say that mountain biking began in the mid-1970s with the Canyon Gang. They were a group of guys in southern California (Marin County) who would zip down hills on their "ballooners" (fat-tired bikes). They also called them "clunkers," "bombers," and "beaters."
By the mid-1980s, mountain bikes were more common. When Brown went to college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he rode a mountain bike as part of his training for the cross-country ski team.
In 1989, Brown rode in his first mountain-bike race. In 1999, he won the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) national championship.
Mountain biking is tough. The Mt. Snow course is laid out on dry ski runs. Riders climb nearly 1,000 feet on every five-mile lap. Brown prepares for races like this with a difficult - but enjoyable - training program in the off-season.
"I still really like to cross-country ski," Brown says, "and I think it's a good cross-training technique." By "cross-training," he means that doing one sport helps him with the other. Cross-country skiing is "really good at balancing your body, using a lot of different muscle groups," he says.
Brown trained at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., last year before he went to the summer Olympics in Sydney. (Yes, mountain biking has been an Olympic sport since 1996. No, Brown didn't win a medal.)
The sports scientists in Colorado Springs were impressed by the mountain bikers. They were some of the most efficient pedalers they had ever tested, according to Brown.
"That's because of the loose terrain," Brown says. "When you're standing up on a road bike, pedaling, you're delivering the power in short stabs at the pedals." But "if you do that on slick dirt," as on a mountain-bike trail, "you're going to spin out. So mountain bikers are used to pedaling even, round circles."
Brown races both "hard tail" and full-suspension bikes. A hard-tail bike has shock absorbers on the front wheel only. Full-suspension bikes have front and rear shocks. The shocks absorb the unevenness of a rocky trail. That helps keep the wheels in contact with the trail, so riders can pedal more efficiently.
On hard-tail bikes, riders tend to stand on the pedals. They don't get jolted around as much that way, but it's an inefficient way to pedal a bike.
Before the Mt. Snow race, Brown and other members of his Trek/ Volkswagen team rode the course to find the fastest "lines" on the track. They do this before every race.
The "line" is the route one takes over the course. Some paths are shorter than others. But with all the rocks and roots on the trail, the shorter path may be harder to ride at high speed.
"We'll often come into a section together," Brown says, "and we'll each take a different line to see which one's fastest." They also look for places on the course where it would be good to try to pass other racers.
Choosing a line is just one aspect of the race. Where you start in the pack is important, too - especially when so many riders are funneling down a narrow path. Starting positions are determined by how many points you've won in previous races.
At the start of the Mt. Snow race, 108 riders were packed into the starting chute like cattle.
A professional mountain-bike race is usually about 25 to 30 miles long. This race was 29 miles: six laps of the rigorous up-and-down course.
Early in the race, the pack was still thick as racers went up a steep hill. Shifting to their lowest, most powerful gears, riders crawled up the hill. Nobody stood up to pedal, though.
"Your rear-wheel traction is really limited," Brown says. "When you stand up to pedal, you can generate a little higher power, but you unweight the rear wheel." Less weight means less traction. "So any situation where the dirt's loose, you really need to keep your weight on the rear wheel." To do that, you must keep your bottom on the seat.
Once the race started, spectators could follow the pack. They sat on logs and stood at the edge of the course, cheering on the riders. They could even walk on the course. But when the lead motorcycle went by, fans knew to step aside because the racers was close behind. Empty water bottles littered the course during the race. Riders also drained packets of "energy gel" as they rode, sometimes taking both hands off the handlebars to do so (on straight, smooth sections). Riders picked up water bottles and food on the fly from various "feed stations."
The riders seemed surprisingly polite. One rider would announce that he was coming up behind another rider. The leading rider would often move aside to let the faster rider pass.
"It's kind of an unwritten common courtesy," Brown says. "If it doesn't slow them down too much, they try to let you around." Sometimes, though, it's better to stay behind, but close. This is called "drafting." Car racers do it, too. By letting the racer ahead of you push the air aside, you use less energy.
Sometimes, if riders hit a bottleneck, they get off their bikes, throw them over their shoulders, and run up the hill. This is legal, Brown says, but tiring - even though the bikes only weigh about 20 pounds.
Riders do tumble, and tires blow out. All riders wear helmets. For a real or imagined edge, they all shave their legs before a race, too.
Racers carry spare inner tubes, simple tools, and a can of compressed air (enough to fix two flat tires) in the back of their Spandex shirts. Riders must be able to change a flat in a hurry. Under two minutes is fast. But anything over three minutes is slow.
Mountain biking is just one kind of bike racing. Here are some others:
Downhill: Riders start at intervals. The course is from 1-1/2 to 3 miles long and takes from four to eight minutes to complete. Racers reach speeds of 50 m.p.h. and wear helmets similar to those worn by motorcyclists. They also wear padded, hard plastic-reinforced "body armor."
Dual Slalom: Like slalom skiing. Two racers compete on parallel courses at the same time. Courses are from 400 to 600 yards long and have tight turns around flags as well as jumps.
Cyclo-Cross: Similar to cross-country mountain biking. The course is generally flatter, longer, and not as muddy. Many parts of the course require riders to get off and carry their bikes.
Observed trails: Riders navigate an obstacle course without putting down hands or feet for balance. Penalty points are given for each touch, or 'dab.' Obstacles are natural and artificial. Rocks, mud, water, sand, logs, stairs, and railroad ties are common.
BMX: Motorcycle racer Scot Breithaupt saw kids imitating motocross on their bikes, so in 1970 he organized the first Bicycle Motocross (BMX) race. Thirty riders contributed 25 cents each to participate. Today, there are more than 500 BMX tracks in North America.
Ultra endurance: The Iditasport, founded in 1986, was originally an Alaskan mountain-bike race called the Iditabike. It was renamed in 1991, when it was combined with the Iditaski and Iditashoe races. Entrants on snowshoes and skis now compete with those on special mountain bikes in a 100-mile race held each February. Best time: 8 hrs., 39 min. by bike.