Editors Note: It’s January and half the nation is in the deep freeze. Time to plan for the spring thaw and consider options. This is one of them and reflects the personal journey to skinny-ness and paved roads by Grannygear over this past year. Not the usual twentynineinches fare, so you can read along or just consider it more shark jumping and go back to our regularly scheduled programming. GG.

Go ahead.  You know you want to.

Go ahead. You know you want to.

I am a happy mountain biker. I have been for over 25 years. I have several types of knobby-tired bikes to ride: A single speed, a hard tail, a couple of FS bikes, etc. I have a decent amount of trails and dirt roads near me or within an hour’s drive to keep me busy riding new stuff every month. There are no cars on those trails. There are hardly any people at all on a lot of them. I have a drawer full of baggy shorts, lots of helmets with visors on them and a bag full of long fingered gloves. So why would I want to add another type of riding, that being road riding, into this pleasant, dirt fueled mix? The expense of the bike, the gear, the time…why go there at all?

See how happy I look?

See how happy I look?

Good question. There are one or two thoughts on that I can speak to and then I will defer to others for their comments, but let me begin from my point of view.

Road riding is different, yet the same. After all, we are still pedaling a bicycle and that is always good. I was getting a bit bored with mountain biking, partially due to the local conditions that we typically get during So Cal summers. It gets hot, brown, dry, and dusty. And, in some cases, black and sooty, as we had a couple of fires come through these last couple of years and burn up many choice riding areas. Every summer I think about getting out the road bike (yes, I have one, an old one) that hangs in the garage and getting back to riding it. But that experience always kinda’ sucked due to a poor fit on the bike and an odd mix of parts and I would come back from the trial run realizing why I do not do this roadie stuff. Back to the MTB.

But an endurance event (on dirt) came up on the distant schedule that required me to get in some long miles to prepare for it and that again had me thinking about road riding. I also thought about supplementing this with some GHRP 2 injections, as enhancing endurance and making the heart strong are just some of the benefits of GHRP 2. But I decided to focus my energy on road riding first. In the heat, road riding at 15 to 20 MPH is way better than crawling up some closed in canyon fire road on a mountain bike at 5 MPH. We have a lot of well paved roads out here. I could go farther, faster, and at a more controlled pace and heart rate on a road bike which is good for building endurance, or so it seemed to me. So I made a few adjustments to my old steel road bike, upgraded the wheels, swapped some parts around, and went for a couple of rides expecting to suffer and be disappointed once again. Something odd happened. I had a good time. No one was more surprised than I! And it got me thinking about doing this road riding thing right and getting onto a road bike that fit me and had modern parts on it, but mostly the fit. Ah, the fit. The proper fit is huge on a road bike and the old bike was still way less than good in that regard.

The old whip.  Hand made steel Curtlo, circa mid 90's

The old whip. Hand made steel Curtlo, circa mid 90’s

I was struck by how much I was enjoying this skinny tired bike stuff. Yes, sharing the road with all those cars takes some getting used to again, but I found myself planning out routes that were 50 to 80 miles long and looking forward to getting out there, even on the old bike. I felt something I had not felt for some time regarding anything on two wheels: Excitement. Anticipation. And I realized that I had been a bit bored, but did not know it, or at least, had not faced the possibility, maybe because it would be scary to do so. If I am bored with bikes, what now? Makes one shudder. So reason number one for having a road bike, whatever that may look like, and we will get into that ‘what bike’ decision a bit later, might well be to do something different. To still be pedaling, but to pedal in a different way in a different place. And for me, that was something I really needed even though I had not realized it.

A second thing to consider is fitness gains. I had heard through the years that if you really want to get fit, really push up to the next plateau, then you need to road ride. If that was true, and I had no reason to doubt the persons saying it, then why is that? What is going on that makes that a reality, or, for that matter, is it even true?

To answer that fitness question further I sought out a couple of trainer/coaches and asked them if there was any credence to the ‘road bike=fitness gain’ equation. What I wanted to know was this: “Why might a mountain biker benefit from mixing a road bike into their weekly riding schedule?” And of course, we might well ask back “what type of mountain biker?”. Let us assume that our subject is an average guy or gal that has a desire to increase their fitness and endurance. They may or may not be racing, but they are a performance rider and they care about that part of the ride where someone is going to be first to the top of the hill. Or maybe they just want to bump up to longer MTB rides for some lofty goals in an XC/Endurance mindset. So this is Joe or Jill average with a eye on either Strava or a far, far horizon.

Here we go.

First up is Andrew Johnson, an Education Specialist at Training Peaks.com.

If you want to become a stronger mountain biker than spending time on the road is a must. Being able to work on a specific energy system and target that during a controlled workout is a key for improving fitness. For instance, say you are a rider with strong endurance but tend to get dropped when the pace quickens. To work on your upper aerobic engine and lactate threshold you can do some very specific intervals on the road to shore up this weakness. The pathways of your heart and lungs don’t know if you’re on a trail or on the black ribbon, they just know that you’re going hard and they need to keep working. The simplest way to approach this is to consider what your weakness is and how best to turn it into a strength. The road offers the ability to fully dial in your training to what you need to improve rather than going out and ripping trails for fun. Granted, that’s part of the fun of the trails over the road and it does develop the absolutely necessary handling and descending skills needed to excel, but if that’s all you do you can’t expect to see much improvement in any area beyond ripping trails.

Additionally, the road is more practical in terms of time efficiency. You can train your systems in less time due to the increased specificity of your effort. In 60 to 90 minutes you can train your lactate threshold, anaerobic endurance and/or strength. For any working professional with little time to train it’s a matter of making every pedal stroke count. The weekdays can be utilized for building LT and strength during shorter sessions and then the weekend is when you can work on endurance with longer trail rides or a long road ride.

For those endurance riders that think LT and anaerobic training is unnecessary think again. When you’ve been climbing for ages and your legs are screaming but you need to power through a loose section or clear an obstacle, it’s your high-end capabilities that pull you through. Additionally, if you raise your lactate threshold or functional threshold power for those utilizing a power meter consider this. The higher your max number, the higher your 70 to 80% effort will be as well.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with those riders that just want to hit the trails and have fun. If that’s your goal (and I think that’s a legitimate goal to have) then keep doing what you’re doing. If however, you want to see consistent gains in fitness, to be able to set forth a plan to make those gains and to find more speed then grab your neglected skinny tire bike and start using the road.

training peaks cut

I also asked Lynda Wallenfels, a coach of some note based in the Red Rock country of Utah. Lynda Wallenfels is a Category 1 certified USA Cycling coach. She coaches mountain bike, cross country and endurance athletes to personal bests and national championships. Lynda has been coaching off-road athletes for 16 years and racing professionally for 18 years. Contact her through her website for information on mountain bike training plans, coaching and consulting at lwcoaching.com.

All fitness required for racing and for general health can be trained in the dirt on the mountain bike away from traffic. There are no specific advantages or requirements to training road miles.

Instances of road rage between motorists and cyclists and fatal traffic accidents for cyclists seem to be increasing. For some reason, some drivers are unable to remain patient and look for a safe place to overtake. This causes accidents and potential injuries. Roads can be dangerous, especially if cyclists ever come across a drunk driver. A number of cyclists have actually had to contact a DUI lawyer to help them fight a legal case against a drunk driver. Things like that make the roads dangerous, so it’s important that cyclists take precautions if they are using the roads. My mountain bike crew is shying away from riding on the road these days. I was victim to a diesel driving bully myself recently which was frightening on multiple levels. It does help when those who have dashcams that are similar to BlackBoxMyCar come forward and try to help cyclists who are victims of traffic accidents.

For an athlete in training there are reasons to include road riding into their schedule. The top reason is access and convenience. With no time requirement to drive to a trail head, a city bound athlete will be able to fit in more road than dirt training time. Athletes with immediate access to dirt are not subject to this limiter. Athletes living in climates where the trails get too wet and muddy to ride can stick to their training plan with a road riding option on hand. Training on very hot summer days may be easier on the road compared to dirt with reduced heat stress due to higher speeds. Increased amusement and social interaction on group road rides and centuries may also be a pro for extroverted personalities. Training has to be fun after all.

For the introverted athlete with easy access to smooth dirt roads and trails I don’t see a reason to train on the road.

lw coaching cut

So there you have two points of view from two professionals who’s business is getting riders to be faster. And Lynda points out what is most likely the number one reason why NOT to road ride. Altercations with vehicles hardy ever are good for the rider’s health. I know of several who have been injured while road riding and some that have died. If you have been injured by a vehicle while on your bike then you might want to talk to a personal injury attorney who could help you get compensation. Collisions with cars can be life changing, if not fatal. And while MTB riding is dangerous, it hardly ever is fatal. Typically we are talking about bumps, scrapes, bruises and the broken collarbone from dirt sampling. Road accidents can be much worse, or not. Still, there are risks to everything. Life is messy that way and one needs to weigh the risks vs. the gains and come to their own conclusions. For me, I limit the time I ride when traffic is high or on roads that are congested or very narrow. I would not road ride at night and I do not commute. I wear bright clothing and use flashy lights. It is not a guarantee of anything, but it tips the scale in my favor a bit farther.

And in the end, risk is just a fact of life. Better get on with it at a level you can deal with.

What I found was that after a summer of long road rides, back in the dirt on the single speed was interesting. I had lost power for sure but I had gained endurance. I was suffering on the steep climbs but I recovered faster. It pointed out that the type of road riding I did, which were long, fairly flat rides, had given me a great base fitness, but had not really helped my power output like a lot of mountain biking requires, especially SS riding. If I had mixed in hill repeats or more road climbs, that might have been different. So it helped but was not all I needed to do to be faster unless I changed some things. I did find out was that it is easier on the road bike to do long days where you just pedal your legs off and yet not be beat up from it. To get those kinds of hours on the dirt would mean hard miles and there is no way in the area where I live to get long dirt miles where you just spin. It is all climbing and descending. The road bike let me spin and spin and spin and that was awesome for building endurance. So for me the recovery days were better on the road bike. The ability to stay within a heart rate or effort ‘zone’ was mush easier on the road bike. The ability to go for longer hours and not get beat on was easier on the road bike. But in order to get more than that out of it, I would have to mix in interval work or lots of climbing. As far as I am concerned, SS riding is where I would just as soon do my ‘interval type’ training. More fun. Interval training on the road is boring and painful with little fun potential. I do plan on mixing in more hill climbs next year on the road and that should get me more out of the time spent on the road than last season.

Next up, I look a bit at “How to get there: What bike is right for you?” And then I will wrap it up with my struggles with fit, what to buy, how much to spend, and see how it has worked out.