The Perfect Mix – why mixing off-road disciplines is the way to go
Words by Steve Thomas
With the likes of Tom Pidcock, Mathieu van der Poel and Jolanda Neff making huge waves in almost every branch of the sport, the benefits of mixing your genres are becoming increasingly apparent.
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Times they are a changin' in the world of cycling, especially at the sharp end of pro bike racing. The long-held and abided by traditions of pro road racing and the more recently founded ideals of mountain bike racing have been completely flipped on their head, thrown like a banana skin at the trailside.
As the great Adam Ant would have said, "There's a new royal family, a wild nobility….", only in this case, I am, of course, referring to the new generation of pro riders, young guns, rebels without the rebellion as we know it. These are riders who can saddle up on just about any bike, on any course, for any duration and win. Not only do these athletes win, but they also do it straight out of the blocks; there is no long apprenticeship to be earned in the elite ranks anymore.
Yes, the two examples we've listed were both almost born and bred for two-wheeled greatness, but they are not alone – and even the older generation of riders are taking lessons in blending and fun from these guys.
Not so very long ago, you would have an unprinted cycling ID card, one that others labelled you by – you were either a roadie, or a mountain biker. Then as mountain biking took off, you were a downhiller or an XC racer.
That perceived labelling on the basis of what kind of bike you ride or the discipline you practice is sheer madness and is something that I never believed in.
I've always ridden bikes; any bike, on any kind of terrain, and in almost any kind of race. Although my personal preferences do shift with the passing of time, there has always been a special place reserved for skinny tyre off-road riding. I am a cyclist, simple – not a roadie, not a mountain biker and not a gravel grinder.
For many years, things at the top of the pro cycling ladder were extremely ordered, and many of the top road riders were simply forbidden from riding things like mountain bikes or even from racing cyclocross in the off-season. This was mostly because the old school of management and thinking saw them as too risky, and some still do hold true to those outdated and ill-informed views.
In the past few years, we've not only seen the likes of Pidcock and MVDP riding everything on their own terms, but we've also seen a lot more regular riders mixing it up.
Cyclists are now regularly coming from both sides of the flat and curly bar disciplines and mixing their rides. It's a trend that is really (re) revolutionising and brightening up the sport, both for the riders and the fans alike.
It could be easy to see this as a new phenomenon; although it's far from it, it's just one that got sidetracked for a few years. Go back a couple of decades or more, and many riders mixed their racing and riding. It was the norm for a top road rider to also be a great cyclocross champion (there were no mountain bikes before the 80s). In the early days of mountain biking, all disciples were jumbled up, with trials, downhill, and cross-country being part of the average race weekend.
Riders that we're all familiar with today, such as Nick Craig, may well have cut their teeth in cyclocross, but they have spent their entire careers mixing the different disciplines. Doing this goes a long way towards the fact that they're still out there riding and racing successfully.
They're lapping it up, whatever the discipline. These riders have embraced it and benefitted from the cross over effect, and it's kept them fresh, and in love with simply riding bikes, all be it that they do so faster than most of us.
So, what are the cross-over gains to be had from the various disciplines, besides the fun and fresh factor we mentioned?
Cyclocross (CX) – if you've ever ridden cyclocross, you will know just how brutal and rewarding it can be, and you will be well aware of its benefits when it comes to switching to other disciplines.
Not only does CX force you out of bed on a cold winters day, but it also makes sure that you train because if you don't, then it's just an act of masochism.
Like it or not, you're top-end intensity will be challenged in CX, and you will bathe in a lactate acid tub for an hour, which is something hard to replicate in any form of training.
Pushing skinny cross tyres through twisting and muddy switchbacks, hopping obstacles and tackling run-ups all while riding in the red with rigid forks will hone your bike handling skills in ways no other branch of cycling can do. This experience transfers in a razor-sharp way when switching to a mountain bike with plush suspension or another gravel trail.
Gravel – It's the new kid on the block, or at least in terminology, and rightly so de-rigueur right now. Gravel riding is some of the most fun you can have on two wheels, and it offers up huge physical and mental benefits. Gravel rides can be whatever you make them, so the benefits are variable.
Long gravel rides are great for building core endurance fitness; they're ideal for interval training and keeping your skills in line. Gravel bikes also lead us on trails that we may have deemed too tame for mountain biking, but which are great on dropped bars and allow us to cover longer distances slightly faster and with a dash of adventure in with the ride. The base fitness while having fun gained from gravel riding is invaluable.
Cross-country (XC) - be it natural or trail centre-based, cross-country riding can be pure escapism or intensely focussed adrenaline led, and both have their own unique cross-platform benefits.
Unless you're on a flat forest ride, then any XC ride will be an aerobic workout; there is no avoiding it. This is why XC riding is great for your high-end conditioning, lactate tolerance, and endurance.
There are also great benefits to your bike handling skills to be found out on the XC trails, especially when you throw in wet roots and mossy rocks, all of which combine to make it an all in one fitness and skill honing discipline.
Enduro – in many ways, is the great leveller. Enduro offers the best of everything mountain biking in one non-stop showreel.
Long steady rides on a full-suspension bike naturally drain you, which is great for endurance and stamina building. Taking on technical sections at speed makes for interval-like training with lessons in bike handling thrown in for free, which is even more fun when you're riding blind. Enduro riding is also great fun, can be very social and brings together all kinds of riders, which is really refreshing.
These are just the obvious benefits, and if you choose to mix and match on a whim, then it goes a long way towards keeping your bike riding fun. This is surely a big part of what it's all about.
Oh, and of course, it's a great excuse to buy more bikes if you so wish.