You’d be hard pushed to find a cycling fan who doesn’t think Peter Sagan is as close to perfect as a guy can be. It’s not just his dreamy hair and toned legs, it’s the way he rides a bike that has fans surrounding his team bus at just about every race he enters. If I can pinpoint one moment when I realized that Sagan was something else, it was when he bunyhopped Fabian Cancellara’s bike in the 2016 edition of Paris Roubaix. 99% of pro cyclists would have crashed then, Sagan didn’t, and it’s moves like that which keep him in position to win races when lesser riders would have only been racing to the hospital.
When you think about improving as a cyclist, you generally think about improving fitness. In a world of Strava KOMs, power meters, and marginal gains it is easy to succumb to the idea that maximizing wattage in and minimizing wattage loss is the way to become a better bike rider. But what makes the best bike riders really great is a lot more than how hard they push on the pedals. Without the skills to get to a place where that power matters, pure wattage is worthless.
Sagan grew up as a mountain biker, indeed he raced mountain bikes in the 2016 Rio Olympics. It’s the skills he gained on the dirt that gave him the chops to launch over Spartacus’ bike, or pop those one handed wheelies that have become his trademark.
We can’t promise that you’ll become Peter Sagan, in fact it seems quite unlikely, but most road riders could benefit from spending more time on fat tires. Not only is mountain biking incredibly fun, it’s also much more skill focused than road riding. It’s not uncommon for mountain bike rides to stop for riders to “session” a rock garden or trick off-camber section of trail, working on their skills until they have dialed in a line or technique. Nobody does that on a road bike.
After a while on the dirt, you’ll learn to read terrain for traction and look ahead of you for obstacles. You’ll also learn how to unweight your bike, meaning that potholes, crashes, lips in the road and gravel sections will result in pleasure, not punctures. Mountain biking teaches you to look for escape routes out of and around obstacles, which is exactly what Sagan found on the cobbles of Paris Roubaix.
If you add gravel into the mix, mountain bike skills are even more helpful. Ruts on dirt roads aren’t a cause for panic if you know you can hop them, loose corners are safer when you understand the balance of speed, braking and weighting that gets you through turns on the dirt. You’ll also gain a better appreciation for the importance of tire pressure and tread once you get comfortable on a flat bar bike.
Even if you don’t want to be faster, riding a mountain bike might make your riding more fun. Without long grinding climbs and headwinds, mountain bike rides tend to focus more on having fun than going fast. There’s more time to stop, session a feature and then sit down and enjoy the views than there is by the side of a busy road.
Mountain bike skills might not be as quantifiable as watts or grams of drag, and it is hard to count the crashes you didn’t have and the times you didn’t pull the brakes because you were worried about an obstacle. But give yourself a summer of trail riding a few times a week, and I promise you’ll notice them. Even if you’re not likely to find yourself on the cobbles of Roubaix any time soon, you won’t regret working on your skills and handling and opening your eyes to a new way of riding and racing. Just do yourself a favour out there on the trail and leave the aero helmet behind, going fast is fun, but we all have to stop somewhere.