How I Learned Mountain Biking In A Weekend

The UCI Cross Country Mountain Bike World Cup (presented by Shimano) gets underway this weekend in Nové Město na Moravě. It was this race, and a very informative book, that sparked my own interest in the sport just a few years ago.

At the time I was looking for something new. Road cycling had gotten old and a video promo for an upcoming World Cup race in the small, mountain bike-crazed Czech town planted the seed. I wanted to experience the thrill of it first hand. However, with the race scheduled for only 6-weeks time there was no way I could afford to learn mountain biking the traditional way — by riding a mountain bike — so I started exploring other options. That was when I came across a fantastic new* instructional hardcover book (published in Australia by Reader’s Digest Press), that promised I could Learn Mountain Biking In A Weekend.

*Published in 1992.

Great, I thought, finally an interesting hobby that won’t take a lifetime to master, like chess or quantum physics. Trends seem to come and go at such a rapid rate these days that there’s little point dedicating too much of your life to something that people may soon lose interest in. E.g. rollerblading.

At the time the book was listed well inside the top 4-million on Amazon’s Best Seller Ranking. Although I haven’t followed up since, I would imagine that it must have improved. With the UCI World Cup season (presented by Shimano) now broadcast by the powerful publicity machine of Red Bull TV, a much wider audience is now exposed to the sport.

The book is part of an expansive oeuvre, covering pursuits as diverse as Golf, Tennis, Sailing, Skiing, Rock Climbing, Weight Training, Swimming, Windsurfing, Riding, Photography, and even Massage. As the back cover proudly boasts, ‘the Learn in a Weekend series is a unique concept for busy people.’

I always liked to think of myself as busy, although perhaps not in the traditional sense. It’s not work or kids or study that consumes my time but rather things like hunting for spelling mistakes in Wikipedia and fighting with my local Asian grocer over the obviously inflated price of coconut milk that I’m sure the Vietnamese-speaking population are not paying. Yes, this was the book for me, I was ready to Learn Mountain Biking In A Weekend.

First Impressions

As a busy person, it was disheartening to discover that while the learning aspect of mountain biking only requires a weekend, this was not inclusive of preparation time.

‘It is well worth delaying the adventure for a few weeks while you prepare properly.’

I’d already set my sights on the upcoming Nové Město na Moravě World Cup in May and I do not perform well under time pressure. I once took up Scientology as a coping mechanism when the deadline for a Thai tourist visa application began affecting my sleep.

I’d already committed to learning mountain biking in a weekend and now I felt like a fool. This was like being told that having a baby only required eight hours of labour, and then finding out that there’s also a 38-week gestation period during which time you’re prohibited from consuming alcohol and blue cheese. I certainly hadn’t counted on this.

Preparing to Learn

First on the list was to buy a new bike.

‘Tell the shop assistant that you want a basic bike for sustained off-road use…ensure you don’t buy an unreliable or even dangerous machine.’

Then there was a whole bunch of new clothing and equipment required, including a D-Lock and some sort of brutish multi-tool.

With slightly fewer features than the Inner-Urban Multi-Tool, the Cool Tool probably weighs more than many top-level carbon hardtail frames, but it will get you out of trouble if your threaded headset comes loose.

Thankfully the book helped me avoid some common novice mistakes such as thinking that a mountain bike was just a road bike with ‘a flashy paint job, a set of knobbly tyres, and a high price tag.’ There was a well-annotated colour image of an early 1990s fully rigid Specialized Hardrock.

It’s ‘sophisticated gearing system enables a fit rider to power it up the steepest inclines and over the roughest terrain.’

There was certainly no mistaking this for a road bike and I was now on my way to mastering an exciting new hobby.

In setting up the bike I discovered that tyres should be pumped up to between 35 and 80-psi. In hindsight, I have come to wonder whether this was actually a misprint or if people actually did ride fully rigid mountain bikes at 80-psi back then. If they did, then it probably explains why it took until 1996 for the sport to be included in the Olympics — up until then, medals could only realistically have been awarded for broken collarbones, or judged like Olympic Diving as riders ejected uncontrollably at each rock garden.

Repair skills would also prove invaluable and the book even explains how to deal with a buckled wheel using the brute force method.

Then it was time to select a location to ride, although I was a little dubious about the advice provided.

‘If you must go somewhere remote, then go with friends, it will be both safer and more fun.’

While I understood the point, at that time most of my friends were road cyclists, and if you’ve seen any of the bunch sprint finishes in recent Giro d’Italia stages, then you’ll know that the words ‘safe’ and ‘fun’ are not generally what come to mind.

Road cycling.

By this time, I was starting to seriously doubt my chances of making it to Nové Město for the World Cup round. Since deciding that I wanted to learn mountain biking, I’d already had to purchase a bike, clothing and equipment, make sure it was all in working order, learn basic mechanical skills and navigation, choose a location, and make some (more reliable) friends. As it turned out, I was still nowhere near ready because, according to the book, I still had to brush up on my first aid and get physically prepared. This mountain biking caper was serious business!

Next came a severe program of wind trainer sessions and a tantalising Interval Training exercise that intersperses ‘short periods of riding the bike with short bursts carrying it.’

If any friends are thinking of giving mountain biking a try, then exposing them to interval training like this is sure to get them over the line.

The First Aid section helped prepare me for incidents such as heatstroke that might cause a person to ‘become confused, anxious and irrational,’ exactly the state I found myself in by this point in the overly protracted preparation phase.

It wasn’t until 34-pages in to this 95-page book that I finally arrived at The Weekend Course, and by this point, Nové Město was nothing but a fading memory and even World Cup #5 in Mont-Sainte-Anne was now in the distant past.

Learning to Ride

It was suggested to spend the first 30-minutes of the weekend ‘Getting to Know 21 Gears’ — with both under-bar and thumb shifters covered. By the time I’d made it through this section of the book, component manufacturers had already released several iterations of updated equipment, and I felt like if it had taken any longer, the imminent release of electronic drivetrains would have rendered the entire chapter pretty much obsolete.

“Serious riders tend to prefer above-bar shifters to under-bar shifters because they give an at-a-glance indication of which gear you are in. They are also easier to use when wearing gloves.”

Then came an overly complicated description of pedalling technique that would have had even The Sufferfest video producers rolling their eyes, followed by a further four pages dedicated to getting on and off the bike.

‘Think of your legs and pedal cranks as two pistons in an engine. When one of the pistons starts pumping down, a surge of energy is related and you power forward…there are periods when neither piston is in the powerful part of its stroke, and as a result, there is less energy available to fuel the forward motion.’

— I believe it’s called pedalling.

Getting on the Bike

Finally it was time for cycling with an hour spent riding uphill followed by an hour spent riding downhill. Only then was I permitted to experience the thrill and excitement of ‘Carrying Your Bike.’

Strangely, the Frame Cushion has not yet made the leap to Cyclocross.

At this point the book recommended a break for lunch, reminding me that I was still only half way through Day-1. All concept of time had now completely deserted me but I’m pretty sure that I had already been learning mountain biking for several months now.

After lunch there were exercises on cornering, riding across cambers, and some choice bits of Zen mountain bike advice to contemplate overnight.

‘Learn to accept that an all-terrain bike sometimes is not!’
Sometimes ‘it is futile to continue cycling.’

Day-2 began by tackling water, mud, sand, and obstacles like fallen trees. Then there were some more advanced skills including front and rear wheel pivots.

The final half hour of the two-day course is dedicated to the art of ‘Safe Falling’, and included some stunning action photographs.

What I Learned

If there was a single message to take out of LMBIAW, it must surely be to take things slowly.

‘As you progress, remember one thing — there is no point pushing yourself too hard, trying to perform outside the limits of your abilities, and coming to grief.’

As the metaphorical home stretch appeared, there was a chapter on stunts (including wheelies), the benefits of joining a cycling club, and the serious fun that can be had with ‘eccentric ideas like this mountain bike tandem.’

Although this book armed me a great wealth of practical information, being a very slow reader meant that by the time I actually finished it, the mountain biking boom was already coming to an end. It seemed like people were now more interested in cyclocross. At least I could take comfort in knowing that I’d mastered some useful skills like bike-carrying that would serve me well.

You can pick up a copy of Learn Mountain Biking In A Weekend at any good book store…that still carries pocket size hardcovers published in 1992. It is also widely available online (in both paperback and hardcover). If you buy it from Amazon, it might even get delivered by drone.

If you do end up searching online for this book, please be aware that author Andy Bull (who has gone on to a sports journalism role with The Guardian) also has a namesake in the bicycle literature world. While only loosely bike-oriented, the other Andy Bull’s preference is for tastefully compiled pictorial calendars of naked teenage girls. So be prepared for this kind of thing to pop up in your search results.

With titles like Bikes and Babes & Teen Spirit, Andy Bull’s pictorial calendars are aimed squarely at the male-dominated mechanical workshop demographic, and probably won’t help you learn mountain biking. On the plus side though, they will almost certainly be a quicker read.