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Tips for Mountain Riding

By John Marsh

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One of the joys of Summer for me is the chance to pick up one or both of my sons at camp in the north Georgia mountains.

Sure, I miss my boys and look forward to seeing them after a week away. But I also appreciate the chance to drive up early on those Fridays and get a ride in on roads that feature climbing we just don’t have in Atlanta.

I’ve made the trip a couple of times over the past few weeks, and both rides offered situations that are worth sharing in the form of tips that may make your next mountain ride safer and more enjoyable.

Be Prepared
Yes, the old Boy Scout motto is perfectly fitting for mountain rides. Even on well-known cycling roads, you may not see more than a handful of fellow cyclists on any given ride. And even if you do hook up with others on the road, you can’t always depend on the kindness of strangers if you need help. (Blanche DuBois was not a cyclist!)

  • Always carry a couple of extra tubes, your pump or an extra air canister, a tire boot, and a patch kit. A multi-tool is always good to have on board, too. Ride with a blinking taillight, and if the weather looks iffy, take your headlight, as well.
  • Carry your mobile phone. In the event of an irreparable breakdown, a crash or other emergency, you don’t want to get stuck with no way of calling for help. Smart phones are great for checking weather and radar, too.
  • Finally, carry ID, enough food and fluids – and some money for store stops, if that’s part of your ride plan. “Enough” means an adequate amount to get you at least to the next source of provisions (that is, if you are absolutely certain the store is open that day). If you can’t be sure, carry what you need to get all the way to your destination.

Own Your Space
The roads in the north Georgia mountains are predominately 2-lane, but one well-known climb is on mostly 4-lane road for much of the route. Whether 2- or 4-lane, the roads share a commonality: very little, if any, shoulder. And in most places the road edges transition abruptly into a ditch in the inside lanes, and quite often a dropoff in the outside lanes.
In other words, the extreme right side of the road is hazardous for cyclists. The same can be said for most mountain roads around the country and the world.

  • As the situation dictates, ride far enough to the left in your lane to give yourself room to maneuver in either direction. If you feel you need to take the entire lane, it’s yours to take.
  • On winding roads, especially, make sure to be a good road user and wave motor vehicles past you when you can see it’s clear ahead and they can pass safely. Oftentimes, they’ll wave in appreciation and respect when you do so. You don’t want them riding on your tail for an extended period of time, either, so moving them along benefits you, too.

Take the High Road
For engineering and drainage reasons, mountain roads typically are cambered. That is, they slope from a “high side” to a “low side” on curves. A road’s camber can have advantages in mountain riding. Knowing how to deal with it can make your ride more enjoyable – and just a little bit easier, even.

  • The old Scottish tune “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond” goes: O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and Ah’ll tak’ the low (road)/And Ah’ll be in Scotlan’ afore ye. Well, that was for walking, not cycling. If you ride on the “low side” of a cambered curve, you face a steeper grade coming out of the curve than you do on the high side. You may not get to the top faster, but as long as it’s safe, staying on the high side will make the already difficult uphill jaunt just a touch easier. And sometimes you can even momentarily gain a little speed moving back across the road from the high to low side.
  • Cambered curves make the downhill a bit safer, as well. Think about the banked curves of a superspeedway. They allow race cars to maintain speed through the curve and, in effect, direct them through the turn. The same forces are at play when you take a curve heading down a mountain. If it’s cambered, it helps “direct” you through the curve. You’re able to brake a little less, giving you a feeling of stability. You stay more in control and enjoy the descent a little more.

Stay in Control
Cambers do help a little on curves, but there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned common sense on mountain descents. Some riders love to descend. Some hate it. Most fall somewhere in between. But all should follow the No. 1 guideline for safe descending – stay in control.

  • That means, don’t exceed your riding ability, don’t push your limits beyond what you’re capable of on the bike. It’s easy to get carried away by the speed and exhilaration of a screaming descent, but you can quickly overcook a curve and either find yourself in the oncoming lane of traffic, or off the side of the mountain. Keep it under control.
  • By the same token, holding a death grip on the bars, and two big handfuls of brake on descents, isn’t safe, either. A tight, unrelaxed grip makes your bike handling less-fluid, and magnifies your response to any little correction you might make. Overbraking has a similar effect, in addition to potentially heating up your rims to the point of blowing a tube. Stay relaxed. Keep your neck and shoulders loose, your grip not tight. And use your brakes to scrub some speed where needed. But don’t ride them all the way down the mountain.

Smell the Roses
It’s easy when suffering on a climb, or even when you’re having a good day on the bike, to focus so intently on hauling yourself up the hill that you forget to enjoy the scenery. Many climbs offer some great views. At the very least, there’s some flora and fauna you might not see every day.

  • Ensuring it’s safe to do so, take in some of that scenic landscape as you chew up the climbing. Pull off the road to enjoy a scenic overlook once in a while. Stop at the top of a climb to relish the triumph as you refuel. Enjoy yourself! You’ll be back to your regular group hammerfest soon enough. This ride’s for the pure enjoyment and accomplishment of getting up the mountain – and down the other side.

John Marsh is publisher of the weekly RBR Newsletter and www.RoadBikeRider.com, which provide expert advice, tips and shared knowledge to road cycling enthusiasts – from beginner to experienced rider – to help them become better cyclists and enjoy our sport even more.


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