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Vacation Sports: Mountain Biking

Since emerging from the BMX craze of the 1980s, mountain biking has taken off as a huge sport all over the world, and nowhere more so than in the vacation industry. In many ways, it’s the ideal vacation activity: as a mountain biker you get to see a range of scenery and environments, and can travel between places of interest. Even better, the amount of adventure, thrills and spills you enjoy is very much under your own control – whether you have a gentle ride along level tracks or charge down a rocky descent is entirely up to you.

Many vacation resorts which focus on winter sports like skiing, especially in the USA and Europe, offer mountain biking packages during the summer months. If you’ve done a little mountain biking and you like it, you can probably sign up for a course at one of the major resorts around Tahoe or Aspen, or anywhere of comparable size.

Before you go you should make sure you have a reasonable level of fitness. Although you don’t have to be Superman or Wonderwoman to enjoy mountain biking, you need to be healthy and active. If you’re not sure, check with your doctor – something you should do anyway if you’re over forty and you’re not accustomed to long sessions of daily exercise.

If you’re a novice, your resort will almost certainly provide an instructor and a bike, plus protective clothing. If you’re simply be going to be riding trails, this will probably be no more than a helmet – which you should always wear, your skull being the only bone in your body you really can’t afford to break. If you’re a more advanced learner and you’re going to be in rough terrain or doing ‘technical’ downhill work, you may also be given various types of padding, most likely for your knees and elbows.

It’s important, too, that your bike is set up properly. If you’re going to be riding mixed terrain your guide will probably measure two different heights for your saddle, so it can be adjusted during your day. If you’re going over rough or bumpy ground you won’t spend much time in the saddle, and it can actually get in the way if you need to get off the bike in a hurry or stabilize yourself. So for conditions like that the saddle will be lowered out of harm’s way. For long sections on wide or level (ish) trail you’ll actually need the saddle to sit on, so it will be raised again. It’s important that it’s at the right height: too high, and you’ll ‘crunch’ your knee joints at the top of each pedal stroke; too low and you’ll be unstable and strain the muscles in the back of your legs. A good guide is that at the bottom of a pedal stroke your leg should be nearly straight but the knee shouldn’t be ‘locked’ – your guide will give you more advice.

Once you’re out on the trail, mountain biking is in some ways weirdly similar to skiing, in that what you do with your weight is very important. If you ride a bike regularly, you’ll know that most turns aren’t made by actually moving the handlebars very much, but by shifting your center of gravity. During the more extreme conditions of a mountain bike ride your weight becomes critical. For example, you can exert a good degree of traction control by shifting your weight backwards, so more of it lies over the rear wheel of your bike. This is good for controlling descents and digging yourself out of mud – but if you take it too far there won’t be enough force on your front wheel, and you come off the back of the bike. Likewise, a good way of getting yourself up short, steep humps is to throw yourself forward at the right moment, so that the combined momentum of the bike and your body help you clear the obstacle. Again, getting the balance right is everything: if you throw yourself too far forward you’ll lose control – if you’re not energetic enough you’ll find yourself grinding to an uncomfortable halt halfway up a steep slope, a situation in which it’s extremely hard to do anything, even get off the bike, without taking a fall.

Finally, don’t be afraid of falling. In places where you’re likely to come off the ground is usually quite forgiving – there’s far more ‘give’ in hard packed earth than there is in a concrete road surface. Be sensible, listen to your instructor’s advice and always, always, always wear your helmet and any other necessary safety gear. That way you’ll be able to enjoy the thrills, spills and beautiful scenery that a day’s mountain biking offers with peace of mind.

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