Road to Trail: Speed, Skills and Bikes
Doing this in the company of experienced cyclists has given me a different perspective than riding in similar terrain alone. The biggest difference is that they go fast, whereas on my own I used to see cycling off road as something to be done cautiously and slowly. Now I am noticing that going fast can actually make things easier. Riding on rock-strewn dirt and gravel requires more effort and lower gearing than riding on pavement, particularly when going uphill. Ride too slowly, and the bike can get bogged down. But maintain speed, and the momentum "carries" the bike through sections that might otherwise seem difficult or scary. It's counterintuitive for a beginner, because the natural inclination is to slow down if the terrain gets challenging. And this is where riding with a group is helpful: following their pace means quickly learning the "faster is easier" lesson through experience. Of course part of it is also psychological. When I am focused on trying to keep up with the group, I don't really have the opportunity to worry about every single ditch and rock and root formation - my instincts kick in and somehow I end up riding through sections I would have considered too challenging if given a chance to think.
As far as skills, I am finding once again (as I did with roadcycling earlier) that I improve quickly with others and very slowly, if at all, on my own. I've ridden on dirt trails before, but now I feel that all those rides taken together did nothing for me compared to the single stretch of off-road I did as part of a ride last weekend. It wasn't a long section, but it had a bit of everything that terrifies me: ditches, rocks, mud, a bit of climbing and descending, even a tad of residual snow and ice. We rode through it quickly, and afterward I suddenly felt like I "got it," whereas on all of my slow and cautious lone rides previously I wasn't really getting it at all.
It seems to me that a good bike for transitioning from road to trails and back needs to be fast, light, responsive, and ideally to have wide tires. Last year I would probably have started with "wide tires" and listed everything else as optional, but recent experience makes me reconsider. I have found it easier to "push" a faster, lighter bike through dirt, especially uphill, than a slower and heavier one. And I have found it easier to avoid obstacles on a quick-responding bike than on a stable but sluggish one. And while wide tires would make things better still, it seems to me that those other factors are crucial.
My impression is that for a while there was a tendency in the bicycle industry to associate wide tires with more relaxed, heavier and slower touring-style bikes - the reasoning being that if you want wide tires, you probably do not need to go fast. Therefore, it was difficult to find bicycles that both had clearance for tires over 25mm and were sufficiently fast and aggressive. That began to change with the rising popularity of cyclocross, and with people like Jan Heine reviving interest in the classic randonneuring bicycle. Races and other competitive events with both road and dirt sections have become more mainstream over the past several years as well. I am not sure whether in the long run any of this will be relevant to me, but it is an interesting development. More builders and manufacturers are starting to specialise in fast road-to-trail bikes, and locally this type of riding seems to be all the rage. Whether I have what it takes to take part in it remains to be determined.