Q: I am looking to get more serious about my training and increase my fitness. What are your top-three suggestions to make the most out of each ride?

A: I think setting achievable goals is the most crucial first step. Too often I talk to riders who want to “win” every group ride or move from a Cat 5 to a Cat 2 in a few weeks. I’m not suggesting it’s not possible, but group rides aren’t races, and the category system in racing is to help riders transition up when they are ready, keeping everything safe.

In reality, training and building fitness come down to hard work, consistency and, the most overlooked aspect, recovery. A good coach can set you on the right path and help you build workouts and a schedule that fit
your needs. 

Without a doubt, intervals will be an essential part of a training plan, so using the lap button on your computer is key. I’m always amazed at the number of riders I speak to that have never used the lap button. It is an effortless and effective way of tracking efforts and time. It also makes it very easy to go back and analyze your workout.

My last tip would be to keep it fun. Remember to always leave room in your schedule for a social ride. For me, I also like mixing it up, even a ride in the dirt if I’ve been training on the road. They don’t always need to be easy or slow; sometimes, the best way to break up training blocks is to ride on the rivet with all your friends.

Q: I have been riding the road for my entire life and just got a gravel bike. I have been on a few rides with people from my usual road group, but descending on the dirt scares me. Do you have any tips for improving my confidence and skills?

A: When it comes to riding on dirt roads, singletrack and even just poorly maintained tarmac, your technique is vital. On the road, it is very easy to get away with the wrong techniques. I’m talking about braking, cornering, body position and sight line.

On the dirt, traction is highly reduced compared to riding on the road, even with a much larger tire footprint. Small mistakes in timing on any of the above aspects will lead to amplified consequences. From my experience, over-braking is the leading cause of most insecurities and the gateway to mistakes. 

Over-braking is a sign of someone not looking ahead or far enough ahead for their speed. Instead, they are reacting and unable to plan their line. This directly leads to lousy body position. When you are reacting and heavy on the brakes, you tend to be tense, and it’s an endless cycle of bad lines and so on.

Try to relax, slow the pace and look further down the road. Always look for lines that you can handle and have a good entry and exit. Remember that when cornering, you want to have the outside foot down or the pedals flat. Your weight should be through the hips and pedals, not the bars.

Ensure you are turning with your hips, not the bars. Counter steering is even more likely when things are loose. Don’t be scared of the front brake; it does most of the work and minimizes speed before entering a corner. You want to be off the brakes, free of tension, weight low and with maximum traction when you lean into a turn. If you still have too much speed in the corner, rely on the rear brake, but know it will break traction very easily.

All of these same tips and techniques will improve both paved and unpaved road riding. Focus on them when on a road ride, so they are second nature when things get overwhelming. Last, it may sound silly, but I can’t emphasize the importance of practicing how to do a proper bunny hop (front wheel before the rear wheel) and not an English hop (both tires simultaneously.) 

The hop doesn’t need to be big or high, but the ability to do so properly can pay huge dividends whether you’re rounding a dirt road corner at speed and come upon a deep rain rut, or when pedaling down the street and rolling into an obstacle or pothole. Being able to unweight the bike and get both wheels off the ground is an important just-in-case trick that every rider should know how to perform.

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