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I want to mix up my 2012 racing schedule. How easy is it to make the leap to Xterra?
Off-road triathlon is to road racing what monster trucks are to Formula 1. Both require a big engine and lots of skill, but they are very different races. Aerodynamics and pure speed don’t count in off-road triathlon; handling skills, power and strength-to-weight ratio are what will make or break you on a mountain bike course. Xterra favors strong, technically proficient cyclists since the format is heavily weighted toward the bike. The difficulty of each course ranges from relatively smooth fire roads to steep, rocky single-track where even the most technically proficient athletes will dismount and “hike-a-bike” at times. No matter how fit, rookie mountain bikers often find they lose a significant amount of time navigating through the tricky sections. Trail running is also a different breed of running, requiring strength, agility and sturdy ankles rather than pure speed and high turnover.
In other words: Yes, you should definitely try an off-road race! Don’t let the courses scare you—the scene at Xterra is all about fun. Off-road is more about getting dirty and having fun, rather than comparing splits and downloading wattage files. This isn’t to say that Xterra athletes don’t take their events seriously; many top pros have crossed over from successful mountain bike or Olympic triathlon careers. The races are fast and competitive, but with the more laid-back attitude of the mountain bike scene rather than the Type-A intensity of Ironman racing. The world championship in Maui, held two weeks after the Hawaii Ironman, has only 600 competitors. Therein lies the appeal of Xterra for the uninitiated: Its more intimate, friendly nature makes it accessible to all and instantly welcoming.
Personally, I felt so welcome that I decided to make my Xterra debut in Maui in 2010. I bought a mountain bike only three weeks beforehand. My ignorance was only encouraged when I asked my friend, Melanie McQuaid, what she thought about me attempting Maui. “Sure you can do Maui—that race is basically a road course with some dirt on it,” she said. A three-time Xterra world champion, Mel’s perception of “technical” might have been a little skewed. My posing was quickly exposed at mile 2: It seems that wildly shifting while grinding up steep climbs is a recipe for a broken chain.
My second Xterra experience was a large improvement; I had actually ridden my mountain bike over the summer and entered Xterra McCall in Idaho on a whim. After the brutal, 7-mile, uphill section that seems to be the trademark of Xterra bike courses, we were faced with “the Rock Garden,” a couple of miles of single-track through a field of large boulders and loose rocks. Needless to say, I hiked (a lot) and my early lead was short-lived, but the race was a blast.
Xterra is tough and challenging and totally exhilarating; it is a chance to get out of your comfort zone and try something completely different. Adding new stimuli throughout the season helps avoid monotony and burnout while providing a fun, new dynamic to the usual swim/bike/run. Mountain biking and trail running add some serious strength workouts to a road-focused training program. Plus, many Xterra races are held in breathtaking locations (think Maui, Vail, Whistler).
If Xterra seems a little intimidating at first, just remember that it’s still a triathlon. Off-road racing still comes down to swimming, biking and running—it’s just that the road is going to have a little dirt on it.