When I was 9, I spent every single day riding my dirtbike in the hills north of Los Angeles with all my delinquent buddies. Rain or shine, light or dark, we burned so much premix I’m pretty sure they will find traces of Golden Spectro two-cycle oil in my tissue if they ever do an autopsy on me.
But these days, I just don’t get seat time like I used to. Yes, I was a motor cop and rode with my buddies every day, but that was different because it was merely the platform for a host of other responsibilities: traffic enforcement, collision investigation, emergency patrol support, and so on. It lacked that element of exploration, freedom, and discovery you get when there are no strings attached.
And the worst thing? When I finally do get time to hit the track, tackle some challenging single-track, or sign up for a local club race, I have these painful moments of reckoning that my skills are nowhere near their peak. So there I am trying to enjoy an experience muddled by a crappier version of myself. I try to maintain a glass-half-full mentality, but I swear every time I take my eyes off that damn glass, it loses a little more water.
But I’ve been doing some proactive things around the house to slow the leak, and trust me, they’re helping. What types of things? I’ll give you a hint, they all revolve around one primary goal: improving my balance. I agree it’s a bit obvious and I probably won’t be doing a TED Talk on the subject, but without spinning a single lap, balance drills vastly improve my core strength, reaction time, breathing, on-bike focus, and indeed, my generally souring self-image. They can do the same for you.
What tools do I use for the job? I just finished my morning self-affirmation ritual, so now I can set my mirror down and go over them with you. They’re listed below, from easier and more accessible exercises to those that are more challenging and require some investment. A word of caution: While these exercises will surely improve measurable performance metrics and enhance your overall riding abilities despite less actual time in the saddle, they can also get you hurt. If, like me, you’re of a certain age, bones are easier to break, and muscles can get pulled just doing the dishes. If you question your ability to perform one of the activities listed below, err on the side of caution and skip it.
Spin Training: Crazy as it seems, all those wasted hours you spend spinning around in your office chair might just pay dividends. Here’s why: Spinning around in a circle increases your inner-ear activity, which, in turn, improves the information your inner ear feeds to your cerebellum. And it’s the cerebellum that controls movement, so better information (in the form of a more active inner ear) will improve your overall motor skills. To reap the benefits, you will need a swivel chair. The goal is to slowly increase your spin speed and number of spins over time. Start slowly and keep your eyes open. As you gain comfort, try it with your eyes closed for greater challenge and benefit. The good news here is that even if your riding skills don’t improve, at least you can feel like you’re doing something productive at work.
Balance Board: Using a balance board in the comfort of my living room and office has noticeably improved my balance, coordination, motor skills, and leg strength. And guess what? It all translates when I swing a leg over my bike. Instead of hunting for a used board on Craigslist, I recommend going with a new unit from a trusted manufacturer due to some boards being of questionable structural integrity. Mine is a Vew-Do El Dorado ($169.95 at VewDo.com), which is strong as hell and American-made.
There are plenty of YouTube videos to help get you started, but make sure you practice by holding on to a solid surface as you gain confidence and ability.
Slackline: More than any other tool, the slackline has been the best at improving my body control and breathing while I ride. If this is the only tool you employ, I feel confident in saying you will go from a midpack guy in your riding group to crushing all your buddies, including “Big Ronny,” the resident fast guy who still brags about his 10% racer discount back when he won a local Novice race. A slackline is a taut line tethered between two points, running a few feet off the ground and spanning 15-28 feet in length, or the approximate length of the sun-bleached jet boat in your neighbor’s yard.
It’s fairly intuitive, but again, there are plenty of YouTube videos out there should you need coaching. As for recommended brand and setup, Amazon is your friend – you’ll find a variety of indoor and outdoor versions. Mine is just a long ratchet strap I got from a local hardware store and tied between two trees in the yard.
Unicycle: I get it. They look impossible to learn, and more importantly, you can’t imagine ever becoming one of “those people.” Get over it and pick one up on Craigslist for cheap. A 20- to 24-inch wheel will do fine, and you can watch some YouTube videos to learn. Within a few weeks, you will have balance like you’ve never had in your life, and trust me, it translates. Too old you say? I have buddies in their 70s that I bullied into riding unicycles, so borrow my mirror, hold it in front of your face, and repeat after me: “Yes, I can.”
I don’t want you to start feeling overwhelmed with any of this information, like I just dropped loads more work for you to do. We are having this discussion because both of us have less time to ride, so think of these tools as supplements. Any amount of effort on your end will pay dividends on the bike, so remain calm and bite off a little bit as you go. If it helps, I’ll even let you keep my mirror.