The Dirt is also for Skirts

By Sara Harris

(Title inspired by Angelika Whittaker - Founder of the Dirt Skirts MTB - the first all Ladies Mountain Bike group in the UAE).

I have owned a bike since 1999. I started with a hybrid and did urban trails through Barcelona and out in the Spanish countryside.  I took the bike to the Caribbean where it was  unfortunately stolen from the dive shop and when I moved back to the city (Dubai), I bought a Trek hard tail.

I learned basic off-road biking techniques by cycling across the hard bits of Jumeirah beach, tackling kerbs (which in turn tackled me on occasion) and doing small jumps over uneven paving. Small stuff, small steps.

I bought a road bike in 2010 and a couple of years later after vast amounts of road cycling, I decided to dust off the Trek and take to Showka in the Hajjar Mountains (UAE) and attempt some trails.  I found it immensely difficult on the stony areas, and frustratingly seemed to come off the bike every 30 minutes. After about 4 or 5 rides and several bumps I decided it was time to invest in a full suspension bike and do things properly.

I bought a GT Force full-suspension bike.  My credit card hated me but my world opened, I could now ride over the cobbled wadis without my heart in my mouth and the bike just heightened my confidence and riding pleasure.  So much so, that I became too confident and spilled over the handle bars  into a ditch and shattered my hand and wrist.  I was not totally"unconscious competent" and learned a painful lesson.

A year later, after two operations, I was back on the bike, somewhat gingerly.  The psychological side of looking down dry ravines and ditches and trying to put that head over heels spin out in the back of my mind was slightly testing.

Now, into the hot UAE summers we have decided to continue mountain biking on weekends in addition to road cycling, as part of additional and varied training.

Here’s why mountain biking is beneficial for any road cyclist:

  • Confidence in bike handling
    • If you can handle a mountain bike up and down goat trails your awareness increases and so does your ability to handle a bike through sticky corners and unexpected obstacles.
    • Your margins are less than on the road so you learn to be more efficient. Reaction times are quickened as mountain biking terrain often presents the unexpected, even if you have ridden the same trails before. Note:  I have not come off since my accident, touch wood! 
  • Interval training
    • Generally you will use a lot of effort to ride up the slopes and once you reach the top there is normally a period of flat terrain or a slope downwards. Your legs and lungs work hard to the top and then recover for a few minutes before you attempt the next portion or as you return through the same route.
    • The short and steep climbs are quite intense and these can emulate sprints and intervals that you might do on your road bike.
  • Pushing your limits
    • A mountain bike must be allowed to perform – that’s what it’s designed to do! You can push the limit on a mountain bike and if your back wheel spins out you can reel it with all those handling skills you have learnt or even bail out – there are no oncoming cars to harm you.
    • You will learn to shift your weight on downward slopes and also how to absorb rocky or bumpy routes. The wider tyres help you to push the capability of the bike and you in turn will learn to go with the flow of your bike. Don’t fight it!
    • Remember that speed is generally your friend. You can pedal out of most tricky situations, it’s when you slower the pace that you will generally topple over.

Mountain biking is not really “cross-training” per say, as you use similar muscles for cycling, however the intensity of the use of those muscles is far greater in the short spurts and it is also argued that different muscle groups are used.

If you are training for a triathlon you may be more interested in cross training with swimming and running, however the gains on fitness and bike handling skills from mountain biking are 10-fold.  And it is fun in the great outdoors! And cooler too!

I recently read an article where Czech bike manufacturer Superior said that “female cyclists ‘do not generally need to push their limits’ and that they ‘just want to enjoy the time spent in nature’ when they ride downhill trails.”

Ladies please ignore that 15th century mentality and dispel that absolute myth.  Look at the long list of female downhill racers, mountain bikers and cyclocross champions and put your fears away.

The UAE sports a very large group of female mountain bikers who hit the trails almost every weekend.  It is a growing passion and I know many ladies who would prefer to pull on the baggy shorts over the weekend and take off to the mountains instead of riding on the flats with smooth tyres.

If you’d like to give mountain biking a go, please drop me a PM and also check out the Facebook page of the Dirt Skirts, run by Angelika Whittaker.

MTB websites

Dirt Skirts FB page


Sara Harris

Sara Harris is a triathlete,scuba diving and free diving instructor, and owner of Swim Bike Run Rinse.Repeat Swim Bike Run is a new project aimed at specific training, improvement, events and nutrition for triathletes, whether experienced or beginners. Opening early 2016 in Dubai.