Fermat's Enigma jacket

Dirt! The Philosophy, Technique, and Practice of Mountain Biking, by John Howard (The Lyons Press)

John Howard has done for mountain biking what Jim Fixx did for running: written a single-volume point of departure that, in one fast, easy read, provides an overview of a nascent sport brimming not only with information but inspiration. Dare to open Dirt! to the first page and you'll be hard pressed to resist hitting the trails the same day.

There are few sports experiencing the explosive growth of mountain biking, and few as misunderstood by the non-participating public. While it is true that some mountain bikers missing the self-preservation gene monopolize television time by indulging their psychoses in stunts of escalating danger, the real truth is that mountain biking is an activity that, like skiing, swimming or volleyball, can be enjoyed on virtually any level by everyone from the most committed sofa spud to the highest-ranked elite athlete. And you don't need a "mountain" to do it, either, as Dirt! clearly demonstrates.

The sport couldn't have picked a better spokesman: Howard (The Incredible Human Machine) is one of the most accomplished and versatile cyclists in the world. Three-time Olympian and an Ironman champion, he held the world record for speed on a bicycle (an astonishing 152 miles per hour) for years before he helped someone else to break it. That kind of gracious sportsmanship comes through in Dirt! It's a clarion call to others to discover the exhilaration of leaving asphalt behind, and if there's one overarching theme that runs throughout, it's Howard's fervent desire to draw others into a sport he knows will bring immense personal rewards.

This well-illustrated book is full of wonderful advice for everyone from the rank beginner (practice your technical skills before a ride, when you're fresh, not afterwards, when you're tired) to the experienced competitor (spray Pam all over your bike before a muddy ride and you'll avoid pounds of clinging mud weighing you down). There is also a good deal of attention paid to the mental aspects of riding, which thankfully avoids the "be one with your derailleurs" school of spiritual hokum and presents instead Howard's hard-won wisdom concerning mindset and attitude.

There are chapters covering such topics as maintenance, stretching, weight training and jumping technique, but one of the most fascinating is "Surviving the Crash." Howard is the man who first uttered one of cycling's most basic axioms, that there are two kinds of cyclists: those who have crashed, and those who will. This chapter is one that should be read by anyone who ever mounts any kind of bike, and alone is worth the price of the book.

While Dirt! could benefit from some tighter proofing and a few additional definitions for pure neophytes – terms such as scrub, drifting and "foot dab" are largely understandable from context, but a bit more depth might aid in really comprehending their significance – these are minor carps and undoubtedly will be attended to in the many future editions that are sure to come. The book is short at 180 pages but that's because Howard cuts to the chase without wasting a lot of your time with superfluous verbiage.

Now that I think about it, he seems to be saying, "Enough reading…get out and ride!"

                                                                 - lee gruenfeld


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