Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Just after Allison Jones returned from the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, she decided to try something new, just for fun.
Jones already was an elite, two-sport Paralympic athlete, having just won a silver medal in the road cycling time trial to go with gold and silver medals in alpine skiing at the Winter Games of 2002 and 2006. But she’d never tried mountain biking, and there she was living at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, one of the world’s prime trail-riding locales.
So she asked a good friend, the equipment manager for USA Cycling, if she could borrow a mountain bike. He obliged with one that had been through the wars. It had some scars but was fine for her purposes.
The next thing she knew, she was in love.
“From that point on for a while, it was about borrowing bikes and getting out with friends,” she said. “We were just going out and having fun.”
A lot has happened since. Jones, 33, is now an eight-time Paralympian who has won eight combined medals in cycling and skiing. In 2012, she became just the second American woman to earn gold medals in both the summer and winter Paralympics, and she remains a force in road and track cycling. She retired from competitive skiing after the 2014 Games in Sochi.
However, one thing that’s been a constant ever since that late summer and fall of 2008 has been her devotion to mountain biking after her road and track cycling season.
It’s a time when she can put aside the pressures of competition for a while and just ride for pure pleasure while still getting terrific exercise. Plus, the different nature of mountain biking — rugged terrain and steep up-and-down trails — has made her an even better road and track cyclist, she believes.
Jones still lives in Colorado Springs, though not at the training center. She and her wife and dogs have a home near Palmer Park, a sprawling piece of Colorado wild in the heart of the city sprawl, filled with trails for hiking and mountain biking. In her offseason, Jones rides all over the park almost daily. She can enjoy the scenery, switch off her mind and push herself hard. She sees friends, often rides with her wife and at times takes her dogs, too.
By getting out of the velodrome and off the roads, she said she stays fresh and is then eager to get back to regular training. It’s also enhanced a skill.
“It’s really good for what I call the punch,” she said.
That’s the ability to respond quickly and powerfully in road cycling when she feels her competitors surge. Because she’s dipping and diving on undulating, single-track trails, she has to use powerful bursts of pedaling to charge up grades, including some that are long. That’s increased her strength and ability to accelerate quickly.
“You’re able to punch really hard, ride above your threshold for an extended period of time,” she said.
Her coach even prescribes workouts for her on the mountain bike that will translate to her other disciplines, advocating for her to push hard through 10-minute trail climbs.
The other benefit, she said, it that her own special mountain bike season provides a break that keeps her enthusiastic for her next competitive cycling season.
“It’s relaxing,” she said. “If you do the same repetitive thing every day in and out, you actually can go backwards physiologically because you’re bored, you’re mentally not challenged anymore. Being able to mountain bike, you change the stimulus up and you can find that reason why you’re riding.”
Even if she “suffers through” a tough mountain workout, she’s enjoying the views and loving being outside.
“Palmer Park is five minutes from my house,” she said. “I can ride there, get on the trails, ride trails for an hour and then come home, no problem. Where I work is another 10-minute ride, if that, to another park that’s got dozens of mountain biking trails. And we’re surrounded by mountain biking here in Colorado Springs, as well as great road rides.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.