When your day job requires you to hit death-defying speeds of up to 215 mph from behind the wheel, then flying down a mountain from the back of a saddle at 25 mph is kind of no big deal. In fact, NASCAR’s Ty Dillon finds it peaceful to pedal hard when he’s not driving fast. It’s crucial for him to find these zen moments to keep calm and in control when it counts.
This month, the 24-year-old North Carolina native, who has been racing in the elite circuit for six years, moves up to the big leagues. Dillon kicks off his first full-time season in the prestigious Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (basically, the NFL of race car driving), starting February 18, 2017. And it’s no secret that mountain biking about 18 times a month is part of his training regimen.
“Mountain biking is something I do in-season to keep my cardio up and stay fit,” says Dillon, who even takes his 29er Scott Spark with him when traveling for competition. “I’ve never been the kind of guy who likes to be in the gym, looking at the mirror. If I’m going to work out, I want to be outside and enjoying it. It’s also a cool way to clear my mind.”
“When we head west to race in Nevada, Arizona, Montana and California, we take our bikes. They’ll travel in the 18-wheeler with our cars across the country — and we’ll go on rides in between events. It’s amazing biking out there. Getting outdoors and in the woods has always been a big part of my life,” says the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet driver.
Dirt racing at high velocities in go-carts since age 13, Dillon is no stranger to off-road conditions. He also loved motocross as a kid, which he did every day after school until he broke his leg while riding. Three years ago, when friends invited him to mountain bike, it wasn’t a hard sell. He had long been interested in the sport and just needed a nudge.
“I had some friends who did a lot of mountain biking, and they loved it,” Dillon says. “I got into that with them to get that motocross feeling that I missed and to stay in shape.” It helps that he’s surrounded by extraordinary mountain biking trails in North Carolina — a mecca for fat tires, especially around Asheville.
“I leave the shop around 4 p.m. and can get an hour to an hour-and-a-half-long ride in. I’ll can go about 12–18 miles a day on a mountain bike, which is pretty solid,” says Dillon, who spends about 10 hours in the driver’s seat when on the clock. On weekends, Dillon will go longer (20+ miles), riding with NASCAR friends Ryan Isabell (an engineer) and Harley Rauch (a mechanic) and occasionally his wife, Haley, who’s just getting into it.
Though you might have Dillon pegged for loving the speedy downhills, he claims to most appreciate a slow and steady climb. “Everyone loves downhills, obviously,” he says. “But I think you learn how to become a better rider when you’re going uphill. You learn how to pick your path whether it has roots or is rocky. When you’re done with the climb, you get that downhill as a reward.”
How does biking compare with driving? “When you’re climbing, you have to really work hard on a bike,” Dillon says. “Those are the tough parts when your heart is beating and your body is wearing down. There’s a lot of that in racing where you have a long run or restarts, which are very intense. You really have to be focused and use all your energy. Cautions [in racing] are like downhills, letting you catch your breath and get ready for the next hill or restart.”
The fear factor in both sports is similar, too. “You get that adrenaline rush when you’re biking fast downhill, squeezing between trees and hitting turns pretty fast,” he says. “You have a couple of close calls. But biking downhill is not nearly as big of a rush as going 200 mph in a race car. With both sports, you need to become one with your vehicle because when you have to move without thinking about it. However you move, your bike and car will follow.”
Though Dillon gets a kick out of the heart-pumping action from each sport, he finds mountain biking the more meditative practice of the two. “I don’t bike on a professional level. I do it for cardio and fun. So when I go out on my bike, it’s time for me to ease my mind of everything that’s going on in my profession of racing. It’s a way for me to enjoy some open air and free time.”