Ways to test your mountain biking skill and monitor progress in mtb skill

Recently, Gene (owner and founder of Betterride) and myself were discussing what are known as “Indicators” in sports outside of MTB. An example of an indicator is the following: in downhill ski racing, there are certain skills that an athlete must demonstrate, under certain conditions, in an allocated amount of time, in order to be perceived as proficient in this specific skill-set. If the athlete is able to adequately demonstrate these skills, under the prescribed conditions, it “indicates” that the athlete is competent with this skill-set. This often means that the athlete shows promise at the next level of competition, or perhaps will be shown consideration in being accepted for certain teams or training programs, etc. If the athlete can not accomplish the above, well, hopefully they get another chance to improve and get another shot, but ultimately, it “indicates” that the athlete is not ready for the next step.

Another fairly well-known example of indicators occurs in sports such as professional or collegiate football: times in the forty-yard sprint, amount and reps of weight lifted, times in agility drills … these are all indicators of an athlete’s probable performance at the next level. If an athlete’s numbers aren’t favorable, unfortunately, it will be extremely difficult for him to get to that next level.

In the following, I will introduce a few indicators to you that can be powerful tools to help improve your riding. The first example deals with skills that are probably beyond the reach of the average rider who hasn’t received proper instruction, the second two examples can probably be employed immediately. All are methods to measure our riding and show us where we may be riding well and also where we need improvement. OBVIOUSLY, I DON’T HAVE THE TIME OR SPACE, IN A FEW PARA GRAPHS, TO GO INTO FULL DETAIL ABOUT THE TECHNIQUE(S) OF THE ACTUAL SKILL-SETS (this would take, literally, about a day of on-the-bike instruction). What I wish to do is merely introduce some specific methods to gauge our riding.

Here is the first example of indicator related to MTB. This indicator is a “no-handed pedal-wheelie” DON”T WORRY – its not as difficult as it sounds. All of these techniques are comprised of basic, riding-fundametals, and are actually quite simple when broken down. But again, without proper instruction this “indicator” will not be possible to all but the most elite riders – so don’t get frustrated if you can’t immediately pull it off the next time you hop on your bike. (However, every single student I have ever taught came away from the class with the skills intact to either perform – or with a small amount of practice, perform – this technique. AND, many of these riders were true beginners with very little athletic ability gained from other sports while growing up.)

A “pedal-wheelie” is a technique where a rider, while carrying very little momentum (usually on a climb), must lift his or her front wheel over an obstacle, while maintaining – or even increasing – momentum (hence, the necessity to pedal while wheeling). Contrary to the beliefs of many riders, a proper, controlled, and efficient wheelie is not accomplished by simply yanking up on the handlebars. If the technique(s) for the pedal-wheelie are performed correctly, no pulling on the handlebars is necessary, and, thus, this wheelie can be accomplished without the use of the riders hands or arms, making this wheelie more efficient and keeping the rider in balance. This is an “Indicator” that the rider is proficient at the skills necessary to perform a correct pedal-wheelie.

Notice Gene is not gripping the bars, he not pulling with his arms.

As mentioned, the no-handed pedal-wheelie, as an indicator, takes some education and practice of the actual skill-set before it is really useful. The following, however, are two closely related indicators that you can play around with on your next ride.

These techniques deal with maintaining proper body position while descending on your bike (i.e: a decent amount of speed over varied terrain – technical descending). The first indicator focuses on our hips. This area is the center of mass of our bodies. “We” don’t go anywhere without our hips, and, “we” go in any direction that our hips are going. This is fundamental to any athletic endeavor, in any sport, involving the human body. So it makes sense that we better pay close attention to any movement, forces, etc, that this area of the body encounters or is subjected to. Simply put, if we could view an imaginary line that our hips would create as we descend a technical section of trail, that line needs to be as smooth and as straight as possible. As I encourage all my students to do, jump on the ol’ internet and watch some of the top bike handlers in the world, World Cup-level downhill racers, negotiate some of the nastiest terrain a person could ever ride a bicycle down – look at that imaginary line that the rider’s hips create – while the bicycle itself may be violently bouncing up and down and side to side, and subsequently, the rider’s legs and arms are doing the same (maintaining contact with the bike) I guarantee that if that rider is riding under control, the line that the rider’s hips create will be incredibly smooth and consistent.

We need to ride our MTB’s smoothly, efficiently, in balance, and under control whether we’re trying to win a World Championship, whether we’re trying to keep up with our buddies on the weekend ride, or whether we’re simply trying to avoid falling down … and if our hips – our center of mass – is bouncing all over the place, this is impossible. If our center of mass is bouncing all over the place, we will effectively be fighting the trail, fighting our bike, and fighting our bodies to get things under control and be able to maintain balance – the very opposite of smoothness and in-control.

The next indicator involves our head. Obviously, a lot of important things happen in the head! Vision (sort of complex and almost un-arguably the most important aspect of riding a MTB), our balance (inner ears), our thought processes … and, similar to our hips, our head is a big chunk of mass carrying momentum down the hill but with a much higher center of gravity. In between – connecting – our head and our hips is our torso, also a large portion of our body’s mass.

This indicator involves an imaginary glass of water sitting on top of your helmet. Not only do I not want to spill the glass of water, but I want it to remain still, without a ripple. Again, look to the top riders in the world, and look at that imaginary glass of H2O. It is very possible to keep that water nice and calm, even in the most gnarly conditions imaginable, and these great riders are evidence of this.

Spilling the imaginary H2O glass is obviously bad news, but even a slight jiggle is enough to put us temporarily out of control. If our head is bouncing around, our ability to correctly use our vision is severely diminished, and our balance is out of commission – we’re basically along for the ride, ballistic – until we can regain our proper position on the bike. Take a second and go ahead and give your head a very brief and slight, but pretty violent shake – just as you’d experience on the trail. As stated, you’ll feel your use of vision and balance become nearly non-existent; you’ll feel tension in your body, this tension results in rigidity (the opposite of looseness and suppleness – what we need in order to maintain balance); you’ll feel fear, which in turn produces more tension … see where this is going? And that was a very brief jiggle of your noggin. Also, from the start of the “jiggle” until the end of it, and then until your senses straightened themselves out and you regained control and proper riding position, took what? Half a second, minimum? A second and a half? That may as well be an eternity out on the trail, and if this takes place at the wrong time … bad things.

Did you notice Ross’s hips and head were still while his arms and legs did all the work? He smoothed out a rough descent!

I feel that because of the above reasons, the “imaginary glass of water” is one of the most useful indicators that we can use when it comes to gauging our riding position. It is also fairly easy to monitor, as you instantly can feel the effects of improper body position as that glass of H2O is spilling, and often you can actually see you helmet jiggle around – even slightly – if you’re riding incorrectly.

So now you have two “indicators” to work with in your riding, one at each end of your torso – which contains the majority of your body’s mass and, thus, the majority of your momentum (this is very important – see my last post, on this website that deals with momentum). While the techniques required to become proficient at the related skill-sets are by no means easy to learn, once again, they are simple and basic movements consistent with all athletics concerning the human body.

While none of us ride perfect all the time, these indicators are powerful tools to help us monitor extremely important areas of our bodies in regards to effectively riding the bike.

Have Fun! Learn to ride at your best, take a camp!


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8 replies
  1. Rey Cruz says:

    while i may not get a chance to attend a clinic soon, I can’t tell you how helpful this information is all the time! whether to relearn, refresh or just repeat I always look forward to these!

    • Gene says:

      Hi Rey,

      Glad to hear you are enjoying my blog posts. Sorry to hear you can’t make a camp soon. Keep riding and having fun!



  2. Michael says:

    this is great stuff!

    what are the skills necessary for a pedal-wheelie that are possesed by a rider that has demonstrated the ability to perform a no-handed pedal-wheelie?

    i’m not sure what the action is for the other two indicators. is it to ride keeping our core smooth, pointed in the direction we want to go and our weight centered over the pedals all while the bike follows the terrain?

  3. Gene says:

    Hi Michael,

    Glad you like these video competencies. I think one of us is a little confused. The goal of this video is to show what mastery is. If you can do a no handed pedal wheelie you are doing it quite well. If you can’t do a no handed pedal wheelie you are don’t have the skill wired and need to work on your technique (which we spend about 1/2 an hour on in our camps). As you can imagine, teaching someone who has had no formal core skills coaching over the internet isn’t very effective. Can you imagine a ski racer saying, “yeah I watched this video and now I am winning world cups!”.

    • Gene says:

      Hi Terry,

      We did a Miami camp back in early Feb. and we should be back in the late fall/winter. Right now the rest of the country is warming up and we can’t keep up with the demand!

  4. Michael says:

    It’s probably me that’s confused since you provided the article.

    I realize that videos and web commentary are in no way comparable to hands on instruction. A stay at a Holiday Inn Express is another matter. I would love to attend one of your camps, but timing and location haven’t come together yet. I considered the Pittsburgh in June but can’t due to other commitments.

    My question was poorly worded. I was wondering what the no handed pedal wheelie was indicative of, or is it just an indicator of the ability to perform a pedal wheelie properly (not trying to rip the bars off the stem). The indicator is like a test, if I cant pass the test, I clearly don’t have the skills I should and need to work on them.

    Identifying the test is easy for the no-handed pedal wheelie, but i couldn’t figure what tests to apply to determine if I was falling short for the other two.


    • Gene says:

      Hi Michael,

      Yes, if you can do a no handed pedal wheelie, you have mastered the pedal wheelie, if you can’t there is a flaw in your technique.

      The tests for the other two are:

      1. Your hips, find a rough trail and descend the trail paying attention to your hips. Are they taking a smooth, straight line down the hill or bouncing around a bit? If you hips seem to be not moving, just going straight you are riding well, if you hip are moving up and down or side to side you are not being as smooth as you could be (and are not completely in control and wasting a lot of energy).

      2. “It is also fairly easy to monitor, as you instantly can feel the effects of improper body position as that glass of H2O is spilling, and often you can actually see you helmet jiggle around – even slightly – if you’re riding incorrectly.” or if you get what I call “eyeball jiggle”. If you head is still as you descent a bumpy trail you are in good body position.

      Both of these can be better monitored with a video camera.


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