With so many coaches and instructors joining the ranks these days riders are getting flooded with skills information. Much of the information is good, some not so so good but often, even if it is good information it isn’t worth your time! Let me explain, if there was one skill that would improve your riding by 70% (at least) and ten skills that would each make you 1% better wouldn’t your time be better spent on the skill that will make you 70% or more better?
In an effort to be heard above all the noise coaches are picking apart skills and explaining a very complex piece of a more simple skill to sound like “pros”. The problem is, 99.5% of riders including 3 time World Champ Greg Minnaar will never get to the level where that little complex piece would matter. I will give you an example then explain what I call the “Hierarchy of MTB Skills”. My example is one piece of a skill that definitely works but even Greg Minnaar does not do.
When cornering always have your inside foot forward, in the direction of the turn (enter a left hand corner with left foot forward, enter a right hand corner with right foot forward). This was first taught to me by downhill racing legend Rob Sears, RIP. This foot placement does work well* so why do great racers like Greg Minnaar not use this technique? Because after experimenting with this technique Greg realized it takes up too much band width and he would often mess up on a more important piece of cornering such as getting his speed down to the correct entrance speed for the corner and/or looking through the corner. In other words, Greg Minnaar was losing over a second or more per corner on the hopes of gaining a few 10ths of a second on half the corners (he always rides with his left forward so this new technique would only help in in right hand turns as he already always has the correct foot forward for left turns). That is not a good pay off! (This did work for a Rob and one other racer I know but for most of us it is a big, time wasting challenge and not worth the effort. If it comes easily to you go for it!)
Do you want to impress your friends with interesting but relatively useless knowledge or be able to ride at your best? My goal has always been to ride at my best! Knowledge is worthless if you can’t easily and consistently put that knowledge to use. If the best racer in the world (whose job is riding/practicing/racing bikes) can’t master the technique what are the odds that someone with a full-time job and possibly a family will have the time to master that technique?
As your coach my goal is to get you riding at your best and that is what you are paying me for. Even though I have coached numerous national and world champions you probably don’t have the time they have to practice. My goal isn’t to show off all the technical knowledge I have after over twenty years of coaching. My goal is to teach you how to master the skills with the biggest benefit to you! With that in mind I have developed “The Hierarchy of MTB Skills”.
The hierarchy is designed to help you focus on what you currently need to improve. Within the hierarchy there is even a hierarchy for each piece of that skill. For instance all skills require proper vision techniques and proper body position. So they are number 1 and 2 in “The Hierarchy of MTB Skills”.
No matter what skill you are working on the first two pieces will be vision flowed closely by body position. If your vision is off and every other piece of the skill is perfect it will still be a terrible corner or switchback. However, if the vision is perfect and everything else is a bit off it will likely still be a good corner or switchback. If both your vision and body position are perfect and everything else is a bit off it will probably be a better corner than 99% of mountain bikers are making!
If you have taken a camp from me or know how humans learn physical skills like mountain biking (see this article for more on that: http://betterride.net/blog/2015/mtb-skills-actually-learn-experts-often-make-poor-coaches/ ) you know that physical learning requires deliberate practice. Deliberate practice usually involves drills and I recommend at least three twenty minute drill sessions a week if you really want to see improvement in your riding and have those improvements stick! Use the hierarchy to get the most out of your practice time.
Once you master a skill you must keep practicing it to stay sharp (old saying, “amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong”) by now you may be able to spend a little less time on that skill and more on the next skill down the hierarchy. Practicing just the two most important skills would be boring so spend sometime on all the skills but skew your time to get the biggest payback!
I know that you know that looking ahead on a mountain bike is important but I doubt you realize what a large percent of your riding time you aren’t doing it. The only way to fix that is to learn how to look at the trail and then train your eyes do that with vision drills. Watch the top downhill racers’ eyes, you will never see Aaron Gwin, Greg Minnaar or Rachel Atherton looking down, never! Now watch a video of you on a much less scary trail and I bet you will be surprised how often you are looking down.
I have quite a few friends who can manual (ride a wheelie downhill) for miles which is amazing to me! Yet they aren’t looking ahead all the time on trail, meaning I can corner, brake, ride off-camber roots, etc. better than they can. Don’t get me wrong, manualing for miles is cool and looks really fun, but doesn’t help you on the trail as much as vision
Don’t get frustrated, get motivated! Understand that if you master the top two skills on the hierarchy you are more than halfway to mastering every other skill. As for everything in life, the more you put into deliberate practice the more you will get out. Go practice! (using the drills I have taught you. As you know, telling yourself, “look ahead” doesn’t work! You must train your vision using drills.
Here is the Hierarchy of MTB Skills:
- Vision, always looking ahead correctly!A. Where you are lookingB. How you are looking
C. Training your vision/subconscious connection
2. Body position, always in balance, in control, relaxed, neutral and in an athletic stance
B. Weight placement
D. Arm/shoulder position
E. Foot placement on pedal
3. Balance, always in balance, balance can be trained*
A. Vision (huge affect on balance!)
B. Body position
C. Balance training
D. Pedal pressure
E. Slow speed balance
B. Descending body position
C. Foot and hand adjustments
A. Vision (looking through corner, 5-10 feet past exit if possible)
B. Descending body position
C. Braking, Get cutting speed braking done in straight line before starting corner
D. Line choice
E. Traction, correct body position for optimum traction
F. Foot placement (down or level), correct foot placement for goal (is your goal optimum traction in a loose corner or do have traction but want to accelerate by pumping the corner)
G. Forward foot towards turn direction (again, if you’re not perfect on everything above and/or if this makes you less perfect on anything above it is a complete waste of time)
6. Obstacles skills 1.0
B. Body position
C. Pedal Wheelie
D. Coasting Wheelie/Manual
E. Weight Shifts
B. Body Position (climbing and descending)
C. Entrance preparation (braking for downhill switchback, shifting catching breath for uphill)
D. Line choice and turn entry point
E. Uphill, power modulation. Downhill brake control
8. Obstacle skills 2.0
A. Drop offs (at all speeds)
B. Rear wheel lift
C. Bump jump
D. Bunny hop/J Hop
9. Riding Off-camber trails and roots
B. Body Position
D. Don’t brake!
10. Restarting on a hill
B. Body Position (climbing)
D. Vertical Bike
E. Clean wheel path
G. Pedal away (don’t push off with foot on ground)
H. The “second pedal”!
- *Why when cornering having your inside foot forward (enter a left hand corner with left foot forward, enter a right hand corner with right foot forward) can slightly improve your cornering. It is a balance and smoothness issue. You can put your trailing foot where it feels natural and balanced. You can slow go from level pedals to having the outside foot anywhere between 9 o’clock (level with front pedal) and 6 o’clock (straight down). Sometimes your outside foot will go slowly from 6 o’clock to 7:30 other times quickly from 6 to 9 and every combination in between. With the outside foot forward it usually only feels comfortable in either 3 o’clock or 6, everywhere else just feels awkward! This also provides a smooth transition from equal weight on both pedals to all on the outside pedal. For most of us a subtle difference, one day at the world cup level it might matter!