Fear is Good

MTB Skills Practice, Make Best Use of Your Time (Hierarchy of MTB Skills)

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:

  1. 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

A. Vision

B. Weight placement

C. Hinge

D. Arm/shoulder position

E. Foot placement on pedal

F. Dynamism


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

F. Trackstands


4. Braking

A. Vision

B. Descending body position

C. Foot and hand adjustments

D. Bracing


5. Cornering

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

A. Vision

B. Body position

C. Pedal Wheelie

D. Coasting Wheelie/Manual

E. Weight Shifts


7. Switchbacks

A. Vision

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

E. Jumping


9. Riding Off-camber trails and roots

A. Vision

B. Body Position

C. Balance

D. Don’t brake!


10. Restarting on a hill

A. Vision

B. Body Position (climbing)

C. Seated

D. Vertical Bike

E. Clean wheel path

F. Gearing

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!

The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given. (How we actually “break” bad habits and create perfect ones)

The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given. (How we actually “break” bad habits and create perfect ones)

As you may know I am obsessed with learning and teaching. How do we learn? What is the best way to learn a new skill? How can I best coach this skill? How can improve on my methods? These questions are constantly running through my head which is what makes coaching such a great passion for me. Well about 5 months ago I hit the Jackpot!

I have learned some truly amazing information on learning and mastering skill. Two books in particular have really opened my eyes, Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster by Ernest Dras and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. The first book is written by a renowned tennis coach about golf and the second explains the science of learning backing up (and then some) the first with the science behind why slow practice and “deep” practice work so well. If you are fascinated by learning and have always wondered how some people go on to be great at something while others seem to try hard but not get to the top these book are both great reads and I highly recommend them. If you are more a “cliff notes” type scholar I will give you some of my biggest takeaways from the books.

What both of these books explain is Slow, “Deep” or “Deliberate” practice is the best and fastest way to master anything, whether it is playing an instrument, mastering a martial art or becoming a better mountain biker.

Why slow, deep practice? Turns out we don’t fix or change bad habits, we need to produce brand new perfect habits. In layman’s terms a skill (such as doing a wheelie) is a series of impulses transmitted through a wire from your brain to all the muscles and nerves the skill requires. When we first do a skill we put the wire in place but it takes perfect repetition of that skill to make the wire work better. The “wire” starts out with no insulation (imagine a bare wire with no rubber coating under the hood of your car) so it shorts out easily and doesn’t always fire correctly. We build that insulation (called the Myelin Sheath) best through slow, deliberate practice.

BR Coach Gene Hamilton explaining cornering body position

How does this effect you and your mountain bike riding? If you are like me and all of my students so far, when you first started riding your either had no instruction or improper instruction and started doing somethings incorrectly (which for me meant, getting my weight back on descents, riding to upright with straight arms, braking in corners, etc. a ton of bad habits). Unfortunately the Myelin Sheath doesn’t know what is correct or not so the more you ride incorrectly the more you build up that insulation around that wire. Which means the more and more powerful that bad habit becomes. Then you read a “tip” on how to ride better (like in my mini-course) and now you know you should ride with your weight on the pedals instead of getting your weight back. You then practice this by coasting down your driveway with all of your weight on your pedals. Congratulations, you have just created a new, perfect habit! Don’t get too excited yet though, that habit or “wire” isn’t insulated to well so it doesn’t always fire correctly. You are committed to change though so you practice it five times a day for a week. Now the Myelin Sheath has gotten thicker and the wire works better but, the old wire has 8 years of Myelin Sheath building around it so the old habit still takes over when you aren’t focused on the new habit and when ever the least bit of fear creeps into you.

How do you build up enough insulation on the wire for the new, perfect habit take over the old habit? Slow, deliberate practice. What the heck is slow deliberate (or “deep”) practice? Slow, deliberate practice is working on one movement or short combinations of movements slower than you normally would do them. The best musicians learn songs much better and faster by taking 20 minutes to play a three minute song! They are focused on the tiniest of movements and the sounds they produce sound more like elephants in pain than music (my favorite quote from The Talent Code is from a music professor who says, “if a passerby can recognize the melody you are playing it too fast”).

Coach Gene Demonstrating how to practice deeply.

You may be saying, “What does this mean to me? I ride bikes!” Well for you it means we need to first learn the correct, in balance and in control techniques and then practice them at a very slow pace with an eye on perfection and stopping and correcting our mistakes. You are fooling yourself if you think riding a bike will make you better at it (maybe a hair more comfortable as you get used to your bad habits but not better).

Students doing "deep" practice while Gene coaches

If you want to reach your personal best as quickly as possible, slow down and practice deliberately!

Mountain Bike Trail Building Passion!

By BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky

So its not quite too late for New Year’s Resolutions … and here’s one for anybody that rides a bike on dirt: get out there and get your hands dirty with a few days of trail maintenance this season.

Little story: I just got back from Miami, Florida and was blown away by the quality of the riding and the vibrant MTB scene in the area.  What?  Great mountain-bike riding in South Florida?  If you find yourself with a response similar to this, you’re not alone.  I tell my riding buddies here in Colorado the same bit and they think I’m joking, and previous to my recent journey to F-L-A, I would have thought the same.

So how do you get great riding out of a place that is a flat, sandy, swampy, bug-infested jungle?  Simple (or not), you build it!  There is one reason that the trail systems that I rode were in existence and a blast to ride: a massive amount of trail work.

Anyone that has a bit of trail building experience understands that you can’t blindly hack a trail out of the side of a hill or through a forest and expect to end up with a quality result.  Proper trail building takes knowledge and experience in addition to hard work.  A good trail has to flow well, use the natural features of the area, have some good variety, among a lot of other things that can be argued about or discussed at some other time.  But to do it right takes some skill, some vision – and in the case of South Florida – a lot of creativity … and tons of hard work.

While some trail systems benefit from beautiful vistas, lush forests, and/or diverse eco-systems, the Miami area trails had none of these.  They were drained swamps, and at least one of them was an unofficial garbage dump at some point.  They appeared to be built on discarded land, and the builders had only a few acres to work with.  Trail builders created artificial and additional elevation (in addition to the natural twenty feet – tops) with wood, rocks, dirt, old carpet … sometimes 50’s era washing machines (decoratively spray painted).  Bridges were built and snaked precariously over the numerous still swampy areas (there was even a large decaying old boat grounded in what must have previously been a canal – won’t get that in Colorado) .  The trails were undoubtedly “tree-wrappers”, which can be scoffed at by us snooty western folk, but this actually added to the atmosphere and character.  Many of the tight turns were perfectly bermed, and small – but fun – jumps and rollers were dispersed through-out in order to help keep speed and momentum.  Nothing was unsafe for a beginner, yet even a washed-up, pro-downhiller like me could have a blast (Think high-speed-six-mile-singletrack-pump-track in a tropical forest).  There were some beautiful areas that wound through the everglades, and some sections of trail went right up to the ocean, so it wasn’t like you were riding through a Mad Max themed, day-glow carnival the entire time.

My point is this: from the above rant, did it sound like I had a good time?  Those people made some awesome trails out of nothing.  I don’t plan on moving to South Florida anytime in the future but if I do, I’ll still be an avid MTB’er and I won’t be hurtin’ for a wide selection of fun trails – all because a few people were willing to dream the dream and then put it into action.

And if you ride, you too should be part of that action.  Help the cause.  There are a lot of great trails already out there, but (not enough) maintenance is always an issue.   Access to MTB’ers on many trails is threatened because of this.  There are many proposed trails (some probably near you) that need as much help as they can get.  Also, trail building doesn’t only happen out there, in the dirt: good trails need well spoken people on the paper work side of things, at the board meetings of the Recreation Department, etc.

So, skip a ride or two this season and help build some trails.  Trust me, the cold beer will taste just as good at the end of the day … maybe even better!