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!


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!

Flow, the Key to Happiness While Mountain Biking?!

Interesting talk by Flow author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the state of flow and how this is the state when we are most happy. It is a little dry though, if you start to lose interest skip ahead. In the last three minutes he talks about and uses a great chart that shows you that flow starts when our challenge and skill set are both pushed above average.

This means when we have great skill and are not challenged at all we will often be bored. When we face a challenge and our skills are weak we feel worried.

Then when challenged a little (but still beneath our skill set) we will be relaxed, challenged just below our best skills we will feel in control and challenged to the point of using all our skill we will reach flow (and happiness). When challenged just more than our skills can handle it will create worry, then pushed further the worry becomes anxiety.

This is why as you skills increase the trails you once enjoyed become less interesting or you have to go faster and/or take harder lines to keep that trail as fun as it was with less skill.

He doesn’t mention it but I believe the same thing happens as your fitness increases. As you fitness increases you need to challenge it by going faster and/or further to reach the same level of enjoyment.

Conversely to continue to reach a high level of enjoyment and “flow” or “Zone” state experiences we need to increase our skill set.

Winter Program Tips: What to Do When You Can’t Mountain Bike.

Winter Program Tips: What to Do When You Can’t Mountain Bike.  by BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky

So its winter-time. And one bummer about winter is that, as mountain bikers, access to our sport, and more specificity, our trails, will be limited – sometimes altogether eliminated! But even if we are forced to spend extended time off the bike (I plan on covering some winter-riding topics in the future), there are still plenty of things we can do to maintain our riding skill-set.

As a betterride coach, I’m not necessarily concerned with riders simply riding their mountain bikes, but I’m concerned with riders riding well. The following will address some off-bike activities, and how and why they can help maintain – and possibly even improve – a rider’s technical skill-set over the winter.

Since MTB’ing is typically a summertime activity, and also understanding that the idea of actually practicing technical skills (as in drilling and methodically applying techniques), versus simply going out and riding the bike, is foreign to most riders, its no surprise that the idea of purposely and consciously maintaining our technical skill-set over the winter isn’t a widely discussed topic. Most riders that I know jump into the typical winter-time cyclist’s regime of riding the road bike, the stationary trainer, and hitting the gym, accepting the fact that during those first real mountain bike rides of spring, they’ll be rusty, scared, and possibly crash they’re brains out. While the above work-out activities definitely can provide certain benefits, they really won’t do squat for a MTB’ers technical prowess on the bike.

As anyone who has received Betterride instruction will know, being technically sound on the bicycle (using correct body position, proper use of vision, subtle weight shifts, accurate timing, among others) will get a rider a lot further and keep the rider a lot more safe then simply being physically fit. So assuming that we are maintaining a decent level of fitness, wouldn’t it make sense to tend to our technical riding skills over doing-the-hamster at spin class?

So how do we improve our skills on the bike without actually riding it? There are many activities we can do – some work better then others – that will help to keep us sharp until riding season heats up.

O.k., first, I do understand that winter-time is the off-season for us mountain bikers, and if you take your riding fairly seriously – which you probably do if you’ve read this far – then spending a little time off the bike will actually be good for you, both mentally and physically. This doesn’t mean you can lay on the couch for six months, watching football and hockey, stuffing your face with chips and cheap beer (although this author does highly recommend a couple days of this!). We need to stay active.

As I stated above, the typical cyclist’s winter regime can have its benefits, however, even though there are some great work-out programs out there and some very adept athletic trainers, I have yet to see a program that is nearly as multi-dimensional and all encompassing – both mentally and physically – as MTB’ing on technical terrain. When choosing an off-bike winter activity, its important that we chose something that provides us with the “mental work-out” that is similar to the on-bike experience.

Mountain biking is an incredibly mentally taxing activity. We are constantly making adjustments and corrections, we are often fighting fatigue, we often need to deal with emotions such as frustration or even anger. Even though, on the surface, many sports or activities may look night and day different from that of mountain biking, many of the mental challenges and mind-body awareness and connections can be quite similar. These are the type of activities we need to get involved with – activities that will engage us in a manner similar to that of riding the mountin bike. Example: I’ll take a day of hard snowboarding over a day at the gym, in regards to improving my technical bike riding, anytime (again, assuming that I am also doing something to maintain a decent level of fitness). The hidden benefits of snowboarding and its similarities to MTB’ing are countless: issues of balance, dealing with fear, fighting to maintain technique as fatigue sets in – simply being outside and exposed to the elements all day, eating the proper foods, drinking enough water, etc.

I consistently see a difference in riders, beginners or other-wise, in their abilities to learn and/or adapt on the bicycle in relation to their athletic participation outside of bike riding. Those that participate, or have participated, in activities where they compete (even with themselves) and regularly deal with challenges and “athletic problems” where they are engaged both physically and mentally in the activity, are already a step up on those that may put long ours into training, but often they involve sitting on a stationary bike and watching t.v (winter), or pumping out reps (even with fairly dynamic work-outs) at the gym. (if you’re able to have an imaginary conversation with yourself for 40 mi of that 50 mi road ride, how mentally engaged where you in that work-out? Did you make any mental gains?

A few good ones: as many of you are already aware, skiing and snowboarding are great for this. Not only do they require a mind-body awareness in a challenging environment, but they also give us a sense of speed and force us to use our vision (possibly the most important aspect of riding a MTB) in a similar way that we do on a bicycle. Sports such as racquetball, basketball, or martial arts (to name a few) are also excellent for our riding because, again, they will force us to be “athletic problem solvers” and engage our mind-body awareness. To me, these sports have more in common with riding a mountain bike on difficult technical terrain then going for a road bike ride for the shear mental discipline and mind-body awareness that they require. These sports require that you complete incredibly difficult technical tasks while fully exerting yourself physically – just as you do while piloting your MTB over difficult terrain.

If you are already active in an off-season activity such as the above mentioned, good job. Keep it up. If you’re not, and perhaps you never really have been, right now – winter – in an excellent time to start! I guarantee that you will come across many “happy accidents” and discoveries that will carry over into your bike riding.

A bit more:

I am constantly amazed at the amount of high-level cyclists (and other athletes) that I come across that bring lessons that they’ve learned or tools that they’ve acquired from different athletic disciplines into they’re riding (ex: Last winter I learned in yoga that if you … and this is the same as that …” or “Last winter I took kick-boxing and learned … and this is the same …”). I know that I regularly take “lessons” that I learned from high school and college athletics and apply them to my riding today (and that high school and college stuff happened around 100 yrs ago).

A former colleague of mine and a competitive World Cup racer, and I had a conversation last summer about the benefits of having a well rounded athletic background. We both agreed that many of the lessons – and failures – that we had experienced in athletic competition previous to racing bicycles at a high level was crucial to all the successes we’d had in racing (he’d obviously had more of those then I had) and how many of todays young racers don’t have those type of backgrounds and therefore have difficulty overcoming some of the challenges they are faced with in taking their racing to a high level.

In conclusion: it is winter-time, enjoy a little time away from your bicycle, but stay active, and be intelligent in your choice of activities. Go out and compete with yourself (and/or others) and learn something about yourself as an athlete (in success and failure!). Keep that competitive mind and your mind-body connection sharp even if you aren’t putting in an extensive amount of time on the bike. If done correctly, these gains will carry over into your riding season.