MTB Skills

MTB Skills, How We Actually Learn/ Why “Experts” Often Make Poor Coaches

There has been an amazing amount written about MTB skills and our students are always asking me to write a book on mtb skills. My book is in the works but it is taking a lot of time because I want the book to actually help you become better, not fill your head with knowledge. Knowledge is worthless if you can’t put that knowledge into action on your bike!

Why is so hard to actually do a skill you understand? You read a well written article on the skill, you know Exactly how to do the skill, yet you still struggle, why? Put simply that is because the wrong part of your brain understands the skill. The part of your brain that read that MTB skills article has absolutely zero input in doing a physical skill, a completely different part of your brain handles physical skills. What you need to do is train the correct part of your brain to do the skill, which is hard/impossible to do by just reading or listening.

The book “Choke” covers this well and I will explain what 26 years of coaching people just like you and what Choke has taught me. I have always noticed a disconnect between “knowing” something and being able to “do” what you know (both in me and in our students). Choke explained the reasons for this better than anything else I have read on the subject and they actually use riding a bike as an example!

 

mtb skills

When Greg Minnaar works with us he makes me sign a contract saying that he is not a qualified mtb coach as he realizes he isn’t the best at coaching.

According to “Choke” as an expert gets better and better at doing a skill they start to forget stuff. Their example: “Think about riding a bike. How exactly do you do this? Well, yes, first you have to get on a bike and pedal. But there is a lot more to it than that. You have to balance, hold on to the handlebars, look at what is in front of you. If you miss any of these steps, falling is a real possibility. This usually doesn’t happen when proficient bike riders are actually riding, but if you were to ask a bike rider to explain the “how tos” of this complex skill, he would forget details. This is because the proficient bike rider is trying to remember information about bike riding that is kept as a procedural memory, as we psychologists term it.”

“Procedural memory is implicit or unconscious. You can think of procedural memory as your cognitive tool box that contains a recipe that, if followed, will produce a successful bike ride, golf putt, baseball swing …. Interestingly, these recipes operate largely outside of your conscious awareness. … because when you are good at performing a skill, you do it too quickly to monitor it consciously. …”

“Procedural memory is often distinguished from another form of memory: our explicit memory that supports our ability to reason on the spot or to recall the exact details of a conversation we had with our spouse the week before. … Simply put, explicit and procedural memories or largely housed in different parts of the brain …” More on those different parts of the brain in this article: You Aren’t Doing What You Know You are Supposed to Do!

So, how to we train our “procedural memory? Drills, with a focus on quality, not quantity! Remember, perfect practice makes perfect! Not just any drills of course, drills designed to get you doing the correct recipe. Our free mini-course has quite a few of these and our three day skills progressions are designed around specific drills to get you actually doing what we teach you.

What gets in our way when learning the correct way to do something? Our experience! If we are experienced but doing things incorrectly we have solid (but in correct) procedural memories. In this case being a complete beginner is better than an experienced rider when learning as the complete beginner has no procedural memory. The experienced rider has to weaken their incorrect procedural memory while strengthening the new, correct procedural memory.

So, do the drills from our mini-course and/or take a skills progression camp but most importantly do your drills!

Lastly, this why “skilled” athletes rarely make good coaches, they can’t access their procedural memory to articulate what they are doing. Think of the great athletes who have made lousy coaches, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Mike Singletary, Ted Williams, Mike Ditka, Isiah Thomas, etc. as a matter of fact goggle “why “skilled” athletes rarely make good coaches” and there are a lot of articles on the topic!

Mountain Bike at your best

Mountain Bike At Your Best By Taking Care of This Overlooked Factor!

Most mountain bikers know that they get stronger through cycles of physical stress and recovery. A 100 mile ride wears you down, good nutrition and good sleep after that ride helps you recover and grow stronger. What I never realized (until I read “The New Toughness Training For Sports” years ago) is that mental and emotional stresses can be just as debilitating as physical stress. This means a lot of your life away from the bike and/or other forms of exercise can wear you out too. To mountain bike at your best you need to manage and make sure you recover from all stresses.

Mental stress is just as it sounds, anything that mentally taxes you. This can be a challenging problem at work or home, financial worry, learning, etc., basically anything that makes you concentrate intensely or think hard. Guess what is super mentally stressful, mountain biking! The harder the trail is skill wise (to you) the more intensely you have to concentrate and this can be really taxing. At places with high consequences for failure (like Bootleg Canyon) I find I can ride a max of three days in a row before I am worn out and my riding starts to suffer. After three days there I need some mental recovery before I can ride at my best again. I do this by taking a day off or riding easier trails which take less focus.

Mountain Bike at Your Best

Riding trails like King Kong is stressful!

How do you recover from mental stress? Relax! Shut your brain off! The absolute best way is to meditate (which will help in many other ways both on the bike and in life) but meditating is hard wish turns many people off. If you are interested in meditating and it positive effects start doing it! There are probably many teachers in your area and tons of information on the ole inter webs. If meditating isn’t your cup of tea then simply try shutting your brain down, deep breathing exercises, taking a nap, watching a simple movie (not an intense French film with subtitles), have a beer or glass of wine or two (much more than two and you may be harming yourself in other ways), yin yoga, anything that slows you down and shuts your brain off.

In our busy, over stimulated lives (smart phones, traffic, long work hours, etc) it is easy to become overloaded mentally and all aspects of your life will suffer. The “work hard, play harder” philosophy almost guarantees mental stress. SCHEDULE time to alleviate your mental stress and you will see a big difference in your performance on trail (and life in general) riding.

mtb skills

Cornering Your Mountain Bike, Get Low, Not Forward!

There is a lot of misleading advice for cornering your mountain bike, often from top racers who aren’t actually doing what they say they are doing! Greg Minnaar and I got a kick out of Myles Rockwell’s announcing at the world championships a few years ago. Myles was talking about Greg’s “forward” riding style. Greg will tell you that he rides centered with all of his weight on the pedals (and this is a case of top racer actually doing what he says he is doing). He is “forward” of being “back on the bike”? Yes, but he is not “forward” of centered on his bike. (Myles is a great rider (world champion!) and super nice guy, no offense was meant by this post, this is an excellent example of top athletes not being the best at explaining things (because it is not their job!)).

Cornering Centered

Greg in 2010 at Fort William, centered, balanced , fast and consistent!

This is a case of perception being distorted by “society”. In this case the 1980′s and 1990′s mountain biking “society” that was used to riders riding with their weight back (that, long stems, and narrow bars are why if you watch a downhill race video from 1995 or prior you will see tons of pro racers who look wobbly and out of control) created the expectation of seeing a rider in that weight back position, so when Greg (and Neko Mullay, Aaron Gwin, Rat Boy, etc.) rides centered he looks forward to riders expecting to see 1993 body position. This is because the rider’s head and chest are forward and low, but, their hips have scooted back, keeping them centered over the pedals. An important part of body position is “hinging at the hips” with a flat back. When you hinge your chest drops and goes forward as your hips go back so you stay centered. This puts you in a balanced, neutral and athletic position so you can respond to anything the trail throws at you, quickly and powerfully! It also lowers your center of gravity! Watch video of the world cup and notice how low Aaron Gwin, Steve Smith and Neko Mullay are. Like a sports car getting low helps you stay centered (braking, cornering and acceleration forces have less effect on a lower rider and/or vehicle).

cornering centered

Here is Greg in that same centered position going straight. Notice his “hinged” hips and flat back!

Focus on getting low! A great way to practice this is to ride straight down a smooth road and focus on hinging at the hip with a flat back and dropping your chest until you are in a half push-up position. Next make sure you have heavy feet and light hands (check if you are in the right position by loosening your grip and  sliding your hands side to side on the grips, if your hands won’t move you are too far forward, if it feel like you are pulling up on the grips you are too far back). Once you are solid at doing this in a straight line focus on maintaining this low, centered (fore-aft) position while turning in both directions. Once you are consistent at this then try cornering on pavement with weight too far back, then too far forward, then centered again. You will feel that your bike feels lighter and takes less effort to change direction when you are centered. When are are consistent at all of the above, keep practicing until you can’t get it wrong! More on cornering!

Get low! Corner your mountain bike

Aaron Gwin, low, centered and looking way ahead!

 

mountain bike cornering

Mountain Bike Cornering, Part 1

Mountain Bike Cornering, Part 1

I received a great question from a BetterRide mountain bike camp student today: “Since braking IN a corner is BAD, is it better to err on the side of braking TOO MUCH prior to entering the corner or err on the side of possibly having to brake during the corner? I find that I’m unsure as to how much speed I need to carry. My old habits would incline me to brake a little before and a little during the corner, but now I’m wondering if it’s best to err on the side of entering the corner too slow and never having to brake in the middle of cornering.”

The short answer, it is much better to brake TOO MUCH on the entrance than to tap your brakes in a corner!

Why this is true and why is it the second most important “skill” in cornering? (the number one skill in cornering is vision! more on that in a future article) Because it will allow you to have much more control in the corner, stay relaxed and exit with more speed! The goal of cornering is to produce as much exit speed as your skills allow. This isn’t just for racing, it is for all mountain bike riders, more exit speed will not only make you faster it will save a lot of energy too!

mountain bike cornering

Student George Fuller working on cornering our Hurricane, UT camp.

How braking in a Straight Line before a corner increases exit speed for mountain bike cornering:

When ever you are braking to slow down (versus braking to purposely get the rear wheel to slide) you brake in a STRAIGHT line! Tires can’t multitask very well and asking them to slow you down and change direction at the same time doesn’t give them enough traction to do either well. A few days before one of our camps with World Champ Greg Minnaar at Bootleg Canyon there was a Canadian coach coaching a provincial team and he had a braking drill set up that went straight for a few feet then had a dog leg in it. I heard him say to his athletes, “Anyone can brake in a straight line, that’s easy, braking and changing direction is much harder.” It took a lot of will power to not shout back, “yeah, but why would you want to!” as braking and changing direction is not a good skill. When Greg got into town and I told him about that his reply was, “how did that guy become a coach? That is a terrible thing to teach and practice.” In addition to decreasing your traction braking in a corner causes a few other problems, it decreases your lean angle by standing your bike up and makes the fork dive changing your head angle and throwing your weight forward. Always cut speed in a straight line!

By braking before the corner and coasting through the corner you have great traction, a consistent head angle, consistent weight placement and the correct lean angle. In addition the corner will be much calmer and relaxing without so much going on, making it feel slower and easier than braking in the corner.

mountain bike cornering

Greg Minnaar off the brakes and cornering like the champ he is! BetterRide Downhill Mountain Bike Camp 2007

So we have more traction, are calmer, in better body position and relaxed but we haven’t gotten to the biggest benefit of finishing our braking before the corner, a longer ramp to accelerate down! Most corners that you are carrying enough speed into for technique to be important are downhill corners, they lose three or more feet of altitude from beginning to end. For example: You have a corner that loses 10 feet of altitude (it starts at 1,510 feet above sea level and ends at 1,500 feet above sea level) and the pitch of the corner is steep enough that your speed increases by 25% for every five feet you descend. Your instinct is to go fast! So you enter that corner at 20 mph while your buddy enters that corner at 10 mph, and you are thinking, “sweet, my buddy is a wuss and I just put 10-15 feet on him at the entrance to the corner” (which you did). Then just before the half-way point of the corner you realize you are going way to fast and brake hard and slow to 10 mph and then let go of your brakes at the half-way point  (magically, at 25 miles an hour you slow to 10 mph in the middle of a corner without sliding out or crashing in just a foot or two of distance, more realistically you would end braking almost to the exit of the corner). So now you are at the middle of the corner doing 10 miles an hour (and your adrenaline is spiked, your eyes are as big as tennis balls and you are super tense because your nearly crashed) but you are still 10-15 feet ahead of your buddy and you have a five foot ramp to accelerate down through the exit of the corner (so in this example you exit at 10 mph times 1.25 or 12.5 mph). Your buddy mean while has accelerated from 10 to 12.5 mph at the halfway point of the corner, is totally relaxed and smiling knowing he is going to increase his speed by 25% again from the center of the corner to the exit. So your buddy exits the corner at 15.6 mph (12.5 x 1.25). For argument sake let’s say you still exited the corner a few feet in front of your buddy but, your buddy is going 3.1 mph faster than you and there is a long flat straight away after the corner (or an uphill!), who is going to get to the end of the straightaway quicker? Who is going to use less energy on that straightaway ? Obviously your buddy is!

There is an old motorcycle/car racing expression, “sometimes, you have to go slow to go fast”, and it doubly true for mountain bikers as you don’t have an untiring engine to make up for your mistakes.

A great way to prove this to yourself (which is really important, though you may believe me your subconscious still has it doubts) is the “French Cornering Drill”, so named because Marla Streb told me she learned it from some French downhill racers. The drill is quite simple, find a corner where right after the exit the trail goes uphill and see how far you can coast up the hill after the corner, the further you coast the more exit speed you had! First go in hot (at your normal, too fast for the corner pace if you are like me) coast out of the corner and draw a line in the sand where you coasted to. Then come in hot, brake really hard on the straight before the corner (slow down to total wussy pace) and see how far you coast. Then keep coming in a hair faster until you are going as fast as you can go without braking in the corner. You will be amazed at how much more exit speed you have (how much further you coast) when you come in at the correct speed for your skills in that corner! Do this drill today!

Lastly, remember, mountain biking is an offensive sport, there is really true in corners! We want to always enter a corner with a positive goal, “blast this corner”, “rail this corner” not a defensive goal, “gosh, I hope I make it”, “don’t crash here”, etc.