Mountain Bike Your Best

Three Issues Keeping You From Mountain Biking at Your Best, Part 3

Three Issues Keeping You From Mountain Biking at Your Best, Part 3

Your body has NO idea how to ride a mountain bike correctly! Your brain might know some skills but your body doesn’t preform them. A great example of this is looking ahead, we all know to do this but 99% of mountain bikers fail to do this most/all of the time. You honestly aren’t riding as well as you are physically and mentally capable of because your body doesn’t understand how to consistently ride in balance and in control. I’m not trying to be mean or provocative, I have simply been fortunate enough to coach some of the best riders/racers in the world and none of them had a solid skills foundation. How would they with out first studying the correct skills and then doing a lot of deliberate practice using drills? That is how ALL great athletes get proficient, Michael Jordan was cut from his team his freshman and sophomore year because he wasn’t very good at basketball! The funny thing is we don’t know the name of any of those 10-11 players who were better than Michael Jordan. Why, because they didn’t do as much deliberate practice as Michael did.

The world's best, most respected skills coach agrees!

The world’s best, most respected skills coach agrees!

Why does your body have no idea how to ride correctly? You and your body aren’t dumb, I’m not putting you down, it is just comes down to practice, you haven’t done any deliberate practice! You might have thousands of hours of riding time but that does nothing to help your skills. As a matter of fact the more you ride without deliberate practice the more your survival habits/instincts get ingrained, making you technically worse! Much like Michael Jordan’s teammates who played basketball more than he did but practiced less.

Teaching yourself relies on instincts, and your (and all humans’) instincts are great at protecting you from lions, tigers and bears but not so good at cornering your bike on a loose surface. Example, what is your first instinct when you feel that you have entered a corner too fast? Hit the brakes, right? What is one of the worst things you can do in a corner? Hit your brakes!  For more on your instincts and learning read this:

You Aren't Doing What You Know You are Supposed to Do! (on your mtb)

Wow, pro xc racer looking straight down at the entrance to an easy banked corner at the National Championships!

If you have noticed I said your” body” has know idea how to mountain bike, not your brain/mind. The reason for this is knowing something in your smart, logical thinking brain does nothing to help you ride better. A completely different part of your brain controls your procedural memory (often called muscle memory) which is what you rely on when you do a physical skill like ride a mountain bike. More on this here:

Coach Gene Demonstrating how to practice one part of cornering body position.

Demonstrating how to practice one part of cornering body position deliberately.

So, the main thing keeping you from riding your best is your body has no idea how to ride. This is why Olympic BMX silver medalist Mike Day and World Champions like Ross Schnell and Sue Haywood seek us out to improve their riding. They have more hours riding than almost anyone but they haven’t spent time practicing. They were fast because of fitness, not skill (although Mike Day was quite skilled at BMX but after three years of disappointing results as a downhill mountain bike racer he knew he needed better mountain bike skills). The only way to get proficient at anything is through learning the correct skills then doing deliberate practice using drills. We would love to help you ride much, much better and help you reach your potential. Look into one of skills progression camps, it will be the best investment you ever make in your riding!

Fear is Good

Three Issues Keeping You From Mountain Biking at Your Best, Part 2

Issues Keeping You From Mountain Biking at Your Best, Part 2.

Fear, the killer! Fear is a topic we deal with a lot in our skills camps. Even with new and/or greatly improved skills from our camp fear can still hold you back. With this in mind I will share some ways we help our students manage their fear while mountain biking. Fear does have a purpose and it isn’t always a bad thing, appropriate fear (fear that keeps you from doing something you lack the skill to do safely) can keep you safe and save you from injury! We are going to focus on inappropriate fear (fear that is either based in fantasy or fear that doesn’t equal the risk at hand).


Mountain Bike at Your Best

You can see from body position I was a little scared here (my weight is a hair too far back instead of being centered) and on King Kong trail a little fear keeps you safe! A lot of fear would of probably caused me to crash.

Of course skill is the number one factor in overcoming fear, imagine our students who race World Cup downhills like National Champions Luca Cometti, Mitch Ropelato and Jackie Harmony riding your local trails. I doubt they would be scared of that section that scares you on your local trail (as World Cup Tracks are gnarly!). They have worked hard on ingraining the correct riding techniques so they are riding in balance and in control consistently so while they may have less “nerve” than you they have great skill.  I’m not trying to sell our coaching though, here are some ways to overcome fear with the skill you currently possess.

1.  Go at your own pace and take “baby steps” when progressing. Taking a big leap over your comfort zone is not a good way to learn. Have you ever been goaded into doing something that you felt was way above your skill level? Even if you make it you often don’t feel like you have gotten better, you feel like you got lucky. Feeling, “Holy cow, I nearly died, that was sketchy!” does not make you feel confident! If you don’t make it,  the crash will often set you back, decreasing your confidence and raising your level of fear. So be gentle with yourself and progress at a pace that is comfortable to you.

2. Focus on what you want to do, not what you don’t want to do. This sounds simple but pays off big. Our brains don’t understand “not” and “don’t” very well. If you are focusing on not falling your brain has to focus on the concept of falling and then quickly try to refocus on “not” doing what you are thinking about. It is much easier to focus on “getting to that tree” or “ride this section smooth and light” than telling yourself “don’t fall”.

2.5 Ride that trail with confidence! Focusing on not falling does not put you in a confident state and studies have shown that we become less coordinated as our confidence drops. As I have stated in previous blog posts mountain biking is an offensive sport! This means we should always ride on the offense or get off and walk! Mountain biking defensively will get you hurt as you are focusing on what you don’t want to do and you are less coordinated.

3. Live to ride another day! If you are more focused on “not falling” than you are on getting to where you are going, get off your bike and walk that section. Who knows you might go right through it the next time when you are more warmed up and/or focused.

After/while walking that section figure out what about that section is scaring you then “baby step” your way up to doing it.

Example: If a four-foot drop on an exposed trail is scaring you find a one foot drop with no exposure, get really good a hitting that, work your way up to a four-foot drop with no exposure, then an exposed trail with a one foot drop working all the way to a four-foot drop on an exposed trail. This builds on a series of successes, increasing your confidence!

4. Breathe, relax, breathe and smile it is just a bike ride. Breathing and smiling releases tension which improves our balance, coordination and confidence. I mean deep, belly breathes from your diaphragm which are very calming. Smiling releases endorphins which relax you. The simple act of lifting the corners of your mouth, even if it is a grimace will release those endorphins and relax you!

7. As you improve make sure you update your self concept to match. Remember that the past doesn’t equal the future. You may have wrecked or not made a section last week/month but if your skills have improved since then the section may be easier for you now.

Example: We used used to race down the Porcupine Rim climb in Moab (from Lazy Man’s to the stock tanks) and there was a section most of us referred to as “the Gnarly Section”. It was a two foot rock drop into a field of “baby head” rocks and ledges. When I first raced it in 1994 on a hardtail with a 1.5″ travel Mag 20 fork it was kind of gnarly! By 1998 my bike had gone from hardtail to 6″ of travel front and rear and I had ridden that track over 50 times and raced it 10 times (we got two race runs back then!). On my first race run in 1998, I railed the corner before that section and said to myself, “here comes the gnarly section”, what do think saying that made me do? If you guessed, “tense up and slow down a little bit” you are correct! After that run it occurred to me that I had ridden that section at least 61 times and never crashed in it. If you can ride something cleanly 61 times out of 61 attempts is it really gnarly? I realized my bike had gotten way better and I had become way more confident a rider so why did I fear this section and call it “the gnarly section”? I decided to change the name of the section to, “that fun rocky section”, which, on my 6″ travel Yeti Lawwill it was! On my second run, as I railed that corner and said, “here comes the fun rocky section” do you think I slowed down and tensed up? No, I smiled, relaxed and probably snuck in a few pedal strokes!

So, don’t do what I did for five years, failing to update my self-image as a rider. As you improve make a conscious effort to raise your self-image as a rider!

drops and jumps on your mountain bike

BetterRide Coach and National Champion Jackie Harmony experiences fear too, she just as more confidence than most riders so it takes a tougher trail for fear to affect her.

7. Wear knee pads and elbow pads when practicing a tough section are learning a new skill. I have found that having padding on really increases your confidence when learning or trying to push your limits. As a matter of fact I never ride without knee pads anymore, knees are too valuable and easily damaged!

8. Debunk your fear/s. Is your fear realistic? Often fear is not based in reality and when we realize this the fear goes away.

Example: I was working with a pro downhill racer on calming his pre-race nerves and I kept asking him, “why are you nervous?”, finally after four of five answers that couldn’t be the main cause of his nerves he said, “I don’t want to let my wife and kids down.” I then asked, “so you doing well in a bike race is really important to your wife and kids? If you do poorly they will lose respect for you and love you less?” He laughed and said something like, “no, my wife and kids see how hard I train and want me to do well but I’m pretty sure they don’t base their love for me on how well I race my bike.”  When we got him to bring this fear into the light he realized it was completely made up and he was putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on himself. After this he still got nervous before a race but the appropriate amount, enough to give him energy but not hurt his performance.

9. Learn from your mistakes. If you mess up or wreck do your best to figure out why it happened and correct that mistake or improve your technique so it will not happen again.


MTB Skills Camp Videos, A Peak Into The BetterRide Method

Wow, can’t believe I haven’t posted more actual mtb skills camp videos to help you understand how we get riders just like you riding better than they ever thought possible (cleanly riding sections of trail you never thought you would and/or winning World, Pan American and National Downhill, Cross Country, Dual Slalom and Four X Championships). If you have been reading our blog you know that learning skills is not as simple as acquiring knowledge, you must train your “procedural memory” as knowledge is NOT stored in the same part of your brain that helps you do physical skills (if you missed our most recent article on the subject read it here: ). With that in mind we educate you on how to do the skill, why this skill works (the physics behind the skill) and drills so the skill can become the DOMINANT skill in your procedural memory (under pressure (any time you on trail) you will revert to your dominant habit, often an old, incorrect habit).

First, your coach will explain how to do a skill. Why the skill is important, how to do the skill correctly and physics behind why doing this way works 100% of the time. Here is Gene in the middle of explaining weight placement when cornering:

We practice in a safe learning environment (off trail) where you can confidently focus 100% on the skill being taught (not take up brain bandwidth with fear/keeping yourself safe). The only way to train your “procedural memory” is with action, specifically structured drills so you can focus on the movements required to perform the skill. This called “Deliberate Practice”. Some photos of students practicing what they have been taught in a safe learning environment.

Rick Practicing is mountain bike skills

BetterRide camper Rick practicing his cornering skills!

Once you have executed the new skill quite a few times we then apply the skill on trail. This doesn’t always lead to success at first as the new habit is not your dominate habit (it may take weeks of doing the new habit perfectly while not reinforcing the old habit for the new, correct, in balance, in control technique to take over as your dominate habit, all depending how ingrained the old habit is and how much quality practice you put into doing the drill/s designed to in grain the correct skill)

Here is Rick on trail after learning and doing drills on pavement. Almost there just needs to lead with that outside elbow like he did on the pavement.

Here is Rick on trail after learning and doing drills on pavement. Almost there just needs to lead with that outside elbow like he did on the pavement.

Video example two, Gene explaining how to do a wheelie in balance, in control, economically and using zero upper body strength.

Students practicing wheelies in a safe environment.

Practicing efficient/in control wheelies using no upper body strength!

Susan practicing efficient/in control wheelies using no upper body strength!


Students practicing wheelies over obstacles on trail:

MTB Skills Camp

Applying the skills learned through deliberate practice on trail.


Mountain Bike Crash

Mountain Bike Crash, Coming Back From An Injury

Coming back from an injury, mountain bike crash or setback

I have gotten a lot of emails about this tough mental process and so far this year we have had six student cancellations because they injured themselves less than a week before their camp!  I think this is an area where many people struggle, certainly for me I have had a mountain bike crash or two (okay more like 10!) that effected my performance for months. (Most of the following was written in 2008, I have updated and edited it)

In the middle of writing this I wrecked, hurt myself pretty good and three weeks later (last weekend at the Colorado State Championships) I came back from it. This ordeal reminded me of a big point I almost left out. Those of you that have taken a camp from me know that I stress focusing on what you want to do, not what you don’t want to do. Well, my first run back (my first ride after three weeks off the bike was downhill practice at a race) I was a little worried that I might not be completely healed and didn’t want to re-injure myself. With this mindset I was thinking and focusing on not falling! After two sketchy runs I realized what I was doing and knew that my focus on not falling was hurting my confidence and making me focus on falling (the brain has to think about falling to “not fall”). I switched my focus to “ride my best and have fun” (which has nothing to do with falling) and my next three runs were better and better each time. This is a crucial step in coming back. It may be hard but you must focus on what you want to do, which is ride your best. Focusing on what you don’t want to do continues your focus on the negative which continues to depress your confidence. This is a vicious circle which is hard to break out of but it is very important if you want to overcome a setback.

“I have failed a lot more times than I have succeeded” that piece of wisdom comes from Michael Jordan. I will certainly agree with that, in my thirteen years as a pro racer I have won only two races. At the NORBA Nationals in the 1990’s only the top 70 pros qualified for the final, I finished 71 in the qualifiers four times and 72nd twice, ouch! In 2003 I had a frame snap in half while doing about 40 miles an hour at Angel Fire, that really hurt, four broken ribs and the wind knocked out of me. Events like these can quell your desire to ride or fire you up to learn from the event and try harder. How you deal with adversity is up to you and since you have sought out instruction I will give you some ways to overcome frustrating experiences and use them to become stronger.

Crashes, setbacks and mistakes are part of the learning process and can actually be a big step towards improving. The first thing to do is find the cause of the set back and determine if you were at fault or not. In the frame breaking incident I was definitely not at fault but in the qualifying 71st races I was at fault. As friend and fellow competitor Alex Morgan said, “Gene, for guys like us the qualifier is the race”. He said this because he saw me coast the last straight into the finish (to save energy for the final run) and two or three pedal strokes was all I needed to have finished in the top 70 and gotten a final run. Easy fix, next race treat the qualifier as a race and do my best.

If the mistake/crash was your fault fix the problem and then tell yourself, “well I fixed that problem, that will never happen again” and go back to having fun. If you crashed because you were over-trained, get some rest and prepare with more recovery for your next ride or race. If your mistake happened because you lost focus (the most common cause of wrecks), mediate and/or use imagery to improve your focus. Find reference points to keep your focus in that section of the course.

Sometimes the problematic event wasn’t your fault (like when my frame broke). In situations like this fix the problem (in my case I got a new, stronger frame) and again consciously put the problem behind you “well I fixed that problem, that will never happen again”.

Both of the comebacks strategies above require reprogramming both the conscious and subconscious brain. You have to literally replace fear with confidence using repeated logical reasoning to overwhelm your negative thought pattern.

Sometimes it is a series of mistakes that shakes your confidence or it just seems like dumb luck, such as when you you crest a hill and a big rock has rolled into your line. You see the rock but it is to late to change your line so you hit it and flip over. I hurt my leg pretty badly when this happened to me in Big Bear a few years ago. To over come this fall I used a combination of therapies, I used a “past history search” and imagery to rebuild my confidence. A “past history search” is simply remembering the times you rode successfully and confidently. I did this while imagining the drop where I flipped over at Big Bear. In all my previous runs I had nailed that section so I “rewound” my imagery and played the wreck over in my head. The first couple of times I visualized cresting the hill, seeing the rock and flipping over but then tucking and rolling without getting hurt. This made me feel a little better and more relaxed. Then I imaged seeing the rock, steering around it and making the section and could feel my body relax and my confidence start to return.

A past history search is a great confidence booster anytime you are feeling down, no matter what the cause. Sit back in a comfortable chair, close your eyes and relive your best moments. This will restore your confidence and really make you feel good about yourself.


How do you get your confidence back quickly, in the middle of a ride or race? A state change, forcing a smile, puffing your chest out and standing tall are simple ways that help regain confidence quickly. As is a little positive self talk, “that wasn’t like me, I am a really skilled rider, I have been riding really well, I am going to get back on my bike and ride like I own the trail!” These two methods combined can be very powerful.

Anchoring a performance cue is pro-active and powerful way to control your confidence a

Mountain bike crash

BetterRide student Jen Hanks knows about coming back from a setback, she came back from cancer!

nd help you quickly overcome setbacks. A performance cue is a short phrase and/or physical action (such as touching your thumb and middle finger together) that is associated (anchored) with a physiological state, feeling or emotion.

To anchor a personal cue you use a past history as mentioned above and add a few steps. Sit back in a comfortable chair, close your eyes and relive your three most confident events/moments of your life. When you won the spelling bee, conquered “widow maker hill for the first time”, finished your first race, won for the first time, etc. As you are reliving these moments really feel the emotions you were experiencing at the time, feel your back straighten as you proudly look out into the crowd. Feel your face flush as you can’t hold back a happy, satisfied grin, truly relive those moments. When you are feeling the positive, confident emotions created by reliving these moments “anchor” those emotions by doing the physical action you have chosen and/or repeating the short phrase you picked. With repetition you will anchor the feeling so strongly that by simply saying and or doing your performance cue you immediately enter the state that you have anchored.

Lastly, if you aren’t injured, remember to laugh, you are human, you make mistakes, big deal. Marla Streb put it best when I was trying to console her after a poor performance. She said, “Gene, its only a bike race, it not like we are saving lives”. That is good perspective.

“A champion isn’t someone who wins all the time. A Champion is someone who can suffer great adversity and come back to win again”

Yes, no matter which of the above methods you use it will take work but all things worth having (like peace of mind) require work. Knowledge is worthless without action!