Mountain Bike at your best

MTB: How are you supposed to get better if you don’t know what you are doing wrong?

How are you supposed to get better if you don’t know what you are doing wrong?

I got an interesting question the other day from a facebook “fan” and I think my answer upset him so much that he deleted the whole thread! The truth hurts! His question went something like this: Hey, thanks for the cornering post (about braking before corners) that was really helpful. I have a question for you, I feel better when I corner to my left than to my right. Cornering to the left feels fine but cornering to the right feels like I am doing something wrong. Can you help me corner better to the right?

My reply: First, don’t feel that you are weird because you feel better cornering to one side than the other, most if not all mountain bikers feel that way. From your question it sounds like that you don’t actually know how to corner (if you did you would know what you are doing wrong). So your first step is to learn how to corner properly! Then you will be able to figure out what you are doing wrong to the right.


Well, I guess he didn’t like that answer as the post was gone the next morning when I went to see if he had written back! As I said the truth hurts and that shows one of the many distinctions between a coach and an instructor. Instructors usually teach short lessons (1-4 hours) and have huge incentive to make you like them (a second lesson, tips) while coaching is a longer term approach and a coach has to walk a fine line between telling the truth and not hurting your self-esteem, or in the case above, his ego. While I don’t want to hurt a students self-esteem I am not going to lie to someone to boost their self-esteem. Lying as a coach just leads to students being over confident leading to failure and/or injury.

As you know I and our coaches are passionate about helping you ride better. We do our best to give the best free advice on the good ole interweb and the best coaching available in person. Honesty can be painful to some and obviously that was painful to him, which is too bad. I wasn’t insulting him, just pointing out a fact, he doesn’t know how to corner (just like I have no idea how to do his job).

Our students say that one of the best things about our camp is when something goes wrong they now know why it went wrong and how to fix that mistake so it doesn’t happen again. Much of what we coach can be found in this blog and our mini-course so if you haven’t been to one of our skills progressions yet, read through this blog. While nothing in print form can hold a candle to good coaching there is a lot of great information here if you study it (versus just reading it) and practice it! Remember, knowledge is worthless without action! The goal isn’t to “know” something, the goal is to be able to “do” something, consistently, even in the most adverse conditions.

mtb skills

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

On trail you aren’t doing what you know you are supposed to do! Every riding “tip” you have heard or read isn’t working because you don’t mountain bike with the part of your brain that listens to those tips! I know because I was a frustrated, professional mountain biker racer with 10 years of mtb experience who realized that I was looking down, a lot! Despite being a former professional snowboard racer and a snowboard race coach who was always stressing the importance of looking ahead (and was damn good at looking ahead on a snowboard). The listening part of your brain is great at mental tasks, solving math problems, remembering your childhood phone number, reading this blog and THINKING! When riding our bikes we don’t want to think! As a matter of fact thinking is the worst thing we can do. When we are mountain biking well he are simply doing, not thinking, not trying, we are on “auto-pilot” and just doing! Riding a bike is a lot like driving a car, have you ever gotten home from work and as you pulled into your driveway thought, “how the heck did I get home”? You don’t remember the route, you certainly don’t remember turning on your blinker, applying your brakes at a stop sign, looking both ways and then turning left. You don’t remember because your “big”, conscious, thinking brain isn’t being used to do the task of driving.

You don’t mountain bike with your “big brain” because your cerebellum (“little brain”) controls your motor skills and the best way to teach it is through practice. When I explain something to you your “big brain” says, “yes, that makes sense, I will do that from now on” but your “little brain” will go out and do what it is used to doing, not what I just taught you. This is the reason coaches invented drills for sports, musical instruments and even math, because there is a big difference between understanding and doing.

I bring all of this up because when I was out riding on Saturday I saw the most interesting thing. I was descending and saw a rider climbing the trail I was going down, so I pulled over to give him is right of way and watched him climb. He was staring right in front of his front tire, for at least 30 seconds! Yet, this guy works for a large bike manufacturer and has been riding for nearly two decades. I know if you asked him, “is it important to look ahead?”, he would say “yes”! Yet, he wasn’t looking ahead, not even for a second and he was weaving all over the trail and really struggling. So he knows to look ahead but isn’t doing it because he hasn’t taught is body and his cerebellum to look ahead.

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!

When you are just learning any new motor skill involving the performance of complex sequenced movements like mountain biking or talking or writing, etc., you use your primary motor cortex, your primary sensory cortex (in order to monitor how your muscles are moving) and two other regions of the brain called the caudate nucleus and thalamus. The role of the caudate and the thalamus is to help coordinate and smooth out the movements in response to how the movements feel to you. They also help you to speed up your movements as you become a better rider.

After you become a highly experienced mountain biker, another region of the brain usually takes over; it’s called the cerebellum (or little brain). Whenever we perform a well-learned movement we access our cerebellum to retrieve the memory of how to move our muscles quickly, efficiently and without thinking. This is why thinking while riding usually gets in the way of riding well. Once you know the movements needed to do the skills to ride well, the cerebellum allows you to execute them without thinking about how to do those skills.

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

Another Pro XC racer looking down (and way out of position). So sad to spend all that time and energy training to be that fit only to lose 2-3 minutes an hour because of poor vision techniques!

In the case above (experienced rider looking down) he has practiced the incorrect method of looking down so much that now is cerebellum is telling him to look down. If he gets wise to the importance of looking ahead it will take months of doing structured vision drills to reprogram his cerebellum so that he starts looking ahead on the trail. A great case of you aren’t doing what you know you are supposed to do.

Through this blog, our free mini-course and our camps we really want to help you to ride your best. Please don’t let your ego trick you into thinking that because you “know” a particular skill that you are actually doing it. I have had the pleasure of coaching motocross racers, GP motorcycle racers and car racers, all sports which require looking way further ahead than we do on mountain bikes (because of their much greater speed). The interesting thing was they were all surprised (and often angry) at how much they caught themselves looking down on their mtb. It surprised me too! It turns out that “little brain” training is sport specific. So do the drills in our mini-course, do the drills in our blog articles and if you have been fortunate enough to take one of our camps do the drills from the camp. Knowledge is worthless until you can consistently put that knowledge into action!

Create your best ride yet,


Mountain bike coach Gene Hamilton Mushroom rock

Mountain Bikers, Follow Your Passion!

This is from a Quora (.com) question about whether following your passion is good advice or bad advice. Mountain bikers should follow their passion and see where it takes them.

Passions change, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful both personally and financially following your passion/s. You are not going to be great at something you aren’t passionate about! You may become good, but never great. The book “Mastery” explains it best and almost describes my life to a T. I have always followed my passions and through multiple passions I came to be a “master” (master in quotes as I am still learning and improving, I feel no one truly masters something as dynamic as mountain bike coaching as it is constantly changing) at something that I never started out to master. That mastery as created my dream lifestyle (and a lifestyle I couldn’t do with a “job”).

Let’s start at the beginning, as kid I was really into riding my bike, then into skateboarding, then back to my bike, then hot rod cars, then for my first two years of college, girls! After my sophomore year I took a year off from school to move to Colorado and follow my new passion, skiing. Within a month of moving to Colorado I discovered snowboarding and that became my passion for the next seven years. I went back to college and got my degree but snowboarding still consumed me. In the late 80’s I discovered two new passions both related to snowboarding, coaching and mountain biking. A few years later I got my dream job coaching a snowboard team! I spent the next three years learning all I could about coaching and really enjoying the rewards of it. During this time my passion for snowboarding was slowly waning as my passion for mountain biking grew. Eventually I quit my snowboard coaching job to start coaching mountain biking. That was 1999 and as one of four or five  founders (separate, we were in different parts of the country and did not work together) of mountain bike coaching it started really slow. Turns out everyone thought they would magically get better by riding more! As a matter of fact probably 90% of mountain bikers still feel that way. As you can imagine, it was a slow start! So I took a bar-tending job (later even delivering Domino’s Pizza as a 38-year-old college graduate!) so I could work nights and work on my coaching business during the day. In 2004 I went full-time (quit any side jobs) and now, 11 years later I have a full-time operations director, intern and ten coaches working for us! The best thing about it isn’t my lifestyle though it is emails and facebook posts like this: “Gene,

Hope this finds you well. As a fellow business owner I understand the value of customer feedback, both constructive and complimentary.

Yesterday, I completed a 3 day camp in Fairfax Va. where I had the pleasure to meet Coach Chip. Chip was knowledgeable, patient,
good-natured and a strong communicator. He was not only able to clearly communicate the better ride principles and techniques but he
was also able to easily demonstrate everything in a variety of conditions.

Most importantly his sincere love for mountain biking came through in all of the time that we spent together. I have found that it is a much more enjoyable learning experience when the person that is doing the teaching has a true passion for it. The three-day camp not only significantly improved my skills but really stoked my fire for the sport.

The better ride team is fortunate to have Chip as a coach and I was fortunate to spend three days with him.

Looking forward to taking the next level class.”


Mountain Bike Coaching

BetterRide Coach Chip assisting students in a cornering drill designed to ingrain the right habits.

We are fortunate to have Chip, Andy, Andy, Jeff, Dylan, Brian, Dante, Jackie, Don, and Heidi coaching for us!
So follow your passion, but be prepared for it to change, morph and grow in unexpected ways. Mastery (which is a funny word as I learn something new everyday) and the path there is way more fun and rewarding than just doing something for the money! Be responsible though and realize that making a living in the bike industry is tough but so is anything really rewarding.
Following your passion/s isn’t easy, glamorous or as well paying in the short term as many jobs, I lived in VW Van for a year when I first went full-time with BetterRide, then I upgraded my house to a Sprinter van the next year! In the long term though things have worked out quite well.
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.