Fear and Mountain Biking Part 2, Decreasing Fear by Improving Skill and Confidence

Fear and Mountain Biking Part 2 (Read part 1 here: https://wp.me/p49ApH-1vq)

Fear is a powerful and often misunderstood emotion that has some effect on every mountain bike ride we do. The fear we ALL experience while mountain biking varies greatly in intensity from rider to rider and from trail to trail. Most riders think of pro downhill racers as fearless but in my 19 years of coaching them and 15 years of being one I have found that even the fastest pro downhill racers experience fear, on beginner trails!

So the idea of “No Fear” is comical at best, we all experience fear and it isn’t always a bad thing, fear can save us from injury and keep us from doing things we aren’t skilled enough to do. On the other hand, fear that is not in proportion to the risk we are taking can really mess us up! Too little fear and we do things over our head and get hurt! Too much fear and we question our ability and end up not riding or crashing on a section of trail we are capable of riding smoothly and in control.

There are a ton of macho guys reading this right now saying, “Not me, I am fearless!”, please, anyone saying that needs to ride a world cup downhill track or the new Redbull Rampage site! Do some people experience less fear than others?  Of course, that is why I and thousands of other mountain bikers have ended up in the emergency room! We either didn’t experience the appropriate amount of fear or charged in despite the fear. Fear that keeps you from riding Cam Zink’s line at the Redbull Rampage is good! Fear that keeps you from riding a section of trail you honestly have the skill to ride in control is bad.

The worst fear though is that minor fear, where you keep riding but are too concerned with your own safety to ride at your best! As a matter of fact, when our confidence drops so does our athletic performance! Coordination is directly tied to confidence when you lose confidence you also lose your coordination. So, until you are confident walk the sections of trail that scare you (and design a plan to increase your skill so you can ride that section confidently one day).

I am well known for my intense curriculum featuring deliberate practice using drills in a safe, controlled environment (often a paved parking lot) and then applying those skills on trail. I have noticed a pattern that happens in all of our camps regardless of our students’ age/experience/perceived skill level, even at our downhill camps at Bootleg Canyon with pros like Cody Kelly and Luca Cometti, students do our cornering drills really well on pavement then not so well on dirt (at first, which is why drills are so important)!

At Bootleg Canyon we use Girl Scout for our on trail cornering practice, the easiest trail on the mountain. Watching our students practicing deliberately on pavement (photo below) I am always impressed by how quickly they catch on to correct cornering technique. Then we head over to Girl Scout and they aren’t doing what they were just doing in the parking lot, they look totally different. Why do they go from executing the skills well on pavement to not so well on dirt? Fear! No, pro downhill racers aren’t scared of Girl Scout Trail, but they are more concerned about their safety than they were in the parking lot. Even on a beginner trail, there is not as much traction as the parking lot, there are rocks to avoid, bushes and cacti on the side of the trail, penalties for mistakes. This concern for your safety (fear) distracts you and hinders your performance.

Rick Practicing is mountain bike skills

BetterRide camper Rick (who has been mountain biking since the early 1990’s) practicing his cornering skills! Look at that outside elbow, up and out where it should be.

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. Not a “scary” trail but he isn’t as sharp as in the parking lot. He needs to look a little further ahead and lead with that outside elbow like he did on the pavement.

 

Fear is stored in your “Lizard Brian” or “Reptilian Brian”, part of your brain stem where instincts and action occur WITHOUT thought. Have you ever noticed that sometimes, despite knowing that you are supposed to do something (like look ahead) you don’t do it on trail? Have you ever driven home and upon getting home said to yourself, “how the heck did I get home?” That is because knowledge and your “thinking brain” don’t help you do, doing comes from the same Lizard brain where fear is stored, and doing is similar to being on autopilot, your body just does what the autopilot makes it do.

This creates a problem as your conscious, thinking brain wants one thing (to float over that rock) while your Lizard brain wants something else, usually to protect you (get off your bike and walk over the rock). As you probably already know, when it comes to riding your mountain bike the lizard brain always wins! (On a side note this often why you might know exactly how to do something yet still can’t do it.)

How do we get our Lizard Brain/autopilot and conscious thinking brain to work together? Drills! The whole goal of drills is to ingrain a habit or movement pattern. By ingrain, I mean make that habit so dominant that no matter how tough that trail is your body does the correct technique without any thought (hence the autopilot analogy). There is an old saying that is so true, “Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong!” (which means pros never stop practicing!)

Once we understand the correct technique and do drills to ingrain that technique we need to upgrade our self-image as a mountain biker. Let’s say there is tough rock section that has troubled you for years, you have never made it (and probably think something like, “darn, here comes that rock that always messes me up” as you approach it (like the wall in my video above, how to video tutorial coming soon!). Then you take a BetterRide camp and learn the correct combination of skills to get over that rock and wham, you do it! This is when you need to stop, get off your bike, look at that rock and update your self-image. “Wow, that rock used to mess me up every ride, now it is easy, I simply look to victory, manual, shift my weight and off I go (what I did in the video)! That rock is so easy now, watch, I’ll do it again.” Then do it again and really cement the idea that that rock is now easy and you have the skill to do it consistently.

Skill has a huge impact on fear. Cam Zink probably has a lot less fear of the most challenging trail you have ever ridden. Not because he is crazy (he is quite calculating actually) but because his skill at riding steep, challenging line is near/at the top of the sport. More skill (combined with belief in that skill) equals less fear in any given situation.

If you are honestly really skilled but you feel your fear level is not in proportion to your skill work on updating your self-image. If you aren’t really skilled work on improving your skills, then updating your self-image as your skills improve. Remember, fear is there for a reason and it often helps keep us safe but if it is holding you back work on getting your fear into proportion with your skill.

Fear is also where men and women differ greatly! In my next article on Fear and Mountain Biking I will explain what I have learned about how men and women respond to fear and how this difference affects your ride and often your relationship.

Thanks for tuning in! If you know anyone who could benefit from this article please feel free to share it with them. What are you afraid of while mountain biking? What affects your fear? Is your fear based in reality or made up? Please share your experiences with fear below.

 

The Unhealthy Side of Mountain Biking

As you probably know, I love mountain biking but mountain biking isn’t all good, it can be bad for you. I am not talking about crashing (which is definitely bad for you) but simply riding mountain bikes. Mountain biking, like many sports, can be PART of a very healthy lifestyle. I stress the word “part” because mountain biking should not be your only form of exercise and you need to take care of its ill effects.

This is multiplied if you spend the bulk of your now riding time sitting down! Sitting with poor posture can really exacerbate and even cause major back trouble.

The idea for this article came when I saw two very fit looking road cyclists get off their bike and then hobble to the door. They could barely walk! They were hunched over, stiff and very wobbly! Luckily, because mountain bikers stand, absorb shock and are more dynamic than road cyclists (who often stay in the same hunched over position for hours) mountain biking isn’t as bad a road cycling but it still can lead to imbalances in our body. Few sports work all muscles, ligaments, and tendons equally which is one of the reasons “cross-training” is popular in most sports.

If you like to mountain bike as much as I do don’t forget to mix things up every week! The best thing I have discovered to help me stay fit, healthy and balanced is yoga. A structured weight training program with mobility exercises and self-massage/myofascial release (foam and lacrosse ball rolling) is also a great compliment to my mountain biking. Weight training and yoga are also great mental breaks from mountain biking (which due to the concentration needed to ride single track is very mentally stressful).

Why strength training for mountain biking?

  • Mountain biking requires a stable core and a strong lower back, yet riding really doesn’t build a stable core and a strong lower back. It takes work to build a stable core and a strong lower back and achieving both will give you more power on your bike, as well as more control and greatly decrease your chance of injury!
  • Mountain biking is asymmetrical exercise when standing and coasting all riders have a foot that they prefer to put forward and a preferred trailing foot. This works each leg’s muscles quite differently and twists your hips. A good exercise like Bulgarian Split Squats which works each leg separately can help rebalance and realign you!
  • Consult a qualified trainer to help with finding the correct exercises and executing them correctly, incorrect form while lifting weights can cause more harm than good.

Why self-massage/myofascial release (foam and lacrosse ball rolling) for mountain bikers?

  • Mountain biking can really tighten us up! Short tight hamstrings, tight IT bands, tight hips, tight chest, neck, and back are all symptoms of mountain biking, no matter how fit you are. Foam and lacrosse ball rolling are great forms of self-massage and can really loosen you up! I would have had to of stopped riding years ago if I had not discovered the benefits of rolling.
  • Once you buy the roller and the lacrosse ball it is free! It just takes time and some uncomfortable work but it pays off my opening you up for peak performance (or, often in my case, simply allows me to ride!).
  • Not familiar with self-massage/myofascial release foam rolling or using a lacrosse ball, do a quick google search, there are probably 100 books on the subject as well as hundreds of youtube videos and free articles on the how and why of it. Or talk with your trainer, physical therapist or yoga instructor.

Why yoga for mountain bikers?

  • Yoga helps your posture, your breathing, your mobility, your focus and helps calm you.
  • Yoga really helps with your body awareness, proprioception, and balance which many of my students struggle with as did I as pro snowboarder and in my early days as a professional mountain biker.
  • As a mountain biker, who also lifts weights I get plenty of “yang” my favorite form of yoga is called “yin” yoga and it really opens up your body my holding poses for one to five minutes at a time.
  • Yoga done poorly can really mess you up, especially if you like to “push” things. Take classes from qualified instructors and make sure you aren’t “cheating”. The goal isn’t to force yourself into a position, the goal is to gently open up your body.

I find the more yoga I do the better I ride (because I breathe better, have better focus and have greater effective strength and flexibility) and the more I enjoy and look forward to riding (my back doesn’t hurt, the day off from riding made me miss riding). The same goes for strength training and self-massage. With warm weather on the way and great trails beckoning you to ride, it is hard to take a break and do something else, but if you force yourself to be more balanced in how you exercise and recover you will have more fun on the trail in the long run.

In short, balance your riding with other athletic pursuits to be healthier, happier, faster and have more fun!

Yoga, self-massage/myofascial release, and weight training are my favorite forms of exercise to balance with my riding, what others forms of exercise do you do to compliment your riding? What do you like about it and how does help you? Please comment below.

As always, feel free to share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it.

If you are as obsessed with mountain biking as I am please read/re-read this article:

Fear when mountain biking is good!

Mountain Bikers, How to Brake More Effectively, Video Tutorial

Using your front brake effectively is one of the most important skills on a mountain bike. Proper use of the front brake gives you much more control making you safer, faster and more confident. Now, when braking to cut speed (the main reason we use our front brake) you also want to use that weak rear brake to assist that powerful front brake. Watch my video tutorial and then read below for more detail on this important mtb skill.

An important piece I left out of the video is that you always want to cut speed in a straight line! Using that front brake and cutting speed in a corner is a recipe for disaster!

Your body position while braking is crucial and this often taught wrong (I taught it incorrectly from the start of BetterRide in the spring of 1999 until the fall of 2005)! What I taught and what I recently read from one of the best downhill racers in the world is, as you are braking get your weight back. This is terrible advice for a number of reasons (that I will address in a moment), so why did one of the best downhill racers in the world recommend this position? Because it feels like you are getting back when you are braking hard, what he is actually doing is bracing really hard so he doesn’t get tossed forward.

Granted, I used to get my weight back while braking and because it was such an ingrained habit! I still start to scout back sometimes when braking hard. It is also human instinct to move away from danger so it feels good to scoot back (until you crash :)).

There are a few reasons pushing your weight back while braking is bad (or pretty much any time except when manuling) :

  • It puts you in an off-balance and non-neutral position that I call the flying catapult! As your arms straighten and your butt goes back you end up at the end of your range of motion, with no “sag” in your body’s suspension. In this position, if your front wheel were to suddenly descend (drop or roll) more than a foot you will get yanked forward and downward causing your weight to get tossed forward. If you have ever had an endo where it felt like your bike catapulted you into the ground, it did (catapult you into the ground). Please check out this blog article on the importance of neutral, centered position on your bike: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/mountain-bike-desending-body-position-101-video-demonstration/
  • It greatly decreases your control and increases your braking distance (by taking weight off of the front wheel, not allowing you to use as much of that powerful front brake. This is easy to test (though a bit scary), simply to do the braking drill in my video on a dirt road or looser surface with your weight back. Instead of quickly coming to a stop, your front wheel will skid! See 6 second video below.
  • Usually, you are braking for a trail feature, most often on the straightaway into a corner, do you want to enter a corner with your weight back (no weight on the front wheel?). If the top downhill racer who recently said that you should shift your weight back while braking actually did that you would see him scoot back as he was braking for the corner, then, all in one motion, let go of the brakes, shift his weight forward and initiate the turn!
  • For more on this please read this article: http://betterride.net/blog/2014/braking-on-your-mountain-bike/

Speaking of the importance of using your front brake and braking in a straight line before a corner, a few years ago Cody Kelly (https://www.alchemy.bike/cody) was really excited to tell me that he is wearing out two sets of front brake pads before one set of rear brake pads! After hearing this I bowed to him and he said, “why are you bowing to me, you taught me to do that”. I replied that I may have taught him that (he took 5 or 6 of my camps) but I have 20 years of bad habits to overcome so I don’t exactly do that. In other words, I wasn’t practicing enough! The idea of wearing out two sets of front brake pads before one set of rear pads did inspire to practice more and while I don’t have Cody’s ratio for the last two years I have been wearing out one set of front pads before wearing out my rear pads!

Are you wearing out your front brake pads before your rear pads? Feel free to comment and/or ask any questions below.

Please share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it.

 

 

MTB, How to Optimally Set Your Suspension & Tire Pressure (beyond sag & what friends do)

You understand how to set your suspension sag (if not go to your bike brand’s website, they will tell you for your specific model), you know what the rebound adjustment does (again go to your bike brand’s website or your suspension brand’s website for more on this if you don’t know what it does) but you want to get your bike dialed in exactly for you, your speed, your trails, the way you ride them. I’m here to help!

This article is on how to optimally set your suspension and tire pressure for descending at your best, so you have as much control as possible descending at the speeds you like to ride. It should also set it up well for technical climbing too on most bikes too (especially with the use of the adjustable “platform” or “threshold damping control” (the green lever on a DVO Topaz, see photo, the lever is blue on many other shocks) with three settings, descend, all-mountain and climb).

DVO Topaz

I was practicing for the first South African National Downhill race (on my 130mm travel trail bike, this article is not just for downhillers!) the other day and I had a great time getting my bike dialed in. I thought I would share this process with you and how your suspension and tire pressure (and even tire type) can vary greatly depending on your goal.

Where I live when I’m in South Africa I don’t have the best trails for descending nearby and have a lot of steep fire roads to climb. So I bought a 29r wheelset with lighter tire casing to use here (instead of my usually 27.5 plus tires with “enduro sidewalls” (sidewalls that are a little thicker, stronger and cut resistant than normal trail tires but not as heavy or stronger as downhill tires)). The 29er set up with light, narrower tires is a little sketchy on the descents (which actually makes mellow descents more fun as they now require more skill) but much more enjoyable on the long and steep climbs.

After watching a GoPro video of the track it looked smooth and flat, the perfect track for my lighter 29r tires even though their cornering is poor. That’s why I hate GoPro footage! Turns out the track was much steeper in places, the corners were sharper than they looked in the video and loose as heck, after one run I switched to my 27.5 plus tires! It took a few runs to get used to those tires, their low pressure and added weight again (I usually run them at 13 psi in the front and 16-18 psi in the rear) but I was instantly impressed with how more traction they had for braking and cornering.

After that, I noticed that the softer tire pressure made the bike “bounce” a bit off some bumps so I slowed my rebound 2 clicks front and rear and it felt much better. I spent the rest of that afternoon just learning the track and picking lines.

The second day was fun but nearly all business as my speed on the track really picked up and every single run the bike did something I didn’t like and it needed some fine-tuning. The first run I dinged my front wheel and the tires felt a little squirmy in the berms so upped the pressure to 15 psi in the front and 18 psi in the rear (remember these are plus size tires on a track with only two small rock sections, at a rockier place like Bootleg Canyon I would up the pressure a bit).

Upping my tire pressure encouraged me to push a little harder and this time it was my rear suspension that felt a little soft (when pushing into the corners it would compress too much causing the rear of my bike to squat and then rebound), making cornering a bit unpredictable. First, instead of increasing my rear shock pressure I switched the “pedal platform” from “descend” to “trail”. This enabled me to keep the low pressure I was running (about 33% sag instead of 25%) for the steeps but firm it up a bit in the corners.

Whenever you adjust the rear suspension it affects the front suspension too. By stiffening my rear suspension I was riding a hair higher in the travel and more centered over my bottom bracket. This slightly steepened the head angle of my bike and put more weight than previously on the front of my bike. Now my front fork that was too soft, it was diving at the bottom of a steep g-out and in some corners. So I upped the high-speed compression damping by six clicks and took another run. That wasn’t enough, my fork was still diving so I increased the air pressure from 110 to 120 and backed off those six clicks on the high-speed compression knob.

That felt much better but my speed had increased a little more and now the rear suspension was a little too soft, so I upped the pressure by 5% (200 psi to 210 psi, one click slower on the rebound to keep the rebound the same as before the pressure increase) and it felt much better! I did one run with the damper switch on “trail” and one on run on “descend”. With the extra air pressure descend felt better. Finally dialed and ready for the race.

Here is a summary of what I did, why I did it and how you should do this.

  • I was fortunate to have a perfect two-minute test track with a paved shuttle! This enabled me to ride the same trail 10 times and make adjustments to my bike after every lap in only hours. A one to two-minute test tracks is awesome for testing bike setup! You can use longer trails and make adjustments on the trail but the trail may change (go from rough to smooth, fast to slow, etc) so you aren’t sure if your setup is better or the trail just smoothed out. By using the same trail you are hitting the same bumps and corners at the same speed when comparing adjustments.
  • I would do this on what you feel is your “typical” trail, similar to what you ride most of the time. Then set it, write it down and don’t spend too much time worrying about it unless your speed changes greatly or you are riding a trail with a big difference in speed and/or surface). For most of us, it isn’t our suspension that holds us back, it is our skill!
  • An example of speed and terrain differences is Porcupine Rim in Moab. On that trail, there are spots where you are hauling tail through rock fields, much higher speeds than most other trails in Moab. I always want to increase my tire pressure by 10-15% for that trail and usually stiffen my fork a bit too. Last spring I was so excited for my first Porcupine lap that I forgot to add that tire pressure and destroyed my rear rim and tire!
  • Write everything down in your journal. What the current settings are, how they felt, what you changed and why (was bottoming out so I increased rear shock pressure from 200 psi to 210 psi) then how the new setting felt. You might be surprised how often you return to these notes.
  • Adjust one thing at a time, if you adjust two things at once and it feels better you don’t know which change made it feel better. The only exception is with rebound if I increase the air pressure in my shock I need to slow the rebound a click or two so it stays the same speed.
  • Warm up before doing any testing! Our main suspension is our body and when we are cold it doesn’t move as quickly or as fluidly. If you start cold as you warm up every adjustment will feel better as your body is working better!
  • Once you find perfect, write it down including conditions (fast, dry trail with lots of braking bumps and loose corners). That way you know where to start if the conditions change, your speed changes or you lose air pressure and/or accidentally change your rebound or compression adjustment. In general, the faster you go the more you want to stiffen up the suspension and tire pressure (as you hit things harder the faster you go) and the slower you go (or trail forces you to go, you want to soften your suspension and tires pressure (as you hit things softer and put less force on the tires in corners).
  • After setting sag and/or initial air pressure in your suspension you are in the ballpark of where your air pressure should be but it may still need a 5-15% change in pressure to get it dialed. What you are shooting for is getting full travel (bottoming out) at two to three times on a rough two-minute descent. If you aren’t getting full travel you aren’t using all of the suspension available to you if you are bottoming out harshly, or more than three times in a short downhill you need to increase the pressure.
  • Always set sag/air pressure first, as changing air pressure greatly affects your rebound speed.
  • Many forks and more expensive rear shocks also have low-speed and high-speed compression damping. The speed, in this case, is the speed the shock is moving. This usually has to do with the size of what you are hitting, small bumps like gravel work the slow speed damping. If you notice your bike feels like it isn’t hooking up as well as it could be, try decreasing the low-speed damping (or decreasing the air pressure). If your suspension feels too linear (like the last bit of travel moves as easily as the first bit of travel) or is bottoming out try increasing the high-speed compression
  • Coil springs are becoming more popular on trail bikes and have always been very popular on downhill bikes. Getting the right weight spring is very important. If you need more than three full turns of preload on the spring you need to go up in spring weight. Increasing preload will also speed up your rebound speed.
  • Rebound speed is largely personal preference.  A great starting point is to have the shock and fork rebound at about the speed your arms and legs would move to return to the “ready” position. from there if after the shock you have absorbed it feels like the bike wants to push back against you like a pogo stick try slowing the rebound. If it feels like the suspension gets harsher with each successive bump try speeding up the rebound (this will allow your suspension to return to it’s “ready” position before the next hit. To make you bike feel predictable it is nice to have the same rebound speed front and rear.
  • As for tire pressure, in general, you want to run as low a pressure as you can without, burping the tires, dinging your rims, having your tire squirm in the corners or flatting. Lower pressure gives you better traction and better small bump compliance.

Lastly, spend some time on this! Bikes, suspension, and tires are amazing these days, but I have felt some riders suspensions setup that were terrible. I had a student who hated is new, $5,000 bike. I rode and realized why the rear suspension was way to stiff for him and the front shock too soft. By simply spending a few minutes setting the correct air pressure and adjusting his rebound he went from hating the bike to saying it was the best bike he had ever ridden!

Feel free to share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it. Post any suspension or tire pressure comments below.