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Mountain Biking Skills Tips Are Worthless – How to Make Them Work!

I often say, “knowledge is worthless without action” and after writing my post on instincts I realized a great way to explain it. This is the follow up article to my original article on instincts, if you haven’t already I recommend reading it first (http://betterride.net/?p=1837 ) .

There are a million riders out there eager to help their fellow riders, but few are qualified. I will use a couple of common tips that are good, correct tips as examples.

One tip you hear a lot is “look ahead”, which is correct and vital to riding well. While there is nothing wrong with this advice it does a rider little good. Knowing something and actually doing it are too different things entirely! So knowing to look ahead is unlikely to help as that knowledge is in your smart, thinking brain, while action comes from your “reptilian brain” which doesn’t think, but simply acts according to instinct. Have you ever driven home and not remembered any of the drive? That is because you are not using your thinking, conscious brain. You didn’t think, “put on my blinker, slow down, stop, look both ways and turn right on 18th street”, you just did it! Skills need to be the same way!

Fear (and I don’t mean terror, just not wanting to crash or slide out) causes your survival instincts to kick in. Did millions of years of being hunter and gatherers and then farmers teach the correct survival instincts for mountain biking? No, have you ever entered a turn, felt like you were going too fast and hit your breaks in the middle of a turn? Well your survival instinct just made things a lot worse, by breaking you decreased your traction, greatly shifted your weight and decreased your lean angle, all making the problem worse.

So, the only way to make “skills tips” work is to make them instinctual. To do this we need 3 things: First, an understanding of how the skill works (how can I look ahead but still make it through all of those rocks?) Once we understand how the skill works we need to trust the skill. Just believing what someone said isn’t enough, we need proof that it works (and proof that it works in all situations). Now that we understand and trust the skill we need the skill to become instinctual which is often tough, right now our instincts tell us to do the opposite (such as look down when we know we are supposed to look ahead). Test this, go ride a rocky trail and see how often you catch yourself looking less than 10 feet ahead. Depending on your speed you should be looking 20-80 feet ahead. To make a skill instinctual we must do drills! Not just random drills, drills that are designed to get you to do the skill correctly and produce a new instinct or “habit “.

A second great tip is to stay centered on your mountain bike with your weight on the pedals when descending. Makes sense, works great, but is very hard to do. From my instincts post: “Moving your rear end way back on a descent feels good, you are moving away from danger! Skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers instinctively do this, yet it puts them in an out of balance, non-neutral (once shifted/leaned back we can only move or react in one direction, forward) out of control position. Despite all the logic that says we should be centered, without practicing staying centered and neutral we will naturally creep back on descents.” To stop this bad instinct of getting way back and start riding centered you must first understand why we should stay centered and how to do it (if you don’t know this please sign up for our free mini-course which explains this in detail with videos). Once you understand why and how to do it you must remove fear from the equation so you can practice perfectly. This can be done just riding down a paved hill and focusing on weight on the pedals. Once you are used to having you weight on the pedals and it feels comfortable and normal on a paved road start practicing it on mellow trails and work you way up to the toughest trails you can find (and you will realize that the steeper and tougher the trail the more you instinctively want to move back). Of course there is way more to descending body position than just where your weight is, but this is a huge head start!

If you have ever watched the best athletes in the world practice, this is what they do. Day after day, even when they have mastered a skill they continue to do drills because if they stop the old instincts will take over. All top athletes spend more time doing drills than actually playing/doing their sport. I don’t expect you to do that, but what percentage of your riding time do you spend doing structured drills designed to help you master a specific skill?

The entire BetterRide skills progression is based on explaining a skill, demonstrating the skill and then having you master the skill with carefully designed drills. This is the only way to learn to actually do something correctly.  Ask any top ski racer, tennis player, football player, martial artist, boxer, wrestler, MMA fighter or basketball player and they will tell you the same. Michael Jordan needed more drills than all his high school peers as he was a lousy basketball player his freshman and sophomore years. Jerry Rice set and holds nearly all receiving records in the NFL, yet he was not close to being the fastest receiver in the sport. Jerry Rice’s training and practice is legendary, he would practice running patterns by himself after practice ended. He was determined to make all the movements, skills and patterns instinctual.

Why Our Instincts Fail Us On Our Mountain Bikes!

As a matter of fact our instincts fail us in most sports. Why, because fear and self preservation are much bigger motivators than logic and reason! You will always instinctively move away from danger, if your computer suddenly burst into flames would you stay right where you are or jump back away from it? Intuition also fails us in sports as we tend to use it  instead of logic and reason. In other words what feels good often isn’t correct and most people tend to learn by doing what feels good, they don’t spend hours studying how to stay in balance and in control.

Moving your rear end way back on a descent feels good, you are moving away from danger! Skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers instinctively do this yet it puts them in an out of balance, non-neutral (once shifted/leaned back we can only move or react in one direction, forward) out of control position. Despite all the logic that says we should be centered without practicing staying centered and neutral we will naturally creep back on descents. Getting riders to stop leaning back into the “safety position” is  one of the skills ski and snowboard coaches work on the most. Especially in skiing where you actually want your weight pushing against the tongues of your boots which not intuitive at all!

Leaning into a turn also feels natural but again puts you off balance (you weight is no longer above your bike pushing down on the tires) and makes you likely to slide out. We are not on 350 pound motorcycles on swept pavement with 12″ wide sticky tires! Leaning works on street bikes but is a recipe  for sliding out on a mountain bike. Ever have your front wheel slide in a high speed corner? Fast corners tend to be downhill and we accelerate through them. The steeper the corner and/or the higher the speed the more your instincts want to get back off the rear of your bike which un-weights the front wheel (if you also lean with your bike this really increases the odds of having the front wheel slide).

Looking straight down at the trail to avoid rocks feels good and makes sense, “I have to see the rock to avoid it, don’t I?” Yes, it helps to see the rock but not stare at it when it is 5-10 feet away, by then (or sooner, when the rock is 15-30 feet away) we need to be looking past it. Wow, is that hard to do! Even after spending 40 minutes explaining to our students how their vision works and doing 5 different drills that prove to the students that they don’t need to look down they tell us it is still hard to look ahead (and many of these students are pro racers who have been riding for 10-20 years!), especially hard to look past rocks. That is why we have drills, to master our vision, logic alone is not powerful enough to overcome fear and the survival instinct, to overcome fear you need a lot of proof and practice over a long period of time.

Experiment, go ride a trail with rocky sections and see if you are looking past rocks when they 15-30 feet ahead of you. If you catch yourself looking only 3-5 feet in front of you you are not looking ahead correctly, causing you to, tense up, go slower, react and mirco-manage the trail and likely stall out. Watch videos of the best racers in the world like Greg Minnaar, Aaron Gwin and Steve Peat, you will notice that they are always looking 20-100 feet ahead and never glancing down. This is much easier said than done!

Other times instincts hurt our riding and endanger us:

Ever put your foot down in a corner?! Putting you foot down inside of you puts you off balance and makes you more likely to slide out yet we all do it. Even world champ Greg Minnaar does it occasionally, because it is instinctive, but Greg will be the first to say that putting your foot down is a bad idea!

Ever skid your rear tire because you are not using enough front brake? Again, until you master that front brake you will always be a little timid to use it to its full potential. Fear is powerful.

Ever get the death grip (a very tight grip) on your bars?  This just makes everything worse as you stiffen up and ride really rough but when at all scared (I don’t mean terrified, just a little concerned for you safety) riders instinctively do this (I know I do!) despite knowing that it is wrong.

This is the reason all top athletes have skills coaches (ever see an Olympic skier, tennis player, golfer, martial artist, wrestler, etc. without a coach/es? Nope, can’t master or reach you personal best at any sport without first understanding the fundamental skills and then doing drills to master those skills), I can’t think of a single sport that is intuitive and instinctual. Heck, even runners have stride coaches, what could be more “natural” for us than running? (well, if you ever see me run you will understand the need for stride coaches!)

If you are tired of letting your instincts rule your riding and put you in out of control and out of balance positions, looking only a few feet in front of you in technical sections (even though you know to look ahead) and want to start riding smoother, safer and faster invest in your skills and take a mountain bike camp from us that is guaranteed (or your money back) to greatly improve your riding.

The Best Mountain Bike For Learning Skills?

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky’s take on long travel “trail” mountain bikes:

Recently, a friend of mine rode one of the latest “longer travel” trail bikes (around 160 mm of rear wheel travel) and was blown away by the bikes capabilities on the trail. He couldn’t come up with a reason why he shouldn’t have one and he asked me what I thought.

I told him that I may not be the best guy to talk to when trying to make the decision on whether or not to buy a new bike – of course you need one of those! Who doesn’t!

But he asked me another very interesting question about having a “bigger” (more travel, slacker angles, heavier – more “all-mountain” or “free-ride”) bike versus a “smaller” (lighter, less travel, steeper angles – more XC race oriented) bike, and which would be the best bike for skill progression.

I think that most riders believe that the smaller bike would be. It would require more skill to ride: it would force better line choices, near perfect riding position, etc, and therefore, make a rider learn proper technique. While with the big bike, one could simply plough into obstacles, and the bike would do all the work – no skill required!

But I actually feel that the opposite is true: the bigger bike is more likely to give the rider the tools necessary to learn proper technique while the smaller bike may actually inhibit the learning process.

Why?

First, we don’t learn very well when we’re scared or in “survival mode”. With many bikes that are very much on the XC racing side of the spectrum, the combination of things like tire choice, stem length, the geometry of the frame, the rigidity and strength of the parts (or lack thereof) – especially having the seat jacked up to the climbing height when descending (no adjustable height seat post) – can all add up to a pretty dicey ride when trying to negotiate difficult terrain. Will the thing climb like a rocket ship? Yep, probably will. But as soon as these bikes get pointed downhill or into tough terrain, a lot of riders end up in the “just-try-not-to-crash-mode”. And this is obviously not a very good environment for learning and applying new techniques.

On the other hand, the bigger bike will instill confidence. The rider will now have a controlled setting of sorts, and have the ability to focus on specific aspects of riding instead of simply “just-trying-not-to-crash”.

More importantly, the larger bike allows for higher speeds in the tough sections, thus, allowing the rider the opportunity to process the trail at these higher speeds and get accustomed to them. This is huge.

Anyone who has ever taken BetterRide instruction comes away with a new understanding and respect for how important vision is on the bicycle. We spend a lot of time on vision, breaking down the techniques for using vision on the bike, how and why they are necessary. We stress that if you can only learn one chunk of the instruction of the three-day camp, make it vision because it is the most important thing when riding the bike.

Though very few do it properly, most riders do understand the importance of seeing the good lines and putting the bike in the right place on the trail. This aspect of vision is obviously very important (and kind of complex and counter-intuitive). But there is way more to vision and bike riding then just that.

Of our five senses, vision is giving us nearly all of the information about what is happening with our ride. If I am scared, it is because I see obstacles that Iook intimidating or maybe because I’m going – what I perceive to be – too fast. The way we see the trail and its perceived dangers affects us psychologically and this determines the decisions that we will make.

Again, a bigger bike gives you the opportunity to learn how to see and process the trail at higher speeds. You become comfortable at these speeds and therefore confident. Now you are able to work on techniques and learn skills and apply them at speeds and in terrain that would be very difficult to do with a smaller bike.

Yes, you will eventually find your limits on the bigger bike. And, yes, you do have to pedal the thing to the top (usually). But now, even if you do go back to that svelte XC race machine after being on the big dog, you now have the ability to process at those higher speeds. Speeds that used to be intimidating, no longer are. Of course you will have to slow down for stuff on the small bike that you didn’t have to slow down for on the big bike, but now that decision is more academic and not driven by fear and intimidation.

A few “for instances”:

Speeds on my XC/trail bike don’t seem fast because I’m used to the speeds of a downhill bike. Obstacles on an XC trail aren’t intimidating because I’m used to the obstacles on DH track.

Most of us have probably heard the story of someone’s buddy, who is a dirt bike rider and went on a MTB ride for the first time in his life, and was extremely fast on the descents – right away! Well, this person is used to processing the trail at dirt bike speeds (that are usually much greater then MTB speeds). He’s not intimidated, he’s seeing good lines; he’s doing this part of riding – the most important part – very well.

The above is also a big reason why many pro downhillers ride a lot of motocross in the off-season.

And, if we put an average DH racer on an XC bike and point her downhill, she’ll ride the wheels off the thing, only slowing because of the perceived limitations that the bike imposes on her – but not because of perceived limitations of her skill!

So, if you were on the fence about getting into a longer travel trail machine, jump off and grab that credit card! Not only will you have a blast, but also you’ll own a great new tool for developing skills that will transfer over to you XC race bike very nicely!

For Gene article on finding a confidence inspiring bike click this link: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/the-ideal-confidence-inspiring-mountain-bike/