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Mountain Bike Your Best, Step by Step Plan

A simple, yet effective strategy to mountain bike your best that I learned from a restaurant manager at a former job. I was upset with the small volume of business we were doing, and hence my income as a bartender and my manager gave me some sage advice! Right in line with great teachers like Dan Millman and Abraham Lincoln, he said, “Gene, whether you are a janitor or president of the United States if you do your job to the best ability you will go home happy.” At the time I was young and I did the things I loved to the best my ability (I spent a small fortune on snowboard coaching and never missed a day of team practice) but often tried to just “get by” at things like that lame bartending job. Well, I took that to heart and it really changed my life! I put my best into that job everyday and it improved my life, my snowboarding and future jobs/businesses.

Mountain Bike at Your Best

Abe was wise!

How can this help you as a mountain biker? Well, it is so easy to make excuses to NOT do your best and just cruise through life seeking the easiest path. We are all prone to it, it is the new American dream, get rewarded for no effort, win the lottery, slip and fall in Wal-Mart and sue them for millions! I know you don’t consciously think that way but it is the prevailing attitude in our society and it is very hard not to be affected by it. I make the same excuses I hear my students say, “I’m too busy”, “if I put that much effort into it it won’t be fun, this is my escape, I don’t want it to become work”, “I’m just not a natural athlete“, etc. Then I get over it and start putting my heart and soul into!

Step 1: Realize fully that challenging yourself leads to happiness! Seriously, have you ever won something without effort? I’m sure were stoked but it wasn’t as powerful or long lasting as the stoke you got when you faced a big challenge and won! The easiest way is not the most enjoyable, rewarding and in the end, not the most fun way to go through life.

Step 2: Decide to be your best at mountain biking! Not my best, not your hero’s best, your best! Just saying, “I am committed to being my best everyday on my mountain bike!” probably puts a smile on your face and you want to take action, starting now!

Step 3: Commit to investing as much energy into your improvement that as you spend on your bike! Think about how much you spend on riding, bikes, clothes, gas, TIME, repairs, hospital bills, etc. Yet you have probably invested little to no time or money to honestly getting better.

Step 4: Read and study one/all of the following books and they will explain why riding everyday without structured practice will make you worse. All of these books talk about the importance of deliberate practice in improving at anything: The Talent Code, Talent is Overrated, Mastery, Outliers, Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster, Body Mind Mastery and pretty much any book on reaching your best.

Step 5: Realize that though you can ride trails better now than when you started you still aren’t as confident and skilled as you could be. Your instincts are great at hunting and gathering but terrible at mountain biking! Your instincts are thousands of years old and do terrible things like cause you to brake in a corner when you feel you are going to fast (about the worst thing you can do in a corner), your instincts cause you to look down when you bike slides or your in a rough rock garden (again, the worst thing you can do in those situations and you “know” to look ahead but your survival instincts won’t let you). Simply riding a little harder/faster each day does not make you better, it simply adapts you to your bad habits (at least for me and many of our students who took a camp after 5-30 years of “teaching” themselves), Bryson Martin, owner of DVO Suspension said this to Cedric Gracia (one of his sponsored athletes), “After over 30 years of riding this guy (pointing to me) taught me how to ride a bike.” My intent wasn’t to impress you with that comment, it was to impress upon you the importance of actually understanding the core skills of mountain biking and knowing how to get really good at those skills.

Step 6: Take one of our guaranteed, structured, skills progression camps. We are really good at helping you become much, much better and really want to help you! Pay attention, take notes and learn the core skills and drills to master those skills. It has worked for thousands of riders just like you, World Champions, National Champions, Pan American Champions, Olympic BMX Silver Medalists, riders with less experience than you and riders with more experience than you. (Coaching and coaching our coaches is what I focus on being my best at everyday, for the last 26 years!) This will be the best investment you have ever made in your riding or your money back.

Step 7: Practice! Actually practice, using structured drills with a purpose.

Step 8: Keep practicing! Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong! That is why the best athletes in the world spend 80-99% of their time practicing, not “doing” their sport! 99% of mountain bikers spend 100% of their mountain bike time doing and 0% practicing. Imagine practicing the correct, in balance, in control, efficient skills using drills for just 20 minutes three days a week! You would be riding much, much better in a very short amount of time!

Stop fooling yourself into thinking you just need to ride more to get better and start improving today by signing up for a BetterRide camp! We are here to help.

What can consistent deliberate practice do for you? Well, in my case, I’m 48 (racing age 49), not in great shape (haven’t done any leg work other than riding in over a year) but still managed a second place finish (behind Redbull Rampage legend Lance Canfield) on a gnarly track this weekend at Bootleg Canyon. As an old scared guy I finished ahead of a lot of much fitter, more fearless riders, nothing beats skills!

Do your drills, make everything we taught you second nature and you will be amazed at how confidently you ride ANY trail!

Minnaar cornering, centered and in balance.

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.

Save Hundreds of Dollars a Year on MTB Parts and …

… Have Way More Fun! Are you MTB trail aware? (stop clipping pedals/derailleurs!) MTB parts are expensive! Have you ever clipped a pedal on a rock or root? Have you ever smashed your derailleur into something on trail? These are two common and expensive problems that I hear about a lot.

Clipping pedals is more common today than in the past because to make mountain bikes handle better designers try and keep the bottom bracket as low as possible. The goal is to lower your center of gravity (one reason Porsche 911s corner better than 4runners). This comes at a price though, the lower your BB the more likely you are to clip your pedals on rocks, roots and the “high side” of a bench cut trail. Rear derailleurs have always stuck out a little and they are behind you so they are tough to watch out for.  These design features can lead to broken MTB parts and ruined rides but both are easily avoided with practice. I call this skill being “trail aware”. The first step is realizing the trail at ground level is much different and usually much narrower than at handlebar level. Just because your 820mm SMAC Moto Bars made it through doesn’t mean your pedals will make it through! To avoid clipping your pedals you need to be aware of the rocks, roots and changing contour of the trail, WHILE looking ahead!  You do this by spotting the objects that you might clip a pedal on when they are 3-5 seconds away then using your peripheral vision to keep track of them. Often all it takes is a well-timed lean, wiggle or raising one pedal to avoid clipping an object. The nice thing about your peripheral vision is it has a faster reaction time than our “dead on vision” it simply gets the body to take action without thought (meaning that well-timed lean, wiggle or raising one pedal happens automatically). This is counter-intuitive as your brain is usually screaming “look out for that rock” causing you to stare at and then run into it! By doing the counter intuitive thing, looking past the obstacle you will automatically avoid hitting it.

MTB Parts

All kinds of pedal and derailleur grabbing obstacles to stare at on the typical mtb trail.

To take advantage of your peripheral vision you must be looking ahead and you must be aware of the height and width of your pedals. This is really interesting when you have more than one bike as pedal height and width can vary greatly from bike to bike! To become more aware of the height and width of your pedals practice riding through cones, soda cans or 12 pack containers spaced about a foot apart (while looking passed your objects). Just a few minutes of this each day for 3-5 days and you will have a much better idea of how high an object you can clear and how wide a path you need to squeeze the pedals through. This will also greatly decrease your fear of the unknown when riding as there is is less “unknown”!

Avoiding clipping your rear derailleur is a little tougher, as it is behind you and takes a different path down the trail than your front wheel. Like an 18 wheeler your rear wheel takes a path inside of your front wheel when turning or cornering (the tighter the turn the more inside your rear wheel tracks). Use the same soda cans or cones you used in the drill above and this time try to turn around a single can with your front wheel going outside (around the can) while your rear wheel goes inside (or behind) the can. Practice these both to the left and to the right and you will start to develop a “sense” of where your bike is in relation to objects on the trail. This really comes in handy on switchbacks where often there is a rock that you have to have the front wheel go around but the rear wheel must go inside the rock (because if your rear wheel doesn’t go inside the rock it will hit the rock and stall you out). Other times you will realize that you have choice but to hit the rock with your rear wheel but you know it is going to hit so you can time a weight shift so the rear wheel doesn’t hang up on the rock.

Remember, knowledge is worthless without action! If you read this and think, “cool, I’ll do that on my next ride”, you won’t. If you don’t practice this using the drills above you will revert to what you have always done (both the good things you always do and the bad things).