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Overcoming Mistakes While Mountain Biking

When it comes to riding mountain bikes, perfection is not an option. Whether you are a top professional racer or a green-newbie, you will make mistakes out there on the track or trail every time you ride. How you recover from these mistakes – primarily mentally – will be vital to your performance, and perhaps more importantly, to your level of enjoyment while finishing the remainder of the ride.

Our goal, after we make a mistake, should be – as quickly and efficiently as possible mentally deal with the mistake, and then forget about it, and get back into our flow, or “zone”, as its been called, with clear and correct mental focus and proper physical technique.

On a training ride, maybe this means getting off the bike, figuring out what went wrong, and going back and working on cleaning the obstacle. But, in a race, or on a hard ride with our buddies, or five hours into that two-hour ride (because you got lost, whatever) when its now dark, you’re cold and exhausted, and you still have forty-five minutes left to go… now getting off the bike and re-working the obstacle or deep contemplation over what went wrong isn’t an option. Making a mental note for later contemplation, sure, but at this point your goal needs to be putting all your energy into moving forward – efficiently and correctly – and NOT dwelling on the mistake, compounding it into further energy (or speed) zapping errors.

Even the top racers in the world make mistakes. Whether you are a downhill racer or not, the following applies to you:
There has never been a World Championship winning race run that has been perfect (the annual World Championship is one race – one final race run that counts for all the marbles). Every World Champion has stated that they made a few small mistakes in their winning run. So, in the most prestigious and probably financially rewarding three minutes (or so) of the particular athlete’s racing life, the most intense pressure-cooker in mountain biking this person screwed up! A few times! And then overcame those mistakes to beat the best in the world on that day, with that run.

On the other hand, I know a few racers out there, once they make a mistake its game over! They get flustered, frustrated, angry. They then over-ride the bike and the track, dwelling on the mistake, forcing them into further mistakes. Maybe they give up altogether! I’ve seen it happen! I also know racers (and so do you, if you’ve been around racing) that are consistently near the top of the field, week in and week out, always right up there in the overall points … these athletes are making those same little mistakes, but obviously doing a much better job at dealing with them.

Of course, its not just racers that we’re talking abut here. We’ve all probably seen riders (maybe one of our buddies or even ourselves) make a mistake, drop an f-bomb, immediately make another mistake … a few more f-bombs (at a higher volume), and then two immediate mistakes later, they’re having a melt-down on the side of trail like a three-year-old in the grocery store.
… Improper technique AND straight up embarrassing!

On the other side of this, we’ve all had rides that started out crappy and ended up being awesome, with us finishing up the ride with some of the best riding we’ve ever done! What’s the difference and how do we not let mistakes affect us negatively further into the ride?

First, I’m very careful (sometimes hesitant) about dealing with the mental aspects of riding when it comes to other riders before I get to know them. Spotting bad technique and giving advice on how to correct it is usually fairly easy and nearly black and white. But because we all come from different places, with different motivations, different successes and failures, etc, the mental aspect and what motivates each individual rider can be a touchy subject. (I have seen riders get so angry, that they did literally will themselves over obstacles that were giving them problems. It worked in that case, but as I’ll explain, that’s probably not the best mental technique for most of us.)

In order to most effectively negotiate tricky terrain on your bike, you first need to be in balance. If you are in balance on your bike, you can now also be loose and nimble on the bike, allowing you to make the many tiny and instantaneous adjustments that are necessary in order to efficiently maintain control and maintain further balance. Also, when you are balanced and neutral on the bike, you are able to both react and be proactive to obstacles on the trail and/or movements of the bike. If you get off balance it becomes nearly impossible to remain loose and nimble on the bike. You become rigid and tense. This, of course, makes it nearly impossible to sense and create subtle movements and adjustments. We become ballistic in our movements, off balance, and it becomes even more difficult to regain balance, making us even more rigid and tense, putting us even more off balance … this is what is known as the “downward spiral of crappiness”, and we’ve all been there!
When we get angry, frustrated, or scared on the trail, we also become rigid and tense. The above is often what happens to us, but now its compounded by our improper mental state. So how do we deal with this? Everyone is different, but you have to find a way to keep an even keel!

There are tons of techniques, sports psychologies, you name it out there that may be able to help you with this problem. Two simple methods we use in BetterRide instruction are as follows:

One, is the “Circus Song” (that kinda goofy little ditty that accompanies clowns and monkeys and bearded ladies at the circus). This is often seen as somewhat humorous to our students (we have them ride down the trail while LOUDLY humming the “Circus Song”). We have students do this at a point in our camps when most students have experienced some frustration and mental fatigue. Doing this effectively takes your big brain – which is now causing you problems by complicating the situation with your emotions – out of the equation of riding. (How upset and frustrated can you be while humming the circus song and picturing monkeys and clowns riding bicycles under the big-top?!?!).

A second technique is to develop a “Mantra”. When I ride, when things start getting a little gnarly – especially in race situations – I have a three-word mantra that I run through my brain of “Look, Feet, Breathe … Look, Feet, Breathe …” (or something of that nature). While the circus song (or riding with ipods or whatever) actually takes your mind off of riding, a mantra gives your mind something positive and necessary to focus on, instead of running off in all kinds of undesirable directions (in this case, anger and frustration and the effects that come with these). The word “look” keys my vision (the most important part of riding a MTB and impossible to cover in the space of this article), the word “feet” reminds me to keep my weight on my feet and to stay low and neutral on the bike (this is the cornerstone of proper body position – which is integral to riding the bike correctly and effectively). And the word breathe … well, that’s obvious.

The mantra keeps me focused on the important elements of riding the bike, and it makes it impossible for my mind to wander or to take off in bad directions – its impossible to focus on the negatives if I’m focusing on the positives! I can make a mistake or two and leave them right where they occurred on the trail, instead of mentally dragging them along with me!

However, anger and frustration WILL creep into your riding. The only way out is to DO THINGS RIGHT – maintain proper form and technique, maintain mental clarity and focus. But, like lots of other things, we know what we SHOULD do but, often its difficult to do these things – especially under the stresses we encounter out on the trail. And sometimes this does require us to be (or become) mentally tough. How do we become mentally tough? Every rider is different, but read the article by Gene, titled “Are You Tough? (part 1 http://betterride.net/?p=476 and 2 http://betterride.net/?p=470)” for more techniques that will help you in these situations.

Another thing we can do to help us recover mentally from mistakes on the trail is “hope for the best, but plan for the worst”. What do I mean by this? Let’s think about those World Champions that I mentioned earlier in this article. Did they expect to have completely flawless race runs? Of course not. Therefore, when they did make a mistake, it wasn’t a huge surprise and it didn’t throw their game plan out the window. Likewise, recreational riders need to expect to make mistakes. Expect to feel frustrated and angry, but then what you do after this (or with this) is what really counts!

Finally, once you are familiar with some of these techniques, use mental imagery to help incorporate them into your riding. Imagine yourself riding along, having the best day of your life, then you make a mistake, then another… allow yourself to feel the negative emotions as if you were really out on the trail, then imagine yourself engaging in these mental techniques and regaining your focus and flow.

Just like all physical techniques, we need to practice this (these) until they become automatic. Like most of the physical techniques of riding the bike, these aren’t complicated, yet they can still be quite difficult to pull off out on the trail. Use that mental imagery to work these into your program. Fortunately, (Ha Ha) no matter who you are, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to use them out on the trail!

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/

Our Mountain Bike Camp Students Love Us on Facebook!

Lots of thank you posts on our facebook page!  www.facebook.com/BetterRide

Dana Hantel This turned out to be one of the best weekends of my life. Jackie and Dante are amazing coaches and, as Ned said, great people too. The other campers were also super nice and supportive. We all learned so much in just three days, and I know we’ll see dramatic improvements in our riding as we continue to practice our new skills. Thank you!

Michael Takahashi Gene, I keep telling everyone I learned more in your 3 day camp than I’ve learned in 20yrs of riding a mountain bike! Much better investment for your riding – instead of buying that new fork, wheelset etc. that we all think we need to be faster!

Thank you thank you thank you for the incredible coaching of jackie harmony and dante this weekend at steamboat!!!!!!!!!!! today on my home trail I focused on getting over this rock that was a challenge before. got on it and. stuck. nothing. I tried again. got on the rock then boomp. nothing. then I could hear jackie’s voice saying “look ahead!” and the third time, I got on it and rode right on across onto the rest of the trail! HOORAY!!!!!!!! (also met some amazing women and can’t wait to ride with them again. thanks again. THIS IS AN AMAZING CAMP!!!!!!!!

Stop being a Mountain Bike Bigot!

In 12 years of coaching mtb skills I still cannot get over how closed minded mountain bikers can be! “Oh, he is a single speeder, they always…”, “damn downhiller’s with 8″ of travel, of course they can ride that section, no skill, the bike does all the work, bet he can’t climb to save his life”, “look at that idiot on that fully rigid bike doesn’t he know…”, etc. Well, we are doing the exact same sport! Riding bicycles off road and guess what? The Core, Fundamental Skills are All The Same no matter what kind of mtb you are riding!

Cornering on a downhill bike is fundamentally the same as cornering on a full rigid bike. There are some advanced skills you can add with 8″ of  suspension travel and cornering on a fully rigid bike is harder (because no matter how smooth you are you will have less traction on a rigid bike) but the fundamental, most important skills are the same.

This is true with jumping, climbing technical sections, descending technical sections, riding a bike!

Why is this important to you? Because if you want to improve you can learn a lot from riders that are different from you. The skill it takes for Greg Minnaar and Mitch Ropelato to corner so well is the exact same skill all mountain bikers need, regardless of the bike they are on or the label they give themselves. Think about it, if the best downhill racers in the world need those skills to corner a bike that has way better traction* than most non-downhill bikes, those skills must be extra important on a “xc” bike. So an “xc” rider can learn from the watching a rider like Steve Peat corner even though Steve is on a different mountain bike.

*Downhill bikes have longer travel/better working suspension (which keeps the tires on the ground better than non-dh bikes), downhill bikes have wider tires with likely less air pressure (producing a bigger contact patch), softer rubber compound tires (which grip way better than harder rubber but roll slower, wear out quicker and cost more) and more tread patterns designed for hooking up on the surface they are riding (providing more traction than a general purpose tread pattern).

So open your mind and stop labeling people/riders/things. You can learn from our examples/videos/coaching even if the example we us is on a much different bike that yours.  We are fortunate enough to coach many of the best races in the world in all disciplines of mtb racing and we teach them all the same core skills (although in our downhill camps we don’t teach climbing skills as climbing on a 40lb bike isn’t much fun!). Yes, we taught singlespeed World Champions Ross Schnell and Sue Haywood the exact same cornering skills in the camps they took from us as we taught World Cup downhill racers Mitch Ropelato and Jackie Harmony in their downhill camps.