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MTB Skills

MTB Skills, How We Actually Learn/ Why “Experts” Often Make Poor Coaches

There has been an amazing amount written about MTB skills and our students are always asking me to write a book on mtb skills. My book is in the works but it is taking a lot of time because I want the book to actually help you become better, not fill your head with knowledge. Knowledge is worthless if you can’t put that knowledge into action on your bike!

Why is so hard to actually do a skill you understand? You read a well written article on the skill, you know Exactly how to do the skill, yet you still struggle, why? Put simply that is because the wrong part of your brain understands the skill. The part of your brain that read that MTB skills article has absolutely zero input in doing a physical skill, a completely different part of your brain handles physical skills. What you need to do is train the correct part of your brain to do the skill, which is hard/impossible to do by just reading or listening.

The book “Choke” covers this well and I will explain what 26 years of coaching people just like you and what Choke has taught me. I have always noticed a disconnect between “knowing” something and being able to “do” what you know (both in me and in our students). Choke explained the reasons for this better than anything else I have read on the subject and they actually use riding a bike as an example!

 

mtb skills

When Greg Minnaar works with us he makes me sign a contract saying that he is not a qualified mtb coach as he realizes he isn’t the best at coaching.

According to “Choke” as an expert gets better and better at doing a skill they start to forget stuff. Their example: “Think about riding a bike. How exactly do you do this? Well, yes, first you have to get on a bike and pedal. But there is a lot more to it than that. You have to balance, hold on to the handlebars, look at what is in front of you. If you miss any of these steps, falling is a real possibility. This usually doesn’t happen when proficient bike riders are actually riding, but if you were to ask a bike rider to explain the “how tos” of this complex skill, he would forget details. This is because the proficient bike rider is trying to remember information about bike riding that is kept as a procedural memory, as we psychologists term it.”

“Procedural memory is implicit or unconscious. You can think of procedural memory as your cognitive tool box that contains a recipe that, if followed, will produce a successful bike ride, golf putt, baseball swing …. Interestingly, these recipes operate largely outside of your conscious awareness. … because when you are good at performing a skill, you do it too quickly to monitor it consciously. …”

“Procedural memory is often distinguished from another form of memory: our explicit memory that supports our ability to reason on the spot or to recall the exact details of a conversation we had with our spouse the week before. … Simply put, explicit and procedural memories or largely housed in different parts of the brain …” More on those different parts of the brain in this article: You Aren’t Doing What You Know You are Supposed to Do!

So, how to we train our “procedural memory? Drills, with a focus on quality, not quantity! Remember, perfect practice makes perfect! Not just any drills of course, drills designed to get you doing the correct recipe. Our free mini-course has quite a few of these and our three day skills progressions are designed around specific drills to get you actually doing what we teach you.

What gets in our way when learning the correct way to do something? Our experience! If we are experienced but doing things incorrectly we have solid (but in correct) procedural memories. In this case being a complete beginner is better than an experienced rider when learning as the complete beginner has no procedural memory. The experienced rider has to weaken their incorrect procedural memory while strengthening the new, correct procedural memory.

So, do the drills from our mini-course and/or take a skills progression camp but most importantly do your drills!

Lastly, this why “skilled” athletes rarely make good coaches, they can’t access their procedural memory to articulate what they are doing. Think of the great athletes who have made lousy coaches, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Mike Singletary, Ted Williams, Mike Ditka, Isiah Thomas, etc. as a matter of fact goggle “why “skilled” athletes rarely make good coaches” and there are a lot of articles on the topic!

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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!

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).

Pass Mountain Trail!

Great Fall/Winter/Spring Mountain Bike Destinations

Great Fall/Winter/Spring Mountain Bike Destinations

As someone who spends 12 months a year traveling the world coaching mountain biking, mountain biking and racing I have my favorite spots! When 90% of the US is freezing there are a few spots I love to ride in.

The number 1 spot is actually Phoenix, AZ! Before you judge let me tell you about mountain biking in Phoenix, it is incredible. Phoenix is by far the best big city in the country for mountain biking. In Phoenix (not off in distant suburbs) are two great riding areas and one pretty decent mountain biking area. When you add in the suburbs, Scottsdale, Mesa, Cave Creek, Glendale and Black Canyon you could ride for over a month and never repeat a trail (but that would be lame because the trails are so good you will want to repeat them). Arizona is the furthest West sate in the Mountain Time Zone so the sun sets a 5:30 on the shortest days of the year and the winter weather is amazing, warm (mid 60′s are the average high temps in January the coldest month of the year! )  and sunny. If it does rain it just makes for better riding as the rain makes the mountain bike trails tacky and fast.

South Mountain has downhill worthy trails as well as miles of smiles xc trails.
South Mountain has downhill worthy trails as well as miles of smiles xc trails.

We will start with South Mountain. At over 16,000 acres (for comparison Vail Resort is the largest single mountain ski resort in the US at 5,289 acres) and over a thousand vertical feet it has great trails for advanced beginners to pros. South Mountain is my favorite place to ride in Phoenix as it has some of the rockiest, most challenging trails in the country that always keep me on my toes. They claim 51 miles of trails but I bet there are double that if you include the super challenging ones like Old Man Trail.  Despite being in the city of Phoenix South Mountain is never that crowded as Phoenix does seem to the most outdoorsy city (this mountain would be mobbed if it was in Denver or Salt Lake City). South Mountain also has great views in all directions and cool cacti everywhere.

Next is the Dreamy Draw/Trail 100/Camel Back/Phoenix Mountain Preserve area (locals will use any of those 4 names to describe the area). Although not as big as South Mountain the terrain is pretty similar with fun, flowy, flatter trails and very steep and technical trails. A very fun and underrated area to ride.

Right between Phoenix and Tempe is Papago Park which doesn’t have the elevation or size of the other parks but has some fun flowy trails scattered about as well as a little free-ride jump area.

Mesa, AZ (an Eastern Suburb of Phoenix) just built a great bike park and is home to two great trail areas, Hawes and Usery Pass. Pass Mountain Trail in Usery Pass park his one of my favorite trails in the state! Fun singletrack and gorgeous views!

Pass Mountain Trail!
Pass Mountain Trail!

 

For great camping and fun advanced beginner/intermediate trails check out McDowell Park. There is $6 day use fee but the trail head has a shower! The main mountain bike focus trails are short loops with a lot of fun corners and dips. Not as challenging as South Mountain but very fun if you crank the speed up a bit. They also have trails that can be linked to form epic rides including the punishing Quadruple Bypass ride that some sadistic locals enjoy.

Sport Loop at McDowell, Jan. 2010 Camp

North of Phoenix off of I-17 is the Black Canyon Trail which has several trail heads and will one day go from Flagstaff to Tucson. It has quite a few fun sections all not far from I-17.

My number 2 Spot for deep winter mountain biking is a tie between Tucson, AZ and Sedona, AZ.  Tuscon has warmer weather and better night life while Sedona has a lifetime of great trails and incredible scenery but colder weather (usually about 10 degrees colder than Phoenix or Tucson). Both Tuscon and Sedona are also less than 2 hours from Phoenix making it easy to hit all three in a week.

My number 3 spot for deep winter mountain biking in the continental US is Boulder City, NV. Boulder City has the famous Bootleg Canyon mountain bike park (known for it’s challenging downhill trails but it also has some fantastic cross country trails). Visit the most well stocked bike shop I have ever seen, All Mountain Cyclery for advice on trails to ride and any upgrades you are seeking. It is also 20 miles from the Las Vegas airport and 30ish miles from the great “Cottonwood Trails” Southwest of Vegas.

Joey Schusler railing a turn at Bootleg Canyon, March 2007 Camp

For late fall until spring riding (Mid-November through April) all of the above are great with Sedona and Boulder City warming up quite a bit.

Other favorite late fall and late winter destinations are Austin, TX, Albuquerque, NM, Saint George/Hurricane, UT and most of California.

Austin has friendly people, great music and really good trails. No huge elevation gains or losses but fun flowy trails at Walnut Creek (with a great pump track), one of the most technical trails I ever ridden at City Park and fun trails you can ride right from downtown in the Green Belt. Some famous road racer lives in Austin too!

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Albuquerque has trail options in many different environments. Check out White Mesa for cool desert canyon singletrack and Sandia Peak for high alpine wooded singletrack. Be sure to stop in Bike Works for local trail advice.

Saint George/Hurricane, UT is home to the famous Gooseberry Mesa Trail as well as many less famous but very fun trails. Great high desert riding from singletrack to Red Bull Rampage jumps and drops. Say hi to Quinten and DJ at Over The Edge in Hurricane and they can update you on trail conditions and recommend rides.

Although the late winter can be the rainy season in California there are good trails from San Diego all the way to Oregon there. Do some research online before heading out to California. My favorite areas inland San Diego (Nobel Canyon area), the Laguna Hills, the Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz (I haven’t explored much North of their yet).

The Southeast also has fun Fall/Winter/Spring Mountain Bike Destinations but on less grand a scale. There is great riding all over Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. What they lack in elevation gain they make up for in fun corners, roots and rocks.

I have purposely left out a lot of great trails and areas near those above as we live in a big, beautiful country, go out and explore! If you have a favorite winter spot or two tell us about them!