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Andy’s Take On Some Great Counter Intuitive MTB Riding Advice

“Gotta go slow to go fast!”  (this for all riders, especially those more concerned with control than speed, please read on!)

The above saying has been floating around racing circles since probably forever. On this website, one of the latest updates contains a video of last year’s U.S. Open Downhill Race. In it, race winner, and super-fast rider and all-around nice guy, Andrew Neethling, stated that it was essential for him to really slow down in sections of the course in order to get the win. Former top U.S. World Cup Downhiller, the legendary Shawn Palmer, who was known for his checker-or-the-wrecker, on the edge style (both on and off the bike), was also known to throw that saying around on more then one occasion.

So here are two guys that pay (or used to pay) their rent by going faster – not by slowing down – telling us we need to slow down to go fast? What gives?

In the following, we’ll explore what the saying actually means and how it can help not only racers, but also recreational riders ride more efficiently, more in control, safer, and, faster.

Let’s first take a look at what the saying is actually implying, and let’s say that for this discussion, we’re talking about riding at speeds that are typical of descending on a MTB (not seated climbing-type speeds). “Go slow to go fast” could easily be translated into managing one’s speed. Or, better yet, managing one’s momentum (different then speed). In other words, we need to use momentum as a tool to help us get over obstacles or go faster and use less energy to do these things, but, at the same time, we can’t let this momentum affect us negatively by pulling us off the trail, over the bars, into trees, etc. When Andrew Neethling won the U.S. Open, he sure as heck didn’t want to come to a dead stop when he needed to slow down, he wanted to maintain as much momentum as possible, but not so much that it forced him into a costly mistake.

Think about this: every time we descend on the bike, its an exercise in momentum management. Every corner we take, every rock or root we drop off, etc. Every time we almost get thrown over the handlebars by improperly negotiating an obstacle, its because we screwed up on managing our momentum. Momentum is what is carrying us over the rocks, obstacles, whatever, and allowing us to generate speed, yet it is also what is forcing us into mistakes.

So I find it kind of amazing that very few riders look at riding a section of trail in terms of momentum management. I get riders who tell me all the time that in order to improve on the bike, they need to “get better at drops” or “ need to learn to corner” or “need to get in shape” … but I’ve never heard, “I need to get better at managing my momentum.”

I believe that one of the reasons conservative, recreational riders often don’t benefit from the “gotta go slow to go fast” idea (or as we’ve defined it here, “gotta manage your momentum”) is because they’re not concerned with going “fast” so they don’t believe the that concept applies to them. When I mention going-slow-to-go-fast in my camps, without fail, the self-deprecating talk starts to flow like water, “Oh, I know all about going slow … ha. ha. ha.” or “You don’t have to worry about the ‘fast’ part with me … heh. heh.” But it seems that it is usually this type of rider that pays the biggest price for improper momentum management – whether that means big crashes because of too much momentum or the inability to clean a relatively easy obstacle because of too little. Every rider generates speed and momentum and, thus, needs to be conscious of these things and the effect that they have on their riding.

Racers, on the other hand, are often so concerned with raw speed (which they often inaccurately equate to less time between point-A and point-B) that they fail to consider that momentum is actually the motor that is carrying them down the hill and too much or too little at any given moment, can be detrimental to their success. Downhill tracks consistently have lines and obstacles where a rider can generate massive amounts of momentum (and gain time) if he were only to slow down (cut momentum) briefly in order reap the huge benefits further down the course.

Coach Gene Hamilton demonstrating how to maintain momentum over a rock in Fruita

This is great skill to acquire and, when done properly, one of the safest, smoothest, most efficient, fastest, and most fun ways you could ever ride your mountain bike.

Flow, the Key to Happiness While Mountain Biking?!

Interesting talk by Flow author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the state of flow and how this is the state when we are most happy. It is a little dry though, if you start to lose interest skip ahead. In the last three minutes he talks about and uses a great chart that shows you that flow starts when our challenge and skill set are both pushed above average.

This means when we have great skill and are not challenged at all we will often be bored. When we face a challenge and our skills are weak we feel worried.

Then when challenged a little (but still beneath our skill set) we will be relaxed, challenged just below our best skills we will feel in control and challenged to the point of using all our skill we will reach flow (and happiness). When challenged just more than our skills can handle it will create worry, then pushed further the worry becomes anxiety.

This is why as you skills increase the trails you once enjoyed become less interesting or you have to go faster and/or take harder lines to keep that trail as fun as it was with less skill.

He doesn’t mention it but I believe the same thing happens as your fitness increases. As you fitness increases you need to challenge it by going faster and/or further to reach the same level of enjoyment.

Conversely to continue to reach a high level of enjoyment and “flow” or “Zone” state experiences we need to increase our skill set.

Winter Program Tips: What to Do When You Can’t Mountain Bike.

Winter Program Tips: What to Do When You Can’t Mountain Bike.  by BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky

So its winter-time. And one bummer about winter is that, as mountain bikers, access to our sport, and more specificity, our trails, will be limited – sometimes altogether eliminated! But even if we are forced to spend extended time off the bike (I plan on covering some winter-riding topics in the future), there are still plenty of things we can do to maintain our riding skill-set.

As a betterride coach, I’m not necessarily concerned with riders simply riding their mountain bikes, but I’m concerned with riders riding well. The following will address some off-bike activities, and how and why they can help maintain – and possibly even improve – a rider’s technical skill-set over the winter.

Since MTB’ing is typically a summertime activity, and also understanding that the idea of actually practicing technical skills (as in drilling and methodically applying techniques), versus simply going out and riding the bike, is foreign to most riders, its no surprise that the idea of purposely and consciously maintaining our technical skill-set over the winter isn’t a widely discussed topic. Most riders that I know jump into the typical winter-time cyclist’s regime of riding the road bike, the stationary trainer, and hitting the gym, accepting the fact that during those first real mountain bike rides of spring, they’ll be rusty, scared, and possibly crash they’re brains out. While the above work-out activities definitely can provide certain benefits, they really won’t do squat for a MTB’ers technical prowess on the bike.

As anyone who has received Betterride instruction will know, being technically sound on the bicycle (using correct body position, proper use of vision, subtle weight shifts, accurate timing, among others) will get a rider a lot further and keep the rider a lot more safe then simply being physically fit. So assuming that we are maintaining a decent level of fitness, wouldn’t it make sense to tend to our technical riding skills over doing-the-hamster at spin class?

So how do we improve our skills on the bike without actually riding it? There are many activities we can do – some work better then others – that will help to keep us sharp until riding season heats up.

O.k., first, I do understand that winter-time is the off-season for us mountain bikers, and if you take your riding fairly seriously – which you probably do if you’ve read this far – then spending a little time off the bike will actually be good for you, both mentally and physically. This doesn’t mean you can lay on the couch for six months, watching football and hockey, stuffing your face with chips and cheap beer (although this author does highly recommend a couple days of this!). We need to stay active.

As I stated above, the typical cyclist’s winter regime can have its benefits, however, even though there are some great work-out programs out there and some very adept athletic trainers, I have yet to see a program that is nearly as multi-dimensional and all encompassing – both mentally and physically – as MTB’ing on technical terrain. When choosing an off-bike winter activity, its important that we chose something that provides us with the “mental work-out” that is similar to the on-bike experience.

Mountain biking is an incredibly mentally taxing activity. We are constantly making adjustments and corrections, we are often fighting fatigue, we often need to deal with emotions such as frustration or even anger. Even though, on the surface, many sports or activities may look night and day different from that of mountain biking, many of the mental challenges and mind-body awareness and connections can be quite similar. These are the type of activities we need to get involved with – activities that will engage us in a manner similar to that of riding the mountin bike. Example: I’ll take a day of hard snowboarding over a day at the gym, in regards to improving my technical bike riding, anytime (again, assuming that I am also doing something to maintain a decent level of fitness). The hidden benefits of snowboarding and its similarities to MTB’ing are countless: issues of balance, dealing with fear, fighting to maintain technique as fatigue sets in – simply being outside and exposed to the elements all day, eating the proper foods, drinking enough water, etc.

I consistently see a difference in riders, beginners or other-wise, in their abilities to learn and/or adapt on the bicycle in relation to their athletic participation outside of bike riding. Those that participate, or have participated, in activities where they compete (even with themselves) and regularly deal with challenges and “athletic problems” where they are engaged both physically and mentally in the activity, are already a step up on those that may put long ours into training, but often they involve sitting on a stationary bike and watching t.v (winter), or pumping out reps (even with fairly dynamic work-outs) at the gym. (if you’re able to have an imaginary conversation with yourself for 40 mi of that 50 mi road ride, how mentally engaged where you in that work-out? Did you make any mental gains?

A few good ones: as many of you are already aware, skiing and snowboarding are great for this. Not only do they require a mind-body awareness in a challenging environment, but they also give us a sense of speed and force us to use our vision (possibly the most important aspect of riding a MTB) in a similar way that we do on a bicycle. Sports such as racquetball, basketball, or martial arts (to name a few) are also excellent for our riding because, again, they will force us to be “athletic problem solvers” and engage our mind-body awareness. To me, these sports have more in common with riding a mountain bike on difficult technical terrain then going for a road bike ride for the shear mental discipline and mind-body awareness that they require. These sports require that you complete incredibly difficult technical tasks while fully exerting yourself physically – just as you do while piloting your MTB over difficult terrain.

If you are already active in an off-season activity such as the above mentioned, good job. Keep it up. If you’re not, and perhaps you never really have been, right now – winter – in an excellent time to start! I guarantee that you will come across many “happy accidents” and discoveries that will carry over into your bike riding.

A bit more:

I am constantly amazed at the amount of high-level cyclists (and other athletes) that I come across that bring lessons that they’ve learned or tools that they’ve acquired from different athletic disciplines into they’re riding (ex: Last winter I learned in yoga that if you … and this is the same as that …” or “Last winter I took kick-boxing and learned … and this is the same …”). I know that I regularly take “lessons” that I learned from high school and college athletics and apply them to my riding today (and that high school and college stuff happened around 100 yrs ago).

A former colleague of mine and a competitive World Cup racer, and I had a conversation last summer about the benefits of having a well rounded athletic background. We both agreed that many of the lessons – and failures – that we had experienced in athletic competition previous to racing bicycles at a high level was crucial to all the successes we’d had in racing (he’d obviously had more of those then I had) and how many of todays young racers don’t have those type of backgrounds and therefore have difficulty overcoming some of the challenges they are faced with in taking their racing to a high level.

In conclusion: it is winter-time, enjoy a little time away from your bicycle, but stay active, and be intelligent in your choice of activities. Go out and compete with yourself (and/or others) and learn something about yourself as an athlete (in success and failure!). Keep that competitive mind and your mind-body connection sharp even if you aren’t putting in an extensive amount of time on the bike. If done correctly, these gains will carry over into your riding season.