I think almost every mountain bike rider reading this will admit they are not as skilled or as fast as Aaron Gwin, Steve Peat or Greg Minnaar, yet many of us would like to be! Often I hear riders say, “That guy is ballsy! I wish I was as fearless as him!” The thing is Aaron Gwin, Steve Peat and Greg Minnaar aren’t “ballsy”, they are skilled!
So what do we do, we try to ride trails that scare us and/or go faster nearly every time we ride! Which is fun and challenging, two things mountain biking is great at! There is nothing wrong with challenging yourself and having fun, I encourage that. The problem with that approach though is it is very hard, I would say impossible to ride the most challenging trails or ride as fast as a world cup champion without equal skills to the world champion. Don’t you agree? I mean if you have 80% of Steve Peat’s skill (which would be impressive) it would be extremely hard to ride a world cup track, even at 90% of Steve Peat’s pace, much less 100%! Now, let’s flip that around, if you honestly had 100% of Steve Peat’s skill wouldn’t it be much easier to ride a world cup downhill track, as fast as Steve Peat? I know it would be. Yet so many mountain bike riders believe simply trying to ride harder trails and/or ride faster will improve their skills (including me for the first 8-10 years I rode and raced). Sure, you might stumble into some correct skills this way but you are also going to develop some serious bad habits and likely get hurt!
Unfortunately just riding faster builds fear, bad habits and injury, not skills. Why, well, watch most amateur downhill racers, even though they are going much slower than the World Cup Champions mentioned above they almost look faster as they are out of balance and out of control! Ever watch amateur practice on a steep, technical track? It is scary, and yes, amateur racers have way bigger balls than top pro racers because the amateurs are riding the same track with WAY less skill. Think about it, Aaron crushes most top pro racers, in a four minute downhill he will beat nearly 100% of all amateurs by a minute or more! Yet, how many injuries have sidelined Aaron in his career? I can’t think of one! Yet, those amateurs who are 25% slower are getting hurt left and right! Which means despite riding much slower (which should be safer!) they are getting hurt worse and more often. This approach is proven to fail. World Cup Champions ride with confidence! They don’t “hope” they make that sketchy section, they know they are going to make it!
So how can you mountain bike that trail that scares you with ease? Faster too? Increase your skills? There is only one way to improve your skills (at anything, mountain biking, playing guitar, painting, surgery, basketball, etc.) learn the correct techniques then do structured practice (drills) to in grain those techniques. Read about any “master”, in sport, in surgery, in music, etc. and you will read about all the time they spent doing deliberate practice, not simply “having fun” at what they have mastered.
Think you are going to somehow learn to ride at your best by just riding? I am sorry, it isn’t going to happen. Your instincts are millions of years old and designed to save your life on foot, not ride a bike, not surf, not play football, not play the piano! For more about your instincts read this: http://wp.me/p49ApH-tD , Why Our Instincts Fail Us On Our Mountain Bikes!
In short, learn the correct, in control, in balance techniques and then spend your time deliberately practicing those skills and you will see your ability, confidence and fun sky-rocket!