mountain biking in Sedona

Mountain Bike Skills, How to Ride Your Best Under Pressure

This is an updated version of a mountain bike skills article I wrote in 2010. It starts off about racing but my answers will help in any “pressure situation” on trail (an unexpected gnarly rock garden, a challenging and/or exposed section of trail, etc).  I had received this email from a student:

“Hi Gene,
I’ve really started to feel the effects of your camp and my technique has got a hell of a lot better, when I’m racing i feel so confident and fast in practice.

But then when it gets to seeding and race runs this all goes out of the window and i just end up falling off, I’m not riding outside of my limits and i know that i can ride well enough to be threatening the top spot in my category but i just seem to not be able to manage the pressure and the mental side of things.

Any tips on race mentality etc??”

My updated answer for anytime you are mountain biking, not just racing:

This a tough thing for many racers and as I mentioned a few times in our camp, what good are all the mountain bike skills if you can’t use them when needed?

Before we get to your mental game, have you mastered the skills from the camp? As you know, one of my favorite sayings is, “Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong”. WHAT THIS MEANS IS,  just because you can do a skill doesn’t mean it is now hardwired as your “go to” skill. Your old habits are likely still dominant so the second you feel pressure your body reverts to what it knows best, you old, self taught “survival” skills. As you know, change takes work! The longer you have gone without learning the correct skills the more ingrained your bad habits are and the more likely they will fire under pressure instead of the correct skills. Double up your drill time and practice like Jerry Rice (who spent 99% of his football related time practicing) and you will overpower your old habits and create new, correct habits.

mountain bike skills

Mary Pat executing proper mountain bike skills over a log pile in our Durango camp last summer.

You can also toughen up your mental game. First, remember there is no difference between a race and a practice run, same track, same racer, same bike, same goal. The only difference between your race run and a practice run is the pressure YOU but on the run. Treat your race run as another practice run (especially if you are doing timed practice runs using a stopwatch) then, read these two blog posts and practice the mental skills in them: and and most importantly read, study, practice, master one of these books from your homework assignment:

The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental, Emotional, and Physical Conditioning from One of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists
by James E. Leohr, Chris Evert, Dan Jansen

Excellent book with work sheets to help you practice what it teaches.

The Mental Edge: Maximize Your Sports Potential with the Mind/Body Connection
by Ken Baum, Richard Trubo

Excellent book with work sheets to help you practice what it teaches.

Body Mind Mastery: Creating Success in Sport and Life
by Dan Millman

Really, really great book that goes a little deeper into why you compete in sports and helps you integrate sport and life (helps you see and create balance in your life so the sport does not take over your life).

mountain bike skills

Jon Widen staying centered while descending one of the steepest lines at Whistler!

Most importantly have fun! That’s what keeps Steve Peat and Minnaar on top.


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!

character 2

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!

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.