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The early days! The story of BetterRide

I started mountain biking (if you want to call it that) in 1988 in Norfolk, VA. There was an old trash dump behind one of the dorms (I was attending Old Dominion University) that we would ride. The “big hill” was around 30-40 vertical feet and I thought it was massive! I never thought I would be able to make it to the top without stopping to catch my breath! I still remember the first time I made it to the top, what a great feeling.

In the spring of 1993 I wanted a new mountain bike. Being a pro snowboarder who thought I should never pay retail for anything I tired to find a deal on a new bike. I met a KHS sales rep who told me to find a KHS dealer and join the Farm Team and I would get a bike for 10% below wholesale plus another 10% back if I went to five races.

As soon as I moved to San Diego I stopped by the local KHS dealer and he put me on the Farm Team and told me to come back in a few days and meet this woman who was also on the team. So a couple of days later I meet this tall woman covered in dried mud named Marla and we made plans to go riding. I remember thinking, “Walt said this girl is an “expert” so she thinks she pretty fast. I just moved here from high altitude (Aspen, CO) and I am a pretty fit pro snowboarder so go easy on the girl, I don’t want to hurt her self-esteem”.

On the way to the trail (some where in East San Diego) I was hungry and much to the amusement of this Marla woman I stopped at Taco Bell. She asked, “are you sure you want to eat that right before we ride?” Well, we got to the trail and she proceeded to kick my butt all over the place. She would be doing circles waiting for me at the top of every hill and say, “you’re doing better that most of the boys I ride with”. To this day I don’t know if she was telling the truth or just being nice. Getting my butt kicked by Marla really made me respect women athletes.

A few weeks later she asked me if I wanted to go to a race with her in Temecula. I replied, “sure, I should probably race expert because I used to race BMX”. She did her best not laugh and convinced me to try beginner first because I could always move up. Now I was really excited, I was going to win my first race! (at this point I have never seen a cross country race and think that everyone goes pretty hard on the climbs then coasts the descents while having fun and catching a little air).

So we drive Vidalia (Marla’s polkadotted VW camper) to Temecula, pre-ride the course and get some sleep. The next day I am shaking from excitement and nervousness while we register for the race. As my beginner class lines up for the start I look around and I am one of only two riders without shaved legs and the only one without clipless pedals. This is the beginner class?! A couple of the guys have calf muscles the size of grapefruits! The gun goes off and I have never suffered like this in my life! So much for coasting the downhills, this is a 12 mile sprint. I start near the back of the back and gain a little energy every time I pass a racer with shaved legs. I am so beat down from pushing myself so hard for an hour and a half that when I cross the finish line I don’t care what place I am in. Until this race the longest athletic competition in my life was the mile and half run during the Presidential Fitness Test in high school.

I ended up 13th out of 26 and to this day that is my proudest moment in sports. I didn’t have long to celebrate though. As it turned out Marla was having a great race too, she had moved into second place behind Factory KHS rider Mia Stockdale. Unfortunately Mia wouldn’t let Marla pass so an impatient Marla went for an off trail pass endoed and broke her collarbone.

Having never competed in an endurance sport I was hooked after this race. I moved back to Aspen that fall and continued coaching and competing in snowboard events but missed the endorphin rush of aerobic sports. The following spring I “retired” from snowboard competition and devoted my energy to mountain bike racing.

In 1995 at Marla and Toby Henderson’s urging “you aren’t going to get anywhere racing expert” I upgraded to the pro class. My first major race was the 1995 Vail NORBA National. There were over 150 pro downhill racers from all over the world signed up. I was practicing with all of the guys I read about in magazines and really not sure if I belonged in the pro class. With so many racers back then they had a qualifying run and only the top 50 qualifiers went on to the finals. I qualified 48th! I made the finals. This was a big boost of confidence and decided to quit my job and start racing fulltime.

Little did I know this would be an addiction that would leave me $6,000 to $7,000 in debt after every summer for the next eight years. 😉

My coaching career started at Wisp Resort in Western Maryland where I was one of the snowboard directors in 1990. I coached myself and a few teammates who competed in the mid-Atlantic region.

In 1991 I moved to Colorado to train with team Breckenridge. The coaches were really good technique coaches but actually hurt many of their athletes’ mental game and self-esteem. The coaches would say things like, “are you sure you are a pro, that run really didn’t look good”. Having these lousy coaches was frustrating and made me realize I could do a better job.

The next season I trained with Nick Colavito in Aspen who was a much more positive coach. I was fortunate in that I learned both how to and how not to coach from these coaches. In late summer 1995 I was hired as the head snowboard coach of the Steamboat Springs Winters Sports Club. The winter Sports Club’s mission was to use sport as a metaphor for life and to help create happier/healthier human beings. With this mission in mind they defined success as doing your personal best (ie. not winning). This really fit my philosophy and I really enjoyed coaching the team.

I was in for quite a surprise when I found out how serious this job was. This was demanding full-time job (with a part-time salary) with a lot of pressure and late night phone calls from parents. It was also an extremely rewarding experience. Seeing kids grow more confident and having their parents’ thank you for helping them grow felt really great. During my three years there I learned a lot about coaching, took a lot of coaching courses from USA Skiing and Snowboarding eventually become a Level II coach.

During this time I was racing downhill mountain bikes in the summers and coaching in the winters. My passion for snowboarding was declining as my passion for mountain biking was growing. At the end of my third season I decided to move to Boulder where I could train all winter and start coaching mountain bike racers. That was in 1998 and unfortunately I found very little market for my coaching skills. I kept plugging away at coaching while racing and working as a bartender for the next six years until I was able to coach full time in the fall of 2004.

My Students Never Fail to Make My Day!

Wow, what a great three days!  I get back from nine days of coaching in a wet and rainy Atlanta and my phone and email box was over following with happy riders sharing their stories.  From excited Atlanta campers including a 51 year old women who started mountain biking at 41 to possibly the fastest teenager in the world and riders and racers of all levels in between from New Zealand to Nepal.

First Mitch Ropelato calls to tell me he scored is second pro victory at the downhill race in Bootleg.  This kid trains hard and trains smart and is full of desire that I don’t think can be coached. Take note of his name as you will be seeing a lot from him.

Then Jamie Danesh emails to say he took 2nd place in first race ever at the Keysville classic! He later tells me that another camper (Jason Benge I believe) from the same camp won the sport class with a time that would of been 1st in expert!

Later I get this email:  …..

Before your camp, I had reached my potential based on my skill and knowledge level.    We ride quite a bit, but I was riding all our trails the exact same way each time, with no improvement.  I would stop and walk over the same obstacles, take the same line on all the corners, brake the same way each time, corner the same way, etc.  A friend who took your class several years ago would tell me to “look to victory.”  I really didn’t know what that meant.    Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for teaching me the correct way to do the basic skills, and giving me the tools to start learning those skills.  I have many years ahead of me to ride my bike, and I absolutely love mountain biking!!!  Now the doors are wide open for me to become that much better a rider!   Thank you!!!!
I can’t wait to get the homework assignments!  Send them on–I’m ready!!!  The next time you hear from me, I will be a better rider!
Thanks, Gene–you are awesome!
Barbara

What a great week!  Create your best ride yet,

Gene

Mountain Bike! The best pro in the sport taught me wrong!

Often the best athletes in a sport don’t make the best coaches. I was reading the book Blink the other day and it talked about Andre Aggassi’s advice on how he puts so much top spin on the ball. When explaining it to his coach and other coaches he stated that by turning his wrist over as he hit the ball it gave him the top spin. Well the coaches believed this (after all Andre was one of the best players in the world) and started teaching their students this. Well, an interesting thing happened, there was a huge rise in wrist injuries among young tennis players. After careful motion analysis the coaches saw that Andre’s wrist never moved, the “top the ball motion” was actually generated at his shoulder not his wrist.

Reading this reminded me of all the movements in riding that I now explain quite differently than I did 5-10 years ago. The skill hasn’t changed but after years of study I realized that I was often explaining the outcome of doing it correctly but not the actual fundamental skill. Effective coaching involves breaking skills down and being able to explain them to a diverse group of people. One of the best aspects of my job is after 20 years of coaching I am still learning how to explain skills better. The learning of skills continues too, after 11 years of coaching mountain biking I am still learning a lot of little details on how to do skills better/easier/with less effort.

The moral of the story, don’t believe everything you hear, even it comes from an “expert”.

Kids on Bikes!

Those of you who have taken a camp with me or simply been riding with me when we pass a group of kids or a family out riding know how happy I am when I see “kids on bikes” as I usually shout with glee, “Kids on bikes!” Ever since my first my first purple bike with big banana seat and ape hanger handle bars I have loved riding bikes. My bike was my ticket to adventure. It exponentially expanded my universe my allowing me to leave my block and explore unknown territory and gave me an out let for my boundless energy. As our country has gotten more in to consuming and spectating than actually doing anything (shopping is not a hobby, neither is watching other people play sports) it has really saddened me to see so many kids who have never discovered the freedom and adventure of riding a bike. Seeing kids on bikes gives me hope, makes me smile and brings back great memories. The kids on bikes are always smiling too, what a great toy!

After a fun (but way to short) stay with my family for Christmas I had to rush back to Tempe to coach the NOVA junior mountain bike team. I was looking forward to coaching the kids but mad at myself for volunteering to coach so close to Christmas. I was also honestly feeling a little resentful that I was sacrificing family time to coach a clinic (how is that for Christmas spirit! hopefully I won’t feel like such a scrooge next year). Well I woke up Thursday and rushed to get to South Mountain on time and was further upset that there was some confusion as to when the clinic was going to start. I was thinking, “I left my family so I could coach some late, ungrateful kids?”. Well the crew arrived not long after that and we got started. My attitude quickly changed as any time you get “kids on bikes” it is a good thing and this was no exception. The kids were fun, smart and good riders. We all learned a lot and had a lot of fun despite a chilly and breezy day. The kids were grateful too, the all thanked me and said that they were looking forward to next week’s clinic.

On Friday I was lucky enough to teach a younger group of kids than on Thursday and really relearned/remembered the differences in teaching younger kids and how much fun it is. Three 11-13 year old girls learned how to do wheelies! Like the older kids we had a lot of fun and they thanked me at the end of the day.

After the camp I had a little energy left so I went out for a ride. I was hoping to go up Mormon loop and down National trail but ran out of energy near the top of Mormon and turned around. Not long after turning around I ran into more kids on bikes! From the size of their smiles they were clearly excited to be out riding. I stopped to chat with them and they were pressing me to turn around and do National with them. Turns out that they are from Golden, Colorado and we ride a lot of the same trails at home. Their enthusiasm for descending National almost got me to turn around climb back up with them but I was just too tired. I did my best to focus on what I was doing on they way back to the car but I kept thinking about those two kids. What a grand adventure they were on! Unlike a lot of kids I see today they were in excellent shape, had great self-esteem and were quite happy.

For years I have thought if we could just get more kids on bikes we end so many problems. A kid with a skinned knee or even a broken arm has a story to tell and will heal stronger and even more confident of himself. A kid that is 30 pounds over weight by the time he/she is 13 years old and has never accomplished and/or failed anything isn’t really prepared for what life is going to throw at him/her. Life involves stress, physical, mental and emotional and riding a bike is similar to life in this matter. Riding a bike can teach a child a lot: that they can do more than they thought, that they have some control over their life, that exercise is fun, how to handle failure and through all of this increase their self esteem. I am doing what I can to encourage kids to start riding and I hope you will do the same. Stay tuned for more information on “kids on bikes”.