Wired Magazine has a series of articles on a road rider learning how to mountain bike. The series takes him through learning about different bikes, learning on his own and attending one of our mtb skills camps. The writer also calls BetterRide founder Gene Hamilton “… essentially the lovechild of Ted Nugent and Jeff Spicoli”! Find out why here:
I Purposely Crashed My Mountain Bike Today! (How to Set Yourself Up to Ride Your Best) MTB Training Article by Gene Hamilton
Seriously, I made myself crash! I didn’t want to crash but if you watched the lead up to my crash I did everything possible to set myself up for disaster.
I often tell my students that most mountain bike crashes happen within five minutes of throwing your leg over your bike. I explain that often, when we don’t warm up for at least ten minutes (twenty to thirty minutes is best) we aren’t fully focused and ready to ride. Today I disobeyed my warm up rule and paid for it. I woke early (5:45 am), fixed a rear flat and headed to South Mountain. When I arrived I had just enough time to get my riding gear on and we were off. I even said, “I don’t know how you guys do this, I like to warm up before I ride.” Colin then said maybe we should do a long run (a series of trails that have a a few climbs and flat sections providing a decent warm up) and I decided against it! Off we went down Geronimo, I felt pretty good on the first section, missed a few lines but considering the lack of warm up felt alright. After waiting for the crew to regroup I took off down the trail and had a conscious thought (should I take my normal line or try this other line), took a different line than normal and the next thing I knew I was on the ground in a lot of pain.
Conscious thoughts have no place in mountain biking, you need to just do, not make decisions! I wasn’t in mountain bike mode, I was still trying to wake up, thinking about the election results and the traffic I fought to get to the trail. This was not the focus I needed to ride scary trails at my best!
I landed about seven feet below the trail and was fortunate to land on one of the only spots with sand mixed with rocks, as the next 100 meters is all big rocks on the side of the trail. I Feel really fortunate that I wasn’t hurt worse. Ended up with a sore left shoulder, deep thigh bruise on my left thigh, cut left ankle, headache, big scratch in my fork stanchion, broken left grip and feeling rather nauseous.
The moral of this story is warm up before you mountain bike! Your body and your brain both need to be warmed up and in bike mode (not loving father mode, stressed out business woman mode, mad about bad drivers mode or still thinking about what your boss said mode!) before you end down a trail! My usual warmup consists of 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretching then a minimum of 15 minutes of riding (often doing body position and cornering drills plus a few sprints). I ALWAYS ride better when I do this! Glad re-learning this lesson for the 6th or 7th time did not involve a trip to the hospital!
What is your Intention?
As you know, (if you have taken a BetterRide camp) we always tell our mtb students to ride with a purpose; “I am going to work on braking before the turns.” “I am going to focus on keeping my weight on the pedals.” Well, I just realized that these purposes are sub-goals or process goals (smaller goals we use to reach big goals). I still recommend that you ride with a purpose, but recently in a yoga class I learned a more powerful tool for improving your riding!
I’m not very good at yoga (though I’m getting much better with practice) and don’t love it the way I love mountain biking, I do it mostly because I know it helps me mountain bike, snowboard and surf better. Yoga has taught me a lot of lessons though and I apply those lessons when doing sports. In yoga classes the instructor will often ask each student to set their intention for the class. The instructor wants each student to set a big goal, such as staying in the moment or finding inner peace, what they will gain/takeaway from the class. This allows the student to get more out of each class and definitely helps me. Yesterday, while surfing I found having an intention helps in sports too. I caught the best wave of my life thanks to setting an intention!
The toughest parts of surfing for me are actually catching the darn wave and then standing up in good body position. With my snowboard background I am actually a decent surfer if I manage to catch a wave and stand up. So my purpose is usually either, “catch the wave” or “pop up”. Well, yesterday the waves were perfect for learning and I caught more waves and popped up more than ever before, but my rides were short and uninspiring. The tide was going out and the reef was getting dangerously shallow so my coach said, “Gene, this will be your last wave so ride it as far as you can.” Bam! I had an intention, ride my wave as far as I can. So I paddled hard, caught the wave, popped up and had the best ride of my life!
As I was walking back on the beach I realized why my previous waves were so short, I had exceeded my purpose/s! Since I struggle so much with catching the wave and popping up I had no plan for what to do after I popped up. My intention gave me a clear plan, “ride as far as you can”. To do this I had to use a lot of skills or specific “purposes” I have worked on since my first surf camp; looking ahead, staying relaxed, bending my knees, etc. It was my intention that allowed me to access all of these skills, as I had to use all of them to ride that wave so far. Having that intention also allowed me to forget about the two purposes I had spent the last days focusing on (catching the wave and popping up) since my intention was the longest ride possible catching the wave and popping were givens! I wasn’t worried about either, allowing me to just do them!
How does this apply to you as a mountain biker? We need to understand the difference between an intention and a purpose and sometimes have a purpose and other times focus on your intention. I didn’t see the difference between the two before. “Riding as smooth as I can” is a great example, I used to tell students that this is a great purpose yet in reality it is an intention. Riding as smooth as you can requires a lot of separate skills or purposes, relaxed grip on the bars, weight on the pedals, elbows up and out, chest down, chin up, relaxed ankles, looking ahead and working with the trail. When you set the intention of being as smooth as you can be you will do all the skills required to be smooth. If you find you aren’t riding smoothly, you can analyze why (“darn, I’ve got the death grip on my bars”) and set a purpose to help you reach your intention, (my purpose is to relax my grip so I can be smoother). Setting your intention allows you to focus on the big picture, what do I want to get out of this ride? While having a purpose focuses us on a small piece of the big picture. So, when you are not working on a specific skill, set an intention for your ride!
Some great intentions for mountain bikers:
- I am going to ride as smooth as I can.
- I am going be in the moment.
- Today I’m going to just relax and have fun on my bike.
- I’m going to be as efficient as I can be.
- I’m going to ride as fast as I can. *This one is tricky! Often this focus can make us tense and we start trying too hard. If this is your focus, time the ride and compare the time to being smooth on the same course, you might find being smooth is faster!
- I’m going to let go of all the tension in my body.
- I’m going to let go of all the tension in my mind.
- I’m going to take my time to stop and appreciate this beautiful day/trail/mountain/view etc.
Set your own intentions and let us know about the ones that really had a positive impact on your riding. This really, really helps you focus and improve your mental game on the bike!
Does your mountain bike feel good? Testing riding mtn bikes is a waste of time! Now that I have your attention this post is also about how to test ride a mountain bike and make the most of it.
This is one of the most amusing concepts I have ever come across. So often I hear/read riders talking about how good their bike feels. Sometimes I hear racers talking about how they tuned their suspension until it felt good. Often they talk about how they love their bike (because it feels good) and recommend their exact bike to friends based on their feelings. Sometimes they will put down another bike saying they test rode it (for all of five minutes in a parking lot) and it felt weird, slow, twitchy, tall, etc. and they say stay away from that bike. How knowledgeable on mountain bike handling is your friend? How many bikes has he ridden (for more than an hour) so can he really give a good opinion? Does he ride with proper body position and technique? Don’t believe the hype!
Why is this amusing? For many reasons! First, you know what feels good? What you are used to. Change always feels weird! If I took your bike and rolled the bars just one degree forward without telling you you would say that your bike suddenly feels weird! If I did that plus added 15 pounds of pressure to the tires, stiffened the rear shock, softened your fork and moved your seat .5 inch forward on the rails you would say your bike feels really weird! So when you test ride a bike with different geometry or that is set up different than your bike (wider/skinner bars, longer/shorter stem, steeper/slacker head angle, higher/lower bars, etc.) it is going to feel weird. Conversely, when you test ride a bike with the same geometry that is set up exactly like yours it is going to feel great.
When the Giant Glory downhill bike first came out I was one of the first people in the US to ride it (a writer from the New York Times writing an article about my camps was loaned one) and it was set up perfect for me (the writer and I weighed the same and were almost the same height). I thought it was a great bike and was surprised eight months later when two of my teammates test rode it at Interbike and said it stunk. I immediately went to the Giant tent to test ride the bike they had demoed to see what was up. Halfway down my first run on Snake Back (one of the same runs I tested the bike on seven months earlier) I was questioning my judgment as the bike wasn’t performing well. The suspension didn’t feel nearly active enough for the rough terrain but the rebound and sag felt about right. I pulled over to adjust the suspension and realized that it was way under-sprung for a large (and it takes a lot of time to switch out a coil spring) so the mechanic had cranked the compression damping on both the rear shock and front fork to stiffen it up for riders my and my teammates’ weight. I turned the compression damping way back on both shocks and rode the next section of Snake Back, and although the suspension was way to soft the bike rode much better. I told my teammates to try it again and they were surprised at what a difference that made. Imagine what we would have thought of the bike if we had the time to put the right spring on the fork and rear shock! Imagine if we had a whole day of tuning it and riding it instead of one run!
Weird can often end up being better once you get used to it or understand why/how to use your new setup. A great example of this is “dropper” seat posts. No one can argue that descending with your seat at the height that is perfect for power production when climbing is as good, safe or as efficient as lowering your seat, you simply can not stay in a neutral and balanced position with your seat that high. Despite knowing and understanding this the first time you descend with your seat lowered it feels weird, because you are used to the seat giving you feedback by tapping against your thigh, now it either doesn’t do that or does it in a different spot.
You know what else feels really good? The ride of a Cadillac! Now I wouldn’t want to take a Cadillac off-road or race it on the road, but wow, it feels great. Ever ridden in a high performance car like a Porsche? High performance cars feel really harsh, kind of like riding a fully rigid mountain bike, but boy do they handle well. So feeling “good” doesn’t always translate in to performing well. I want my bike to perform well so I have made changes to my bikes to make them climb, descend and corner at their best (more on this in a future article).
After 24 years of riding mountain bikes, 14 years of studying bike handling and coaching skills to riders from advanced beginners to the best pros in the world and 17 years of racing the pro class I still can’t tell much about a bike from a parking lot test ride (except obvious things like steep head angle or feels short for a large, etc.). Even on trail it is tough for me to really get the feel for a mountain bike, unless I take the time to set it up similarly to my bike. Even then, what if the bike I am testing is revolutionary? A revolutionary bike is going to feel weird, I might not like it…. at first.
Have an open mind when test riding bikes. Set the bike up similar to your bike and really give it some time before passing judgment!
Stay tuned for my article on suspension tuning!
- Gene on Mountain Bike Handlebar Height and Body Position
- Andy on Mountain Bike Handlebar Height and Body Position
- John O Donnell on Mountain Bike Handlebar Height and Body Position
- Gene on Mountain Bike Handlebar Height and Body Position
- John (aka Wish I Were Riding) on Mountain Bike Handlebar Height and Body Position
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