Fear and Mountain Biking Part 2, Decreasing Fear by Improving Skill and Confidence

Fear and Mountain Biking Part 2 (Read part 1 here:

Fear is a powerful and often misunderstood emotion that has some effect on every mountain bike ride we do. The fear we ALL experience while mountain biking varies greatly in intensity from rider to rider and from trail to trail. Most riders think of pro downhill racers as fearless but in my 19 years of coaching them and 15 years of being one I have found that even the fastest pro downhill racers experience fear, on beginner trails!

So the idea of “No Fear” is comical at best, we all experience fear and it isn’t always a bad thing, fear can save us from injury and keep us from doing things we aren’t skilled enough to do. On the other hand, fear that is not in proportion to the risk we are taking can really mess us up! Too little fear and we do things over our head and get hurt! Too much fear and we question our ability and end up not riding or crashing on a section of trail we are capable of riding smoothly and in control.

There are a ton of macho guys reading this right now saying, “Not me, I am fearless!”, please, anyone saying that needs to ride a world cup downhill track or the new Redbull Rampage site! Do some people experience less fear than others?  Of course, that is why I and thousands of other mountain bikers have ended up in the emergency room! We either didn’t experience the appropriate amount of fear or charged in despite the fear. Fear that keeps you from riding Cam Zink’s line at the Redbull Rampage is good! Fear that keeps you from riding a section of trail you honestly have the skill to ride in control is bad.

The worst fear though is that minor fear, where you keep riding but are too concerned with your own safety to ride at your best! As a matter of fact, when our confidence drops so does our athletic performance! Coordination is directly tied to confidence when you lose confidence you also lose your coordination. So, until you are confident walk the sections of trail that scare you (and design a plan to increase your skill so you can ride that section confidently one day).

I am well known for my intense curriculum featuring deliberate practice using drills in a safe, controlled environment (often a paved parking lot) and then applying those skills on trail. I have noticed a pattern that happens in all of our camps regardless of our students’ age/experience/perceived skill level, even at our downhill camps at Bootleg Canyon with pros like Cody Kelly and Luca Cometti, students do our cornering drills really well on pavement then not so well on dirt (at first, which is why drills are so important)!

At Bootleg Canyon we use Girl Scout for our on trail cornering practice, the easiest trail on the mountain. Watching our students practicing deliberately on pavement (photo below) I am always impressed by how quickly they catch on to correct cornering technique. Then we head over to Girl Scout and they aren’t doing what they were just doing in the parking lot, they look totally different. Why do they go from executing the skills well on pavement to not so well on dirt? Fear! No, pro downhill racers aren’t scared of Girl Scout Trail, but they are more concerned about their safety than they were in the parking lot. Even on a beginner trail, there is not as much traction as the parking lot, there are rocks to avoid, bushes and cacti on the side of the trail, penalties for mistakes. This concern for your safety (fear) distracts you and hinders your performance.

Rick Practicing is mountain bike skills

BetterRide camper Rick (who has been mountain biking since the early 1990’s) practicing his cornering skills! Look at that outside elbow, up and out where it should be.

Here is Rick on trail after learning and doing drills on pavement. Almost there just needs to lead with that outside elbow like he did on the pavement.

Here is Rick on trail after learning and doing drills on pavement. Not a “scary” trail but he isn’t as sharp as in the parking lot. He needs to look a little further ahead and lead with that outside elbow like he did on the pavement.


Fear is stored in your “Lizard Brian” or “Reptilian Brian”, part of your brain stem where instincts and action occur WITHOUT thought. Have you ever noticed that sometimes, despite knowing that you are supposed to do something (like look ahead) you don’t do it on trail? Have you ever driven home and upon getting home said to yourself, “how the heck did I get home?” That is because knowledge and your “thinking brain” don’t help you do, doing comes from the same Lizard brain where fear is stored, and doing is similar to being on autopilot, your body just does what the autopilot makes it do.

This creates a problem as your conscious, thinking brain wants one thing (to float over that rock) while your Lizard brain wants something else, usually to protect you (get off your bike and walk over the rock). As you probably already know, when it comes to riding your mountain bike the lizard brain always wins! (On a side note this often why you might know exactly how to do something yet still can’t do it.)

How do we get our Lizard Brain/autopilot and conscious thinking brain to work together? Drills! The whole goal of drills is to ingrain a habit or movement pattern. By ingrain, I mean make that habit so dominant that no matter how tough that trail is your body does the correct technique without any thought (hence the autopilot analogy). There is an old saying that is so true, “Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong!” (which means pros never stop practicing!)

Once we understand the correct technique and do drills to ingrain that technique we need to upgrade our self-image as a mountain biker. Let’s say there is tough rock section that has troubled you for years, you have never made it (and probably think something like, “darn, here comes that rock that always messes me up” as you approach it (like the wall in my video above, how to video tutorial coming soon!). Then you take a BetterRide camp and learn the correct combination of skills to get over that rock and wham, you do it! This is when you need to stop, get off your bike, look at that rock and update your self-image. “Wow, that rock used to mess me up every ride, now it is easy, I simply look to victory, manual, shift my weight and off I go (what I did in the video)! That rock is so easy now, watch, I’ll do it again.” Then do it again and really cement the idea that that rock is now easy and you have the skill to do it consistently.

Skill has a huge impact on fear. Cam Zink probably has a lot less fear of the most challenging trail you have ever ridden. Not because he is crazy (he is quite calculating actually) but because his skill at riding steep, challenging line is near/at the top of the sport. More skill (combined with belief in that skill) equals less fear in any given situation.

If you are honestly really skilled but you feel your fear level is not in proportion to your skill work on updating your self-image. If you aren’t really skilled work on improving your skills, then updating your self-image as your skills improve. Remember, fear is there for a reason and it often helps keep us safe but if it is holding you back work on getting your fear into proportion with your skill.

Fear is also where men and women differ greatly! In my next article on Fear and Mountain Biking I will explain what I have learned about how men and women respond to fear and how this difference affects your ride and often your relationship.

Thanks for tuning in! If you know anyone who could benefit from this article please feel free to share it with them. What are you afraid of while mountain biking? What affects your fear? Is your fear based in reality or made up? Please share your experiences with fear below.


The Unhealthy Side of Mountain Biking

As you probably know, I love mountain biking but mountain biking isn’t all good, it can be bad for you. I am not talking about crashing (which is definitely bad for you) but simply riding mountain bikes. Mountain biking, like many sports, can be PART of a very healthy lifestyle. I stress the word “part” because mountain biking should not be your only form of exercise and you need to take care of its ill effects.

This is multiplied if you spend the bulk of your now riding time sitting down! Sitting with poor posture can really exacerbate and even cause major back trouble.

The idea for this article came when I saw two very fit looking road cyclists get off their bike and then hobble to the door. They could barely walk! They were hunched over, stiff and very wobbly! Luckily, because mountain bikers stand, absorb shock and are more dynamic than road cyclists (who often stay in the same hunched over position for hours) mountain biking isn’t as bad a road cycling but it still can lead to imbalances in our body. Few sports work all muscles, ligaments, and tendons equally which is one of the reasons “cross-training” is popular in most sports.

If you like to mountain bike as much as I do don’t forget to mix things up every week! The best thing I have discovered to help me stay fit, healthy and balanced is yoga. A structured weight training program with mobility exercises and self-massage/myofascial release (foam and lacrosse ball rolling) is also a great compliment to my mountain biking. Weight training and yoga are also great mental breaks from mountain biking (which due to the concentration needed to ride single track is very mentally stressful).

Why strength training for mountain biking?

  • Mountain biking requires a stable core and a strong lower back, yet riding really doesn’t build a stable core and a strong lower back. It takes work to build a stable core and a strong lower back and achieving both will give you more power on your bike, as well as more control and greatly decrease your chance of injury!
  • Mountain biking is asymmetrical exercise when standing and coasting all riders have a foot that they prefer to put forward and a preferred trailing foot. This works each leg’s muscles quite differently and twists your hips. A good exercise like Bulgarian Split Squats which works each leg separately can help rebalance and realign you!
  • Consult a qualified trainer to help with finding the correct exercises and executing them correctly, incorrect form while lifting weights can cause more harm than good.

Why self-massage/myofascial release (foam and lacrosse ball rolling) for mountain bikers?

  • Mountain biking can really tighten us up! Short tight hamstrings, tight IT bands, tight hips, tight chest, neck, and back are all symptoms of mountain biking, no matter how fit you are. Foam and lacrosse ball rolling are great forms of self-massage and can really loosen you up! I would have had to of stopped riding years ago if I had not discovered the benefits of rolling.
  • Once you buy the roller and the lacrosse ball it is free! It just takes time and some uncomfortable work but it pays off my opening you up for peak performance (or, often in my case, simply allows me to ride!).
  • Not familiar with self-massage/myofascial release foam rolling or using a lacrosse ball, do a quick google search, there are probably 100 books on the subject as well as hundreds of youtube videos and free articles on the how and why of it. Or talk with your trainer, physical therapist or yoga instructor.

Why yoga for mountain bikers?

  • Yoga helps your posture, your breathing, your mobility, your focus and helps calm you.
  • Yoga really helps with your body awareness, proprioception, and balance which many of my students struggle with as did I as pro snowboarder and in my early days as a professional mountain biker.
  • As a mountain biker, who also lifts weights I get plenty of “yang” my favorite form of yoga is called “yin” yoga and it really opens up your body my holding poses for one to five minutes at a time.
  • Yoga done poorly can really mess you up, especially if you like to “push” things. Take classes from qualified instructors and make sure you aren’t “cheating”. The goal isn’t to force yourself into a position, the goal is to gently open up your body.

I find the more yoga I do the better I ride (because I breathe better, have better focus and have greater effective strength and flexibility) and the more I enjoy and look forward to riding (my back doesn’t hurt, the day off from riding made me miss riding). The same goes for strength training and self-massage. With warm weather on the way and great trails beckoning you to ride, it is hard to take a break and do something else, but if you force yourself to be more balanced in how you exercise and recover you will have more fun on the trail in the long run.

In short, balance your riding with other athletic pursuits to be healthier, happier, faster and have more fun!

Yoga, self-massage/myofascial release, and weight training are my favorite forms of exercise to balance with my riding, what others forms of exercise do you do to compliment your riding? What do you like about it and how does help you? Please comment below.

As always, feel free to share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it.

If you are as obsessed with mountain biking as I am please read/re-read this article:

Fear when mountain biking is good!

Mountain Bikers, How to Brake More Effectively, Video Tutorial

Using your front brake effectively is one of the most important skills on a mountain bike. Proper use of the front brake gives you much more control making you safer, faster and more confident. Now, when braking to cut speed (the main reason we use our front brake) you also want to use that weak rear brake to assist that powerful front brake. Watch my video tutorial and then read below for more detail on this important mtb skill.

An important piece I left out of the video is that you always want to cut speed in a straight line! Using that front brake and cutting speed in a corner is a recipe for disaster!

Your body position while braking is crucial and this often taught wrong (I taught it incorrectly from the start of BetterRide in the spring of 1999 until the fall of 2005)! What I taught and what I recently read from one of the best downhill racers in the world is, as you are braking get your weight back. This is terrible advice for a number of reasons (that I will address in a moment), so why did one of the best downhill racers in the world recommend this position? Because it feels like you are getting back when you are braking hard, what he is actually doing is bracing really hard so he doesn’t get tossed forward.

Granted, I used to get my weight back while braking and because it was such an ingrained habit! I still start to scout back sometimes when braking hard. It is also human instinct to move away from danger so it feels good to scoot back (until you crash :)).

There are a few reasons pushing your weight back while braking is bad (or pretty much any time except when manuling) :

  • It puts you in an off-balance and non-neutral position that I call the flying catapult! As your arms straighten and your butt goes back you end up at the end of your range of motion, with no “sag” in your body’s suspension. In this position, if your front wheel were to suddenly descend (drop or roll) more than a foot you will get yanked forward and downward causing your weight to get tossed forward. If you have ever had an endo where it felt like your bike catapulted you into the ground, it did (catapult you into the ground). Please check out this blog article on the importance of neutral, centered position on your bike:
  • It greatly decreases your control and increases your braking distance (by taking weight off of the front wheel, not allowing you to use as much of that powerful front brake. This is easy to test (though a bit scary), simply to do the braking drill in my video on a dirt road or looser surface with your weight back. Instead of quickly coming to a stop, your front wheel will skid! See 6 second video below.
  • Usually, you are braking for a trail feature, most often on the straightaway into a corner, do you want to enter a corner with your weight back (no weight on the front wheel?). If the top downhill racer who recently said that you should shift your weight back while braking actually did that you would see him scoot back as he was braking for the corner, then, all in one motion, let go of the brakes, shift his weight forward and initiate the turn!
  • For more on this please read this article:

Speaking of the importance of using your front brake and braking in a straight line before a corner, a few years ago Cody Kelly ( was really excited to tell me that he is wearing out two sets of front brake pads before one set of rear brake pads! After hearing this I bowed to him and he said, “why are you bowing to me, you taught me to do that”. I replied that I may have taught him that (he took 5 or 6 of my camps) but I have 20 years of bad habits to overcome so I don’t exactly do that. In other words, I wasn’t practicing enough! The idea of wearing out two sets of front brake pads before one set of rear pads did inspire to practice more and while I don’t have Cody’s ratio for the last two years I have been wearing out one set of front pads before wearing out my rear pads!

Are you wearing out your front brake pads before your rear pads? Feel free to comment and/or ask any questions below.

Please share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it.



MTB Foot Position, Video Tutorial

Mountain bike foot placement is a skill that will make you smoother and give you better balance. Check out my video below and then read my deeper break down of this important skill.

I can’t stress enough how important this is! Greg Minnaar and Aaron Gwin have their cleats mounted like mine (well, I copied them actually) for the optimum combination of power, balance, and smoothness on the bike. Please do the jumping drill and realize how bad it is to ride flat footed! Again, I like both pedal types for more on flat pedals vs. clips read this:

I took a balance class from Jim Klopman and Janet Miller (authors of a great book on balance, Balance is Power and owners of SlackBow, a balance training facility in Park City, UT) and I learned a lot (like my balance is decent but can get much. much better with practice, more on that in a future blog article) and a few things that I knew were reinforced. Both Jim and Janet really stressed that a big component of balance is being on the ball of your foot. I specifically asked if that was important on your bike’s pedals and they said something to the effect of, “if you want to be in balance it does!”

Famous motocross coach Gary Baily stresses being on the balls of your feet to be smooth on a dirt bike with 12″ of suspension travel! The jumping drill sums it up well. I have tested this on my bike many times and honestly, you lose ALL of your smoothness when you are standing on your arch. At places as rough as Bootleg Canyon or South Mountain, it makes riding downhill on rough trails nearly impossible.

Some riders tend to ride with their toes angled out a bit and others with their toes in. I think this is more about how your body is built and doesn’t affect performance.

When coasting you want the pedals relatively level and in the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock position. Often, on flat pedals, riders will drop the heel of their front foot a bit and raise the heel of their trailing foot creating a “cradle” to help keep their feet from sliding on the pedals. Of course, some good, 5.10 shoes and a good pair of flat pedals like the Canfield Brothers Crampons really help! Many, many great riders have told me that they drop their heels, other than dropping the heal on their front foot sometimes I rarely see them doing this, I think it feels that way to them (and we certainly don’t want our front heel up!)

Spend some time on mellow descents, or better yet, paved mellow descents focusing on keeping your weight on the balls of your feet! Your body, rims, and shocks will thank you!

Now, go out and practice! Let us know how this has affected your riding by posting below. Feel free to share this article with anyone you feel could benefit from it.