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mtb skills

You Aren’t Doing What You Know You are Supposed to Do! (on your mtb)

On trail you aren’t doing what you know you are supposed to do! Every riding “tip” you have heard or read isn’t working because you don’t mountain bike with the part of your brain that listens to those tips! I know because I was a frustrated, professional mountain biker racer with 10 years of mtb experience who realized that I was looking down, a lot! Despite being a former professional snowboard racer and a snowboard race coach who was always stressing the importance of looking ahead (and was damn good at looking ahead on a snowboard). The listening part of your brain is great at mental tasks, solving math problems, remembering your childhood phone number, reading this blog and THINKING! When riding our bikes we don’t want to think! As a matter of fact thinking is the worst thing we can do. When we are mountain biking well he are simply doing, not thinking, not trying, we are on “auto-pilot” and just doing! Riding a bike is a lot like driving a car, have you ever gotten home from work and as you pulled into your driveway thought, “how the heck did I get home”? You don’t remember the route, you certainly don’t remember turning on your blinker, applying your brakes at a stop sign, looking both ways and then turning left. You don’t remember because your “big”, conscious, thinking brain isn’t being used to do the task of driving.

You don’t mountain bike with your “big brain” because your cerebellum (“little brain”) controls your motor skills and the best way to teach it is through practice. When I explain something to you your “big brain” says, “yes, that makes sense, I will do that from now on” but your “little brain” will go out and do what it is used to doing, not what I just taught you. This is the reason coaches invented drills for sports, musical instruments and even math, because there is a big difference between understanding and doing.

I bring all of this up because when I was out riding on Saturday I saw the most interesting thing. I was descending and saw a rider climbing the trail I was going down, so I pulled over to give him is right of way and watched him climb. He was staring right in front of his front tire, for at least 30 seconds! Yet, this guy works for a large bike manufacturer and has been riding for nearly two decades. I know if you asked him, “is it important to look ahead?”, he would say “yes”! Yet, he wasn’t looking ahead, not even for a second and he was weaving all over the trail and really struggling. So he knows to look ahead but isn’t doing it because he hasn’t taught is body and his cerebellum to look ahead.

You Aren't Doing What You Know You are Supposed to Do! (on your mtb)

Wow, pro xc racer looking straight down at the entrance to an easy banked corner at the National Championships!

When you are just learning any new motor skill involving the performance of complex sequenced movements like mountain biking or talking or writing, etc., you use your primary motor cortex, your primary sensory cortex (in order to monitor how your muscles are moving) and two other regions of the brain called the caudate nucleus and thalamus. The role of the caudate and the thalamus is to help coordinate and smooth out the movements in response to how the movements feel to you. They also help you to speed up your movements as you become a better rider.

After you become a highly experienced mountain biker, another region of the brain usually takes over; it’s called the cerebellum (or little brain). Whenever we perform a well-learned movement we access our cerebellum to retrieve the memory of how to move our muscles quickly, efficiently and without thinking. This is why thinking while riding usually gets in the way of riding well. Once you know the movements needed to do the skills to ride well, the cerebellum allows you to execute them without thinking about how to do those skills.

You Aren't Doing What You Know You are Supposed to Do! (on your mtb)

Another Pro XC racer looking down (and way out of position). So sad to spend all that time and energy training to be that fit only to lose 2-3 minutes an hour because of poor vision techniques!

In the case above (experienced rider looking down) he has practiced the incorrect method of looking down so much that now is cerebellum is telling him to look down. If he gets wise to the importance of looking ahead it will take months of doing structured vision drills to reprogram his cerebellum so that he starts looking ahead on the trail. A great case of you aren’t doing what you know you are supposed to do.

Through this blog, our free mini-course and our camps we really want to help you to ride your best. Please don’t let your ego trick you into thinking that because you “know” a particular skill that you are actually doing it. I have had the pleasure of coaching motocross racers, GP motorcycle racers and car racers, all sports which require looking way further ahead than we do on mountain bikes (because of their much greater speed). The interesting thing was they were all surprised (and often angry) at how much they caught themselves looking down on their mtb. It surprised me too! It turns out that “little brain” training is sport specific. So do the drills in our mini-course, do the drills in our blog articles and if you have been fortunate enough to take one of our camps do the drills from the camp. Knowledge is worthless until you can consistently put that knowledge into action!

Create your best ride yet,

Gene

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.

Save Hundreds of Dollars a Year on MTB Parts and …

… Have Way More Fun! Are you MTB trail aware? (stop clipping pedals/derailleurs!) MTB parts are expensive! Have you ever clipped a pedal on a rock or root? Have you ever smashed your derailleur into something on trail? These are two common and expensive problems that I hear about a lot.

Clipping pedals is more common today than in the past because to make mountain bikes handle better designers try and keep the bottom bracket as low as possible. The goal is to lower your center of gravity (one reason Porsche 911s corner better than 4runners). This comes at a price though, the lower your BB the more likely you are to clip your pedals on rocks, roots and the “high side” of a bench cut trail. Rear derailleurs have always stuck out a little and they are behind you so they are tough to watch out for.  These design features can lead to broken MTB parts and ruined rides but both are easily avoided with practice. I call this skill being “trail aware”. The first step is realizing the trail at ground level is much different and usually much narrower than at handlebar level. Just because your 820mm SMAC Moto Bars made it through doesn’t mean your pedals will make it through! To avoid clipping your pedals you need to be aware of the rocks, roots and changing contour of the trail, WHILE looking ahead!  You do this by spotting the objects that you might clip a pedal on when they are 3-5 seconds away then using your peripheral vision to keep track of them. Often all it takes is a well-timed lean, wiggle or raising one pedal to avoid clipping an object. The nice thing about your peripheral vision is it has a faster reaction time than our “dead on vision” it simply gets the body to take action without thought (meaning that well-timed lean, wiggle or raising one pedal happens automatically). This is counter-intuitive as your brain is usually screaming “look out for that rock” causing you to stare at and then run into it! By doing the counter intuitive thing, looking past the obstacle you will automatically avoid hitting it.

MTB Parts

All kinds of pedal and derailleur grabbing obstacles to stare at on the typical mtb trail.

To take advantage of your peripheral vision you must be looking ahead and you must be aware of the height and width of your pedals. This is really interesting when you have more than one bike as pedal height and width can vary greatly from bike to bike! To become more aware of the height and width of your pedals practice riding through cones, soda cans or 12 pack containers spaced about a foot apart (while looking passed your objects). Just a few minutes of this each day for 3-5 days and you will have a much better idea of how high an object you can clear and how wide a path you need to squeeze the pedals through. This will also greatly decrease your fear of the unknown when riding as there is is less “unknown”!

Avoiding clipping your rear derailleur is a little tougher, as it is behind you and takes a different path down the trail than your front wheel. Like an 18 wheeler your rear wheel takes a path inside of your front wheel when turning or cornering (the tighter the turn the more inside your rear wheel tracks). Use the same soda cans or cones you used in the drill above and this time try to turn around a single can with your front wheel going outside (around the can) while your rear wheel goes inside (or behind) the can. Practice these both to the left and to the right and you will start to develop a “sense” of where your bike is in relation to objects on the trail. This really comes in handy on switchbacks where often there is a rock that you have to have the front wheel go around but the rear wheel must go inside the rock (because if your rear wheel doesn’t go inside the rock it will hit the rock and stall you out). Other times you will realize that you have choice but to hit the rock with your rear wheel but you know it is going to hit so you can time a weight shift so the rear wheel doesn’t hang up on the rock.

Remember, knowledge is worthless without action! If you read this and think, “cool, I’ll do that on my next ride”, you won’t. If you don’t practice this using the drills above you will revert to what you have always done (both the good things you always do and the bad things).

Cymantha Poison Spider climbing

You Don’t Need a Trail to Mountain Bike Better….

You Don’t Need a Trail to Mountain Bike Better….

As the trail riding season for many riders ends it doesn’t mean the end of your riding season. When the trails are covered in snow and/or mud is the best time to improve your skills!

Learning takes place best away from the sport you are learning! That’s right, if you are spending a lot of time doing a sport it is hard to improve. This is because perfect practice is what builds skill, not simply doing something for hours.  There is a general rule among coaches, teachers and physiologists that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a sport (or a game, an instrument, etc.).  While your goal might not be to master mountain biking the more time you spend doing deliberate practice the better you will get.

When a rider says, “I ride 20 hours a week! I am getting tons of practice!”  I have to smile as chances are not one minute of those 20 hours was deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice means working on one specific skill (or movement) with a focus on quality, not quantity. A great example of this would be, “I am going to practice riding with 100% of my weight on my pedals down these stairs,” then riding down those stairs while focusing on keeping your weight on the pedals three times, stopping and analyzing what you did right and wrong then refocusing and doing it three more times. Practicing many skills, such as saying, “I am going to practice on perfect body position, weight on my pedals, hinged at the hips, chest down, chin up, elbows up and out, knees bent, looking ahead, with a light grip on the bars”, is overwhelming and often you will do none of those skills well. This especially true if you try to do that on trail. There is an old saying, “Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong!”

You Don’t Need a Trail to Mountain Bike Better....

Practicing efficient/in control wheelies using no upper body strength!

Practice is hard to do when a beautiful singletrack is beckoning you to ride it!  In season it is hard not to just go out and ride mile after mile with a big grin on our face! The only problem with riding as much as we can is that we get really good at what we already are doing, which is often a series of bad habits.  So to improve we have to step away from the trail, learn the proper techniques and then practice these techniques one at a time with a focus on quality.  This is why you see all the basketball players, football players, ski racers and pretty much every professional athlete in a sport requiring skill doing drills more than 80% of their practice time!

There are two big things working against us on trail when our goal is to mountain bike better:

1. Even with the best intentions we forget what it is we are supposed to be working on. The trail becomes too fun and we stop practicing and just get in the moment (one of the most fun parts of riding! But it doesn’t help us work on skills!)

2. The concern for our own safety makes us revert to our survival instincts (like braking in a corner) instead of focusing on what we want to practice. This happens to pro racers on beginner trails in our camps. Something I and our coaches hear all the time from our most experienced (20 to 30 years of riding experience) and most accomplished students (World, National and Pan American Champions and an Olympic Silver Medalist) is, “Wow, I can’t believe how much I am looking down!” This is said on trails most of us would call beginner trails, hardly challenging to ride, but hard to ride perfectly.

Ever notice that football players spend a great deal of practice doing drills with no defense trying to break up the play? Watch a pro basketball team practice, the best basketball players in the world practice layups with no one defending the hoop! Heck, I can make 10 out of 10 layups with no one defending the hoop but I can’t make 1 out of 10 layups with a 300 pound, seven foot tall player trying to stop me from making that layup. So why do the best pros in the world practice in an easier, less dangerous environment than what they get paid to play in? They practice in a safe environment to ingrain the correct movements. Let’s face it, if the best basketball coach in the world taught you the correct technique for shooting a layup and then had you face Shaquille O’Neil to practice you couldn’t do a thing the coach told you. You would resort to self-defensive mode.

Applying the skills learned through deliberate practice on trail.

Applying the skills learned through deliberate practice on trail.

Use the off-season to learn the correct core skills and then practice them with a focus on quality. Your skills, confidence and enjoyment will soar.  Snowing outside?! Hit that parking garage and spend 20 minutes doing the core skills drills we teach in our camps and then spend 10 minutes imaging perfect technique.  A few weeks of this quality practice (mixed with resistance training and cardio work) will do more than years of just winging it on the trail (according to World Champ Ross Schnell who said, “I learned more today than in the last 10-11 years of just riding” (in a rushed 3.5 hour lesson, BetterRide camps are 19-22 hours over 3 days!). Ross however didn’t master those skills in our 3.5 hour lesson; he simply learned how to do them and how to practice them. The real improvement comes with deliberate practice. Check out this article on how to practice: http://betterride.net/blog/2011/great-mountain-biking-skills-tips-are-worthless-how-to-make-them-work/

Stop selling yourself short and start actually practicing the sport you love. Keep your eye out for our next few blog posts as we will be focusing on specific skills and drills you can do.