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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!

Minnaar cornering, centered and in balance.

Cornering Your Mountain Bike, Get Low, Not Forward!

There is a lot of misleading advice for cornering your mountain bike, often from top racers who aren’t actually doing what they say they are doing! Greg Minnaar and I got a kick out of Myles Rockwell’s announcing at the world championships a few years ago. Myles was talking about Greg’s “forward” riding style. Greg will tell you that he rides centered with all of his weight on the pedals (and this is a case of top racer actually doing what he says he is doing). He is “forward” of being “back on the bike”? Yes, but he is not “forward” of centered on his bike. (Myles is a great rider (world champion!) and super nice guy, no offense was meant by this post, this is an excellent example of top athletes not being the best at explaining things (because it is not their job!)).

Cornering Centered

Greg in 2010 at Fort William, centered, balanced , fast and consistent!

This is a case of perception being distorted by “society”. In this case the 1980′s and 1990′s mountain biking “society” that was used to riders riding with their weight back (that, long stems, and narrow bars are why if you watch a downhill race video from 1995 or prior you will see tons of pro racers who look wobbly and out of control) created the expectation of seeing a rider in that weight back position, so when Greg (and Neko Mullay, Aaron Gwin, Rat Boy, etc.) rides centered he looks forward to riders expecting to see 1993 body position. This is because the rider’s head and chest are forward and low, but, their hips have scooted back, keeping them centered over the pedals. An important part of body position is “hinging at the hips” with a flat back. When you hinge your chest drops and goes forward as your hips go back so you stay centered. This puts you in a balanced, neutral and athletic position so you can respond to anything the trail throws at you, quickly and powerfully! It also lowers your center of gravity! Watch video of the world cup and notice how low Aaron Gwin, Steve Smith and Neko Mullay are. Like a sports car getting low helps you stay centered (braking, cornering and acceleration forces have less effect on a lower rider and/or vehicle).

cornering centered

Here is Greg in that same centered position going straight. Notice his “hinged” hips and flat back!

Focus on getting low! A great way to practice this is to ride straight down a smooth road and focus on hinging at the hip with a flat back and dropping your chest until you are in a half push-up position. Next make sure you have heavy feet and light hands (check if you are in the right position by loosening your grip and  sliding your hands side to side on the grips, if your hands won’t move you are too far forward, if it feel like you are pulling up on the grips you are too far back). Once you are solid at doing this in a straight line focus on maintaining this low, centered (fore-aft) position while turning in both directions. Once you are consistent at this then try cornering on pavement with weight too far back, then too far forward, then centered again. You will feel that your bike feels lighter and takes less effort to change direction when you are centered. When are are consistent at all of the above, keep practicing until you can’t get it wrong! More on cornering!

Get low! Corner your mountain bike

Aaron Gwin, low, centered and looking way ahead!

 

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.