I picked up a Specialized Rock Hopper in 1993 and learned to ride it during my first year of college and my heart was no longer mine, it belonged to my bike after that. I’ve been racing and in the industry since ‘95, including a few years managing the #1 MTB racing program in the country at the time, the Trek/VW world cup team, in 2005 & 2006. Along with some decent local results, I have several Norba and USAC podium finishes and a National Super D series title to my credit. My favorite places to ride include Michaux State Forest, PA and Fort Valley and Massanutten in VA. The more technical, the better.
Just last week I rode a trail with a friend in Patapsco State Park, in my backyard trail system basically, and he showed me a little section that I didn’t even know existed. It wasn’t anything huge or long, but it significantly upped the fun factor over the previous route I was using to connect two points. It illustrated perfectly one of the things I love the best about riding mountain bikes: You are never done learning new stuff. Whether it is the trail or your equipment, your body or your mind, there is always something new to explore, to learn, to master. I've been on a mountain bike for 23 years now, and I am STILL learning.
When I was initially asked to contribute to this series, I began drafting some technical skills advice…..lean the bike to turn it, weight the outside pedal, shift your center mass....etc etc. This stuff is important, don’t get me wrong. Nailing the technical fundamentals has to come before really high level riding skills can be unlocked. So take the time to find some other articles about technical performance riding and get yourself in the right position and know the basics. But that is not going to be covered here. Instead, I am going to tell you a few ways you can become a better rider by unlocking new levels of MTB Zen.
First things first - I strongly recommend doing some rides for fitness, and setting aside some other rides strictly for sessioning tough sections or obstacles and developing skills. There is no substitute for saddle time - that is, time spent trying and practicing skills on the bike. Everything about cycling is cumulative.
Get Confident - You would think I was making it up if I told you precisely how much of advanced trail riding is mental, so I won’t bother; it's a lot. You simply have to expect to get past an obstacle when attacking it or it’s game over before you start. There are countless articles on improving your mental game, but I believe one of the most valuable things you can read as a cyclist or as anyone in pursuit of a passion, is The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle. In it, he explores concepts of brain chemistry, learning and teaching techniques, the notion of “natural talent” and more. It’s a road map of sorts to building a positive mental approach to anything.
“Don’t just think you can, know you can.” Morpheus - The Matrix
Confidence is Trainable - Part of my own strategy on confidence is through a natural reasoning process. It goes sort of like this: if I trip while walking down the street, am I going to fall on my face? Hell no! Without me consciously doing anything, my brain will realize what is going on and tell my feet to get back under me and I may stumble, but I will regain my footing almost 100% of the time. Knowing this, I have the confidence to walk all over the place and I barely look where I’m putting my feet half the time. I trust these same proprioceptive skills to keep me upright when riding in technical terrain at speed. If you spend time developing these skills with a balance board or wobble board along with some exercise ball workouts, you will feel your agility and your confidence improve on the bike. Even movements like yoga or pilates help enhance this. It boils down to confidence gained through developing your ability to “catch yourself.” Part of a strong mental game is knowing about the tools, not just developing them, so read an article or two on proprioception like this one
F that noise - Something every fast rider hears a thousand times is “I don’t want to hold you up/slow you down, dude” I say that is a nice thought, very flattering, but F that noise.
Fact: “one of the best ways to get faster is to ride with people faster than you.” This is one of the most true statements in riding. Fast people know this of course. After all, it is probably a part of how they got fast. Most fast people are not jerks, and they like riding with other people, and even if they are not going as fast as they can, two things are likely to happen. The fast person will have fun and you will learn something. And the more you ride with fast people, the faster you will get, and the less they’ll have to wait up, and the faster they’ll go, and the harder you’ll have to chase….you see where this is going now? Ditch that “nah dude” reply and go on tons of rides with fast people. Expect to get dropped sometimes, but expect to see a grinning fast person waiting for you around the bend or at the top of the rise sometimes too. You will know you have gotten fast when you ask someone to ride and they say “dude, I don’t want to hold you up…”
Push it - but not too far - If you ride a dozen times and never crash, or even come close to crashing, I’d say you are not exploring your limits. “Your limits” is a kind of abstract thing, but they are as real as a brick wall when you bump up against them. One similarity between physical training and skills training is that if you never push your limits and explore the region outside them, you will never successfully reposition those limits further out. Want to have a higher VO2 max? If you have ever undertaken a tough training regimen you know that it is not comfortable - quite the opposite in fact. You have to get to the point of near agony to get the most improvement. Developing your riding skill set is much the same. Go to a section of trail you know owns you. Look at it. Walk through it. Imagine how water would flow through that piece of trail. Watch some riders attempt it. Go back by yourself and do it 10X, do it 100X.
Final note on achieving confidence - Hopefully you will find things to try (log overs, log rides, rock gardens, climbing rootball, etc) and you will session them over and over until you get them clean. Do not ride away at this point. Once you clean something - try it again right away and try to do it exactly the same as you just did. Adding a couple of more attempts on after you have conquered an obstacle does a couple of things. First, it give you a chance to repeat the moves or lines that got you success and learn them, ingraining those neural pathways while they’re fresh and making the skill more repeatable in the future. Secondly, if you get it once, yahoo, high five your buddy and ride on till you come to that obstacle again….if you get it 3, 4, or more times...you will own it forever and never think twice when coming up on a similar obstacle.
Take a class - There are so many fast people out there and there is so much knowledge and wisdom to soak up….and there are some settings in which you might pick up a morsel or two, perhaps a tip on how keeping your elbows up encourages a more forward torso position, helping to keep weight correctly distributed, etc. But if you want to get a whole truckload of morsels dumped on you at once - take a skills course or clinic. Some of the most valuable skills I have developed are ones I acquired at riding skills camps. Gene Hamilton, a former top World Cup DH racer, has gone arguably further than any other mountain biker in breaking critical riding skills down to fundamentals and putting them into a teachable format. His BetterRide classes are some of the best learning opportunities for improving one’s riding.
Log Data - Fitness goals are easy to measure, to track progress, and most workout data is quantifiable. As a result, you can plot out cardio fitness gains on a chart. You can see your heart rate recovering more quickly, your anaerobic threshold creeping up. Less measurable are a riders handling skills - braking, turning, descending etc. Your “ridership” might be best reflected with your race results at the end of each year, or total # of miles ridden, finishing times in a few key events, or whatever metric you like - but unless you record these things, you won’t have anything to measure against. Services such as Strava make it easy to view progress over time - even on a certain trail or route. Be patient and once you have a couple of season’s worth of data, you will see trends emerge. Very few people go from slow to fast overnight - most work hard at it for hundreds or thousands of hours of riding each year.
Splurge for race day - There are a few things I would always try to do on race day to remind myself that my job was to go as fast as possible on that ride. One of the most effective for me was: if possible, have new, or next-to-new, tires on the bike. You never feel as tight in the corners, as grippy under braking, as when you are on fresh rubber edges. Got 3-4 hours of riding on them? They’re nothing like brand new any more…..on race day - go new. The actual edge and the mental edge you will give yourself will be a part of that perfect effort.
Some, all, or none of these may resonate with you. I promise each one is worth something. Part of racing to your absolute max potential is in thinking about all of the details at once. Practicing the skills that hang you up, keeping your mind sharp, and giving yourself every advantage with your equipment, are all controllable ways to get the most out of your racing. Don't ignore these smaller but equally as important pieces of racing!
Hope to see you on the trail sometime!