Throughout the course of my bike riding career, I've never been known as the guy who has the most skill, guts or finesse. I've witnessed amazing feats of bike riding by the likes of Chris Eatough, Jon Posner or Harlan Price - I remember racing Harlan at a Michaux, PA race in the rain, where I spent most of the day slipping, sliding and cursing. Meanwhile, Harlan defied physics to maintain traction on the moss covered granite and won the race by thirty minutes with an overall average speed of 4.7 mph. Precision pedaling, braking and steering. Impressive bike driving if there ever was any.
While I may not be the best bike handler out there, I have learned that being resourceful can go a long way. I've survived and won on courses with better, stronger, fitter riders simply by being efficient. One of the most beautiful things about bike racing is that the winner can come from a pack of athletes who have very different skill sets. Some have superior physical strength, where some can achieve greatness by being savvy and intelligent. The strongest guy doesn't always win. This fact gives guys like me hope to keep training hard; waiting for the perfect day - when magic happens. Be patient, bike racing is really tough. Special days only happen a few times in one's career - if you stick with it long enough. Just ask the 2016 winner of Paris Roubaix, who finally won on his 14th attempt.
Driving a bike well conserves energy; maintaining momentum conserves energy; and that should always be your main goal. These days one of the primary (and somewhat misplaced) goals of any cyclist is to train harder so he or she can generate more power. I'm all for making more watts - without that ability you'll surely never be taking a champagne shower atop the podium - but for those of us who don't have big engines, bike driving becomes increasingly important. Conserving momentum (and energy) leaves you fresher for the key moments in the ride or race. Become a better bike driver, and you'll have more power when you need it the most.
Navigating a trail on a mountain bike requires you to be very selective. The terrain of a trail is highly variable and often unpredictable. Choosing the best path (or the line) is good bike driving. Identifying where and when you should use your hard-earned power is good bike driving. Waiting for the perfect moment to apply the brakes and the earliest possible moment to release the brakes is good bike driving. Determining the fastest way to go over, under, around, or through is good bike driving. As soon as we clip into our pedals, we are processing loads of information and making quick decisions in milliseconds of time. How we interpret and process the information in our field of view on the trail determines how fast or slow we are able to navigate it, and ultimately how good of a driver we can be.
Having the most watts won't serve you if you use them in the wrong places or at the wrong times. Watts are only useful when traction is available, so traction is something a good bike driver actively seeks. Its not always in the most obvious places either. Sometimes it's not even on the "suggested" trail at all, it might be at the very edge of the trail or even off to the side of it. Identifying where and when to apply power effectively and efficiently leaves more for the times when you need brute strength or pure fitness to ride or race fast. But always make sure that when you do drop that hammer, you're getting every ounce of it back in your forward motion.
At this point you are probably looking for a list of bullets or the top 5 ways to be a better bike driver. What I'll offer is a bit different perspective on bike driving - perhaps something you think about unconsciously or maybe even consciously. The next time you are out there - drive your bike with intention. This is what I tell all the athletes I coach. Stay focused on the terrain - not just the climbs or the descents, but the subtle changes in the surface of the terrain, like the firmer parts of the trail vs the softer, slower soils. Forget about the line you took last Saturday or the one your buddy takes. Drive the bike in such a way the you can maintain the most momentum and speed with the least amount of effort. Sometimes the most efficient line is over an obstacle. Other times its more efficient to not brake at all through that turn (this is always true unless you absolutely have to brake!) Also, turning is slow. Straight lines are shorter and in most cases faster (depending on the surface/terrain/traction). Traction is the one thing we all need to navigate trails better at the ridiculous paces that these amazing machines allow us to. Whether the trail goes up, down or sideways - always be looking for ideal traction. When you find it, stomp on those pedals. Use the momentum you earned and don't give it up! And most importantly, relax and have fun.