… you a bit better that average. Possibly. There’s not much evidential measurement in mountain biking unless you categorise improvement by shaving seconds off your Strava times, or extrapolating a downward curve when plotted against A&E entries.
Quite a while ago, Tony Doyle rebooted my mountain biking world by breaking down riding into a small number of congruent techniques, which was as much about stopping what was wrong as consistently attempting what was right.
Tony’s continued success is a testament to – generally – older riders accepting that no amount of travel and technology will ever cover for an approach that is little more than ‘hang on and hope‘. And that’s great, more people riding, for longer, on harder terrain without hurting themselves.
But this hides a dirty little secret. Away from the bubble of a skills day, those bad habits creep back in. We all know that to be fast you first have to be smooth, to carve corners your body positon and weighting are everything, to ‘attack‘* steep, technical sections needs speed management and clear focus. Right up until your best mate starts to ride away from you, and – BANG – Mr Cahoonies elbows you out of the driving seat and we’re back to wild eyed desperation, naked terror and consequence delusion.
There’s nothing wrong with this of course. Adrenalin spikes and Dopamine hits never fail to raise the silly grin of the recently spared. Having fun does not always mean riding faster. Accepting your limitations is part of growing up. Our riding reality is never close to the minds eye view, so why not kick back, hang on and tweak the nose of terror with a technique that has so far kept you above ground.
The answer I think is because one day you’ll really, really hurt yourself. The difference between learned and instinctive skills matter most when it’s all gone horribly shit-canned, and the next two seconds are the difference between riding home and not riding for a long time. Since buying my Rocket, it’s absolutely clear it puts me into situations that are beyond my ability to get out of with any degree of safety.
Most of these are likely to be in the Alps. Where we’ll be in eight weeks throwing ourselves down mountains day after day, with ego, testosterone and big bikes for company. My riding is a mash up of half remembered techniques, sloppy copies of internet videos and burned in inadequacies when things get tough. Strava – we will be back to this very soon on the hedgehog once I’ve finally decided if I hate it or like it – tells me I’m fast compared to my peers. But that’s mostly the bike which is very capable. I’m not even sure I’ll ever get to capable, but I’d quite like to achieve adequately brisk and relatively safe.
Which is where Ed @ Great-Rock comes in. A Calderdale based skills coach who impresses with his easy manner, outstanding riding ability and legendary beard. It’s worth the price alone for a front row seat to view robustious facial hair last seen during the Victorian era. Behind it is an intelligent bloke with the knack of making hard things seem easy.
First up this is a very different approach to Tony. Not better, not worse, just different. Ed’s training ground is the steep sided valleys above Hebden Bridge, full of West Yorkshire’s finest rocks and roots. He sized us up very quickly, me – too far back on the bike**, Matt – too ‘closed in’, H – not loose. By then we’d ridden two or three great trails in the manner of those ‘travelling far too quickly for their own ability‘
This is where practice comes in. Ed doesn’t reconstruct your riding, instead he focusses you on a few moves to make it somewhat more fit for purpose. Firstly a more open body position combined with better management of speed before letting it all hang out on technical sections. This act of faith to abandon the binders means taking more direct lines and committing 100% to the terrain. There’s some soundbites around ‘chin up, elbows out‘ but it’s more subtle than that.
It’s also not easy. Trying to unlearn everything that’s so far made you a bit successful is frustrating and a bit scary, but the reward is when it feels right, it is right so even if – when – you screw up again, at least there’s something to go back to. The same with drops and lips. Ed has us attempting to bunnyhop – not as a car park stunt – but because it’s a brilliant way to launch over trail obstacles without losing speed. Years ago this was one skill I actually had, back in the days of flat pedals and short chain-stayed hardtails. Today – not so much.
A fast top to bottom run putting it all together was great right up until the point that crashing somewhat interrupted my flow. At attempt to clear an entire root section with a committed un-weighting move was scuppered by a distinctly uncommitted dab of front brake. The same error had me over again a little later while attempting the kind of steep, loose off-camber corner we’ll see a thousand of in the Alps.
My increasing frustration at being a bit shit was mitigated by Ed’s calm explanation of what was going wrong and how to put it right. Which I finally did on another steep switchback, but this time with a proper line fixed by looking a long way down the trail, a flick of the hips to drive the bike round and a committed body position that had my head somewhat nearer the stem than the rear axle.
There’s lot more here mostly around being less of a mannequin and more of a man on the bike. The realisation of all this were a few more fantastic trails at the end of the day where my riding yo-yo’d between really quite good and really quite tired. Sufficient energy barely remained to throw ourselves off a concrete slab demonstrating new found confidence and technique. Even if in my case it came after a few attempts where Ed’s kindly instructions couldn’t quite eclipse the sound of a 160mm travel full suspension bike being rocked against its stops, as Herefordshire’s answer to the Kango drill honed his skills.
Sitting in the pub afterwards with a well earned recovery pint, it was clear that there’s a pragmatic way of going fast and having more fun while all the time reducing the fear factor of that speed.
In six hours you’ll learn why that is. And what to do. And a bit of how that works on every trail you ride. But you won’t leave proficient in those skills – certainly not if you’re starting with me. You will leave with a head full of ideas and a very sore set of muscles unused to being included in the great sport that is mountain biking.
Ed’s a great conduit for this. He’s a very approachable fella with a quiet passion for doing things right. It was a six AM start and an eight PM finish to squeeze in this skills day, but it was time perfectly invested. We’ll be back to ride those trails, and to borrow Ed for another day so he can teach us ‘olds‘ some the dark arts of proper jumping. Until then, I’m digging out the old jump bike and practising.
Because average is the new fast.
* I find that word a bit insincere when considering my riding. Honestly would replace it with ‘mildly menacing’ or ‘desperately trying’
** Removing my head from a perceived place of terror, i.e. the trail ahead.