Friday, 5 September 2014

Never Too Old To Learn

I think I must have been in my mid thirties when I first rode a mountain bike so definitely a late-comer to the sport and the techniques required. You might think that it's just riding a bike but it differs from riding on the road in that road biking is more about efficient transfer of power to the wheels and the bike set-up, body position, etc., is all aimed at that one goal whereas mountain biking is as much about weight transfer and pressure as efficiency. It's more like skiing than road biking.

I got the feeling that my ability on a mountain bike had plateaued: I could get down most descents but didn't feel "in control" if obstacles came thick and fast. Cath had been on a skills course earlier in the year and reckoned it was a day well spent. After a bit of looking around I settled on Great Rock run by Ed Oxley. As much as anything it was that the course was run at Gisburn Forest so fairly local and I knew most of the trails so it would be a case of riding them better rather than thinking about what was ahead. At my age the fewer the uncertainties when learning the better! So course (Stop Crashing - level 1) was booked.

The night before I had a sudden thought: I didn't know the meeting place or time! There are three possible locations at Gisburn, a quick email with the hope that the response would arrive before I left in the morning. In the event the response was sent before I set off but I didn't receive it in time so I checked all three spots arriving about five minutes late (I'd had to go back for my wallet about ten minutes in to my journey as well). A quick assemble of my bike, payment of the car park fee and I was good to go.

On the first section Ed checked out our positioning on the bike - we all sat too far back apparently, so we had a discussion about what we were doing and why and a demonstration of what we should be doing - in effect letting the bike pivot around us so that our centre of gravity was always above or slightly behind the bottom bracket. On to the next skill.

Trackstands. Now I've tried these before and I'm shakey like a shakey thing stood on jelly. I happened to be the guinea pig: my stance was wrong! Bum stuck out behind and bent over the bars, it was a struggle. With a firm push to get my body straighter it became easier. Working in pairs, there were eight on the course, we spent a while either practicing or acting as steadier. Most showed progress, some managing a reasonable while.

The rest of the day followed the same pattern: find a section of trail to isolate a particular skill; watch Ed demonstrate it and detail why he did things that way then take turns in trying it ourselves. Even something as basic and simple as cornering was disected and explained how to be more efficient. Ed's view was that a lot of problems people have stem from language, where people are describing the consequence of an action rather than the initiator: "get your weight back" being a good example, your weight goes back as a result of letting the bike pivot around you. I think most of us took a fall at some point - mine was a comedy 1MPH scenario, unfortunately on to solid rock - ouch! But in general we were never far out of our comfort zone.

Some people criticise skills courses saying that you can learn the skills just by riding. However in biking quite a few skills are counter-intuitive and without tips and tricks being pointed out to you, you could spend a lot of time and energy doing something or everything wrong. It's the nature of physical skills that you aren't going to perfect them in ten minutes, you need to build up muscle memory so that it becomes instinctive, second nature if you will, for some things this will take weeks or months of repeated practice. As mentioned above riding on trails is similar to skiing: you are weighting and unweighting the bike/skis to generate a better interaction with the surface beneath you; the use of momentum, balance and weighting/unweighting to smooth out the trail. Also similar is the (mis)use of language in skiing: "Bend ze knees!" isn't how you turn but is the result of pushing your weight forward and turning your hips in to the bend to initiate the turn.

Was it worth it? Well I didn't leave a better rider than at the start of the day but I now know how to become better. There's a level 2 part of the course which is run on the following day but I need a few weeks (months?) getting the current ideas working for me. 

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