Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Watch a World cup DH or XC or even Brendon Semanuk's one shot masterpiece in UnReal and you’ll see committed athletes nailing lines at insane speeds and flowing down the trail smoother than nice pint of IPA. This is all pretty inspiring and one of the reasons we all love MTB, its the adrenaline buzz of getting down the hill, railing the corners and riding on your limit is one aspect that makes our sport so damn awesome.
For newer riders it's easy to get lured into thinking the ability to read the trail and carry speed is one that can be developed in a few rides, now don't get me wrong, this might be the case with some lucky riders, however newer riders can benefit massively from taking time to start to build an understanding and ability to read and understand the twists, turns and personality of a trail, leading to the ability to pick lines, maintain flow and subsequently ride faster and more confidently.
Open your mind
The physical element of coaching is all about teaching a rider to develop skills and techniques that will improve their riding. Sessioning (repeating) movement sequences and runs helps a rider to develop the muscle memory required to make these newly taught techniques become ingrained in riding.
From a coaches perspective, developing riders is as much about mental coaching too, during learning, space is taken in in your brain to allow the body's receptors and muscles to fine tune technique and adjust power and movement to execute a move, or activate technique to the point that, after repetition it feels natural and becomes second nature. Becoming second nature is the key to unlocking the next level in learning and developing as a rider; much the same as taking a photo on your phone takes up memory space, the period when you are learning new technique means a large part of your thought process during this fine tuning period, is taken up with how things feel and the relevant sequence of actions are all lined up and ready to go. Once a process becomes second nature the memory space that was taken up with fine adjustments, can be freed up and replaced with elements required for the next level.
Here at Trail Advantage we talk a lot about ‘Processing Speed’, this principle is a way to gauge rider perception and understanding of a trail, technique or process. Newer riders benefit from taking a measured riding approach down a trail to allow focus on reading the trail, and maintaining a flowing ‘Journey Line’, riding responsively and not reactively is a great way to keep calm and focused, the marginal gain of which is to keep your heart rate down, more energy efficient and psychologically makes you feel more in control.
Sessioning a ‘benchmark’ trail in your local area is also a good way to gauge improvement, choose one with some features that you can hone your skills on and see those times get quicker, a familiar trail can also help build personal context, by honing skills on a familiar trail also helps when your riding other less familiar trails as you can contextualise how you approached similar trail features on your ‘benchmark’ trail.
So what makes a good ‘benchmark’ trail?
If you're lucky enough to have a variety of riding environments then it's good to have a few benchmark trails that you can ride to develop different aspects of technique, rocky, flowy, techy even your local park, they all contribute to making you a better rider. The photo below shows one of my favourite intermediate local trails on my benchmark loop; ‘Jumbles’ is on Houndkirk Moor and a great short techy descent to Sheephill Rd. To a newer rider looking down ‘Jumbles’ can be chaotic and seat of your shorts type riding, but a measured and ‘responsive’ approach to looking at the trail key to negotiate this trail confidently.
Risk / Reward - Red Line
The inside red line is a rocky inside line to start that feeds nicely into a line that smooths out round the corner, carrying speed through the rocky section will put you in a good place to take advantage of the momentum gain on the smoother section.
Visualisation, Looking past the rocky section once on it and looking for the most effective entry into the smooth section. Maintaining momentum and not over braking, staying relaxed.
Risk / Reward - Blue Line
The blue line is similar to the red line in that its rocky, however the rocky section is comprised of fewer ‘movable’ loose rocks, so there is a consistency over multiple runs in what the bike would feel like. The additional benefit of this line going into the smoother section round the corner is that it allows you a better entry, however the compromise is that you need to be ready for unpredictability as you need to cross loose rocks on the trail to get to the smoother line on the left.
Visualisation, maintaining a good ready position, riding responsively, subtle weight shift, identifying areas to ‘pump’ the bike through the trail, staying relaxed and focused.
Risk / Reward - Green Line
The green line runs on the right edge of the trail and is one that a less confident rider would zone in on. Whilst smoother than the red and blue lines, the green line is not without its compromises. There are a few larger rocks in this part of the trail and round the corner the smooth line turns into a rut-fest!, this means looking ahead and planning your line transition, coming across the trail gradually instead of adopting panic mode and being reactive. Target fixation can be an issue if you are going from a relatively tame line into a more chaotic line, looking ahead and visualising a line through challenging terrain means you can focus on the onward journey and its challenges.
Visualisation, maintaining a good ready position, planning a gradual line transition, NOT being target fixated, see the line through and round objects, focus on the solution NOT the problem / feature you're looking to avoid.
Thinking about weather and trail conditions on the day and on the run up to your ride is also a big factor. Jumbles is quite well drained on the red and blue trails, however the green one is quite susceptible to environmental factors. If the trails are dry then this line will be fast and relatively flowy, however if the trails are wet this line will be fairly sticky and greasy with mud; riding this surface in the wet can also cause extra erosion and wear on the trail, subsequently widening it.
Learn from your mistakes
Falls, fails and bails are all part of a learning process too, although the negative (and painful) connotations of these are not something to put at the forefront of your mind when riding, having the ability to unpick the contributing elements of a crash can be quite constructive. If you are speeding down the trail before a crash and then have no idea why you bailed then it’s a sign that you’re riding faster than your current processing speed / ability to read the trail responsively can digest. The bigger the crash, the more this applies, if you steadily increase your speed and comfort zone as your skills develop and the learning curve increases, then your brain is only working on the fringes of comfort zone, and not full into the danger zone, this in turn can potentially reduce the severity of a crash.
The ability to unpick and analyse a failure and visualise a successful outcome is a good psychological boost too, it points out areas to focus on and can steer you towards drills which focus on the techniques required to turn fail into success. This could be more momentum, less braking, more dynamic weight shift etc. With the image above it was a case of more speed on the approach and two better timed pops to get over the first gap and then a dynamic weight shift to get over the second drop.
Thanks for reading this blog, it would be great to know if you found it useful and if it has helped you. If you want to find out more about Trail Advantage courses, including 1 2 1 sessions then drop us a line.