Photo: Dan Bennett
There is no sport that is more multidimensional than mountain biking. I have other hobbies but I could do without them. Snowboard at Wolf Laurel? Nah, rather ride. Paddle the Green? Rather ride. If you are in the fitness mode you can think about training. If you are into biomechanics you can think about pedal stroke and position. If you are into bike tech, you can think about bike setup. And if you are riding trail you can think about skills. By the time you run down the list you get back to where you started and hence the endless conversation about bikes. No wonder I had to meet a woman who was more into bikes than I was before I had enough to talk about.
Some of what I think about when I ride trails goes all the way back to riding with John Machael (sp?) when I was 14. John promoted some of the first races in the area like “The Couch Potato Classic” and “Pinnacle Mountain.” He had a long red beard and looked like he was fresh off a ten-year tour with The Dead. He had an answer for everything. I liked tips when I was learning to ride. I needed firm beta to direct my practice. He talked about passing half the expert field on the slick roots of Mount Snow because he was the only one that figured out that you just have to not use your brakes. He said he’d ridden with H-ball and dropped him when the trail got rough but he didn’t have the fitness. We’re all a mix of useful and full of it, right?
What I started back then is growing nerves. Nerves only grow an inch a year so starting early helps. Riding trails comes down to traction control so if you want to ride well you need to feel through your tires. When I hop on a bike now its automatic, I’m thinking through my tires, feeling the limits of a wet root, dry root, wet sandstone or slick granite, leaves, deep sand, moss, loam. It’s everything all together and mixed up at the speed of light. You think it all through but then you don’t think at all.
That is the starting point and then you can get more specific. It’s useful to think about skills in two separate ways. You have the mindset and then you have the specific skills. Ultimately, the mindset you want to be in when you are really in the groove is a state of calm. Empty mind, relaxed, concentrated. When I used to do Yoga I learned how to meditate. I learned to use my breath as a distraction to give my mind something to follow. Watch your breath, observe, don’t react, don’t think. I got to the point where I could initiate that state by going to my breath. Get the downhill, listen to the exhale, and then empty, no thoughts just flow.
To get to the flow you need the skills and when you’re working on your skills it helps to have tips to give yourself something tangible to think about. I want to call out a skill we all use, The Boof. It’s a way to use a trail feature to your advantage by allowing it to bounce your front wheel up without really having to use much muscle. Here’s a rule: put out as little energy as possible to achieve the same result. When your riding uphill and you find yourself hurting see if you can go less hard but just as fast. When your going down, do the same. Go the same speed with less effort. Stringing together a series of microboofs as you’re riding the trail instead of lurching the bike over obstacles leaves your arms free to soak up hits, which improves traction and control. Example: there is a small log down with a rut on the backside where water has run across the trail. Don’t hop the log and land in the rut, hit the log and jump the rut. It’s almost always better to hit logs with your front wheel to get a good bounce than trying to clear them. The timing is automatic, don’t time the jump, let the bounce happen and then go with it. That’s an obvious example but I think the technique can be taken further with microboofs, little bounces to take you over a pile of roots, a slick rock, or a hole. Anticipate the bounce and spot a landing with some traction. Take one bump and skip three. I’m really just talking about bouncing the front wheel, let the back one ride the trail, and maybe give it a little English if it needs it. You don’t need to go fast to get better, it’s smarter to stay well within your comfort zone and improve your technique.
Enough of skills, now go to flow. Shut up and ride. Go for a long one and flow the whole way like maybe the Virginia Mountain Bike Trail, the Colorado Trail, or The Transylvania Epic. 2013 is going to allow time for all that and more.