Hi, my name is Alex and I’m rubbish on a bike. And it’s delusional for most riders to think any different – you may be fast on a local trail or impress your friends with a one-trick pony stunt, but really we’re all a bit crap.
And then we watch those DVDs where people shaped like us ride like aliens. Fast, committed and insanely talented, but only because they’ve got balls of steel and no imagination. That’s the only thing that separates them from us, right? I thought it might be interesting to find out, so spent a day with Nigel Page who runs skills courses in Delamere forest.
Jason gets to grips with the loose corners
Al has an epiphany – confident facial expression not pictured
In doing so, I found my riding mojo some two hundred miles from where I’d lost it last year in the wreckage of a big accident. Since that day, riding a bike has been a monochromatic facsimile of before, fighting the fear, hitting the brakes and wondering if it’s maybe time to jack it all in.
Nigel’s an interesting guy. I rang round a few people and they were all, “yes, we’ll tailor something for you, but we have a core section on body positioning, cornering, braking…” which all sounded a bit formulaic. Nigel was more, “turn up and we’ll see how we get on”.
We got on great. He’s a good teacher, makes you believe and firmly in the “pro elbows, don’t fight the bike” mould. Late in the day, he was imploring us to “ignore the corner, I want you to ride straight at that tree” to demonstrate how fast an unweighted bike can turn. I was having so much fun and concentrating so hard that I forgot to be scared as hard bark loomed large in my personal geography. But the bike carved down the trail and I began to remember how much fun riding without fear actually is.
Nigel assessed our riding in about 20 seconds. Jason too far forward with stiff arms, me too far back with dropped elbows. He then demonstrated a basic cornering technique at a speed most mortals would consider insanely dangerous. We tried it a lot slower – scrub speed nice and early, move back until you see your turning point and then commit forward and hard balancing an outside pedal with an inside elbow. Drop a shoulder, spot the exit, keep pushing the front until you’re through the turn and then unweight, shift the bike upwards and sprint off with a head full of smugness.
Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But it’s not the way I learned, assuming that wobbling off on skinny tyres was all you needed to know about riding a bike. On that basis, I’ve spent thousands of pounds on beautiful frames and shiny components to get better. Thinking nothing of spunking five hundred quid on a set of forks and not thinking at all about whether this would improve my riding. It’s like fixing the wrong end of a dog; the tail was healthy and wagging but nothing was going on at the brain end.
We made progress to the jump area adding berms, loose turns and a spot of basic jumping to our fledgling bag of skills. Nigel was constantly at us to pump the trail, concentrate on what’s in front of us, not what’s around the corner and work with the bike not against it. This translates to using the brakes less and the tyres more. In a moment of unrepeatable epiphany, I manualled through a set of rhythm bumps, tore a swathe out of the next corner with the rear tyre and wheelied off a step down.
The elation of riding like the champ you suspect you may be is tempered by the frustration of getting it wrong. Not enough commitment and blowing the turn, not enough pump and plopping over a jump, not enough speed and losing the flow.
Nigel is that rare combination of awesome rider and natural teacher. His patience paid off as we strung everything together for a last run through an off-camber nadgery singletrack. Each section was broken down into a few key moves and ridden many times to commit them to memory. Then a final push to the top and a quick prayer to the trail Gods for just one clean run.
Drop in, stay loose, keep those elbows high and the legs strong. Quick stab of the rear before launching onto the tabletop but riding at the speed of flow, not fear. Stay right on what looks like the wrong line, yet a sharp turn opens up the next section and we’re on the move up and down, forward and back like a skier carving and unweighting between turns. Into the crux of hard left, sharp right; wait until the last second before a massive unweight and a desperate front wheel force to gain traction for the turn. Wait, wait, wait until the turn is done and then up, swap feet, push down hard on the left and harder on the front. Grin and remember to breathe.
I screwed up the last section but I was too happy and tired to care. A day like this doesn’t turn you into the perfect mountain biker and it’s never going to replace the obvious talent and bravery of those at the top of our sport. But as a technical approach to having fun and forgetting to be scared, it’s absolutely bloody unbeatable.
Hopefully it’s the first step back to having fun again…
Pics: Jason Nash (except the one with Jason in, which Al Leigh took)