There's something odd about mountain biking. It's a potentially hazardous adventure sport, but unlike others of that ilk, people tend to just get the gear, head out and do it. For the most part, people don't do that with skiing, or rock climbing, or white-water rafting. It's commonly-accepted practice to find someone who knows what they're doing to teach the basics before setting out.
Not so with mountain biking. The general perception is that, well, it's just riding a bike. Everyone can do that. And up to a point, it's true. Most people riding today are essentially self-taught and seem to get by. But everyone could be better. There are an awful lot of people out there chasing imperceptible performance improvements through the acquisition of shiny bike parts when, truth be told, they're just not riding very well.
This is, of course, a big mental leap to make. Much like driving, everyone thinks that they're better than average. And as any statistician will tell you (should you wish to engage one in conversation), that just can't be so. Spend a few minutes sat by any mildly tricky section of trail on a sunny weekend or at a race and you'll quickly see that it isn't.
It's only really in the last few years that MTB skills coaching has got off the ground. The involvement of CTC in devising courses and accrediting coaches has certainly boosted the numbers of coaches in the UK. But what do they actually do? By a happy coincidence, Tony Doyle (who trades as "jedi" on the internet - if you've spent any time on forums you've probably encountered him and his spectacular Herts Shore timber trails) has recently set up UK Bike Skills and invited BM on a course to see what goes on.
So it was that I rolled up at Woburn Sands to meet Tony and fellow trainees Ed, Dave and Paul. The range of experience in the group was pretty wide, with Paul describing himself as a "total novice" having just got his first MTB at the age of 63. The day was described as "beginner/intermediate" but Tony explained that he gears things to the specific group and that the name was mainly a guideline. By way of assessment, we were soon riding figure-eights around two sticks on a wide, flat trail. This sounds easy (although it's also easy to mess it up if you're, ahem, trying a little too hard...) but gave Tony an opportunity to look at what people were doing. Scope for improvement everywhere was quickly identified, with common faults including not looking in the direction of travel and having feet in the wrong places.
With a bit of a handle on where we were all at, Tony moved the group on to an area of small bombholes to teach what he sees as the fundamental skills of riding off-road. The UK Bike Skills method draws a distinction between skills and techniques - things like wheelies and hops are techniques, while the fundamental movements and weight shifts upon which they're based are skills. So for the next twenty minutes or so we were all pumping into and unweighting out of bombholes, getting a feel for how the bike behaves and what Tony calls the energy in the trail.
Smooth and efficient riding is, says Tony, all about managing that energy with the minimum of pedalling or braking. The emphasis is on getting as much out of the trail as possible, rather than pedalling madly at everything and hoping for the best. The three fundamentals to which we were introduced sound obvious, but when you start to analyse your own riding you may be surprised how often you're only managing one or two out of three.
First up is looking ahead. Everyone knows that you tend to go where you're looking, so looking where you want to go is key. But while everyone knows, nearly everyone tends to forget. It's easy to get distracted by the bumpy bit just ahead of your wheel, or get target-fixation on a tree. There's a bit of a leap of faith needed to haul your attention away from what you're riding over right now and apply it to what you'll be riding over in a few seconds. Tony was keen to look at the trail in terms of sections, rather than obstacles. A section might include a corner, or a drop, or a jump, but the emphasis is on riding through the section rather than focussing on the feature within it. Enter the section, focus on the end of the section.
Second is foot positioning. Again, the importance of having your outside foot down in corners is common knowledge in theory but often forgotten in practice, especially if there are lots of corners in sequence. Most riders also have a favoured foot, making them get it right reliably in one direction but less so in the other.
Then there's the pump, which is what we'd been practising in the bombholes. Arms and legs bent, squashing the bike down into downslopes, and then wrists and heels down pushing it up upslopes. If there's a lump or jump rather than a hole, it's the same movements in the other order - you've still got a downslope and an upslope. Drops are treated as an upslope, berms as a downslope on the entry and an upslope on the exit
It's surprisingly hard to concentrate on all three of these at once. Ask someone to do something with their feet and they tend to look at their feet. Ask someone to look ahead and they forget about their feet. But having introduced the concepts, all it took was a short section of trail with two corners in it and Tony shouting one-word cues like "Look!" and "Feet!" to get everyone moving in the right direction.
And it works. Get everything together and the difference is remarkable. You can feel the difference even within a corner – foot down, look to the exit, all good. Glance at front wheel and it goes a bit sketchy. Head back up and everything sorts itself out.
With everyone looking good on the right/left corner combination, we moved down the trail to a right turn/small root drop/left turn section. In the first turn we had to look towards the drop. Heading for the drop we had to look into the second turn, and once there look down to the exit. Feet had to be left down for the right corner, back to level for the drop and then immediately right down for the corner. And the pump was vital to keep things smooth and controlled over the drop. Getting the wheels back on the trail and gripping was key to making it around the second corner without braking.
Then further down the trail again. Right-hand corner, left-hand corner, little dip, small root drop, bigger knee-high drop right at the bottom. With that all nailed, it was back to the very top to run the entire trail in one hit and really feel the flow. And feel it we did. You definitely know when you’re getting it right. Everything feels smooth and easy and eerily quiet. Despite riding a hardtail and leaving it in a fairly floppily-chained gear, there wasn’t much clanking and rattling going on. Soon we were all confidently swooping down the trail and off the drop at the end without a second thought.
The beauty of Woburn Sands as a coaching spot is that it’s got a whole bunch of 30-second trails on the same hillside, all with different features and characters. Having got the hang of the first one, we moved on to others with tighter turns, floaty jumps, larger drops in the middle of corners and so on. Ride, listen, watch, repeat.
Tony proved to be an excellent and enthusiastic teacher. You can tell that he loves to ride and wants everyone to love it just as much as him. By the end of the day everyone was going faster with less effort and looking smooth and controlled. More importantly, those fundamental skills can be applied to anything on the trail. Advanced riders can take advantage of UK Bike Skills’s access to the infamous Herts Shore, although Tony and his team will run courses anywhere if you’d rather not travel yourself.
The bottom line is this. I’ve been mountain biking for 19 years and – at risk of own-trumpet-blowing – I’m not bad at it. But after a few hours of skills coaching I was riding better, more smoothly, under more control and faster than at the start of the day. Don’t believe that you’ve finished learning – you haven’t. A day’s coaching costs about the same as a decent pair of tyres, and will make far, far more difference to your riding…
Thanks to UK Bike Skills (www.ukbikeskills.com).