As many of you know, I came to mountain biking with a background rich in downhill skiing. When I downhill skied as a kid I took beginner lessons, and then in middle school I started taking intermediate lessons, attending weekly skills clinics, and progressively learning more and more advanced techniques.
Much of my advancement in skill and technique came at the hands of skilled coaches and instructors. The same can generally be said for all sports that require serious technical ability or adeptness at a particular skill: that skill is almost always learned through a coach or an instructor of some sort, and that instructor is almost always paid.
Why should mountain biking be any different?
For some reason, many people seem to think that mountain biking is little more than riding a bike through the woods. As Chris Skolnick, our instructor at the recent BetterRide mountain bike skills camp I attended, put it, “some people ask, ‘why are you going to learn to ride a bike? I learned to ride a bike when I was a kid’!”
As most of us know: mountain biking is not just riding a bike through the woods. It is so much more complicated than that.
Photo upper right: Chris Skolnick demonstrating proper cornering technique.
Why a Professional Coach Instead of a Friend
During high school, I helped pay for my skiing habit by teaching beginner/intermediate skiing and snowboarding lessons. In order to be a ski instructor, I had to take classes designed to teach me how to teach, not simply to teach me the skills. Doing the sport is one skill, and teaching someone else how to do the sport is another skill entirely.
Just because someone is a very talented mountain biker does not mean that they will be a very talented teacher of mountain biking. Oftentimes really great riders will have a hard time articulating exactly what they are doing, much less explaining a way to incrementally work up to difficult maneuvers
Photo above right: practicing cornering in the parking lot, where the variables of the trail don’t distract. Foreground: Joe Allen.
Chris explaining cornering theory and technique.
The BetterRide instructors are the mountain bike equivalent of professional ski instructors. They know exactly how to teach the skills you need to know.
BetterRide’s professional instructors will:
- Break each complicated skill down into its most basic parts so you can understand it.
- Demonstrate each movement so you can see it.
- Set up drills so you can practice it.
- Give you feedback on how you complete those drills: what you did well, and what you can do better.
- Put all the basic parts together and show you the completed complex maneuver.
- Help you start putting the complicated skills together yourself.
- Give you even more drills to practice.
- Wow you with advanced maneuvers you can aspire to one day do yourself.
The BetterRide curriculum, which is 13 years in the making and is constantly being improved, has a distinct progression of skills to walk through during the course of the camp, designed to move riders from the basics to the more complicated skills–and it works.
Simply put, these instructors have been taught how to teach–and they do it really dang well!
My teacher this past weekend was Chris Skolnick of Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to being a very talented rider, Chris really had a caring teacher’s spirit–and it showed. He was very patient and encouraging toward all his students, and was always willing to answer questions and get back on his bike to show us how to do it one more time.
If you ever get a chance to learn from Chris, I highly recommend him!
Some people balk at the $618 cost. But if you consider the fact that you and a maximum of 7 other students have the attention of a professionally trained coach for about 6 hours a day for 3 days in a row, you are taught numerous drills to practice on your own, you get a thick packet of notes to take home with you, and you get follow up emails with additional support and homework, you should realize that the price you’re paying is on par or less than comparable professional training/coaching in many other sports.
Not Just for Beginners
Eric railing a berm.
Those of us who have been mountain biking for a longer period of time might scoff at the idea of an introductory mountain bike skills course. I’ve been riding mountain bikes seriously for seven years, and I personally thought I should have most of the basics down (although I didn’t try to claim I knew everything).
What really astonished me over the course of the three days was yes, I was doing some stuff correctly… but there was way more stuff that I was doing almost right.
At times I was close, but close is only good in horseshoes and hand grenades. On a mountain bike, close just doesn’t cut it. I came away from this weekend with so much new information about how to perform old skills that I had been doing incorrectly for many years, and some brand-new skills that I didn’t have before.
I had some great tutelage as a young rider, but I really wish I had had the opportunity to take a course like this during my first year or two of mountain biking.
So whether you are a new rider or even an experienced rider, I highly recommend this class!
Things I Learned
I won’t just leave you with an abstract claim about how much I learned. Instead, here are just a few concrete examples of the many things I learned at the camp this weekend and need to start practicing more on and off the trail:
- Vision: I learned that I tend to get fixated on things, especially when climbing or going off a jump. Instead, I need to be finding reference points two steps ahead of wherever I’m at.
- Body Position: I need to fight my tendency to pull my elbows in and down and instead work on pushing them out and lowering my chest into a good ready position.
- Cornering: My body position and complete approach to cornering before the camp was close, but not quite right. I need to focus on separating myself from the bike by pushing on the bar in the inside of the turn and leaning the bike while keeping my body perpendicular to the ground, pushing my outside elbow out, and pivoting my hips to the outside of the turn (while also looking well through the turn using reference points). The hip pivot was news to me but it is already making a huge difference in my cornering!
- Coaster Wheelie: I learned how to manual/coaster wheelie… I didn’t know that this was even a viable trail technique before. I was already pretty good at a pedal wheelie, but the coaster wheelie is a completely different technique for completely different situations.
- Rear Tire Lift: I learned how to rear tire lift–or at least, the theory behind it and how to practice it. Combined with the coaster wheelie, I should now theoretically know how to J-hop if I can get my timing down.
- Bike Setup: I need a dropper seatpost. I need one. I can’t ride a bike without one. Or at least I can’t ride a bike as well as possible without one. In addition, you also need fat tires, wide bars, and a short stem (I’ve already been an adherent to all of those). Chris made so many references to his seatpost that it became a standing joke, “and this is why you need a Gravity Dropper.” We even asked if they had an endorsement from Gravity Dropper and Chris laughed and said no, but after seeing how much easier it was to practice good cornering position and almost all of these other skills with the seat lowered, I can definitely say that I am in the market!
Chris explaining to Eric and Jeff how they can improve their cornering after they both clipped the same tree.
These are just a few of the skills that were highlighted over the three day period, and even the ones I mentioned here I’ve just barely touched on. During the camp you will dive into each one in intricate detail. Heck, we spent almost a whole day discussing cornering alone! To learn more about the skills taught in each camp, the different types of camps available, and where and when they will be held, be sure to check out BetterRide.net.
Now I’m ready to sign up for Core Skills 2!
Many thanks to BetterRide for allowing me to review their Core Skills 1 course!