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mtb_expert_skills

Picture this: You’re renting a mountain bike for a trip to Whistler or Park City and on the rental form, they ask you to rate your riding ability: beginner, intermediate, advanced, or expert.  It turns out that plenty of people end up checking “expert,” despite the fact that most, if not all, the guys and girls working in the shop (who are way better than you, by the way) don’t even classify themselves as experts. Why not? Partly because even great riders know at least one rider who is better than them, but partly too, because science.

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (or listened to Macklemore’s song 10,000 hours) you’re familiar with the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become an “expert” in a given field. But what does 10,000 hours of mountain biking look like–and what does it take to achieve it?*

Becoming an expert mountain biker

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Does every mountain bike ride count as “practice” time?  For me, honestly, it doesn’t–most days I’m just on autopilot and not really thinking about progression (other than fitness perhaps). I would also argue that road bike hours don’t fully count toward becoming an expert mountain biker, since it’s not really the same thing (though again, the fitness carries over).

Our illustrious Editor in Chief, Greg, lives in Salida, CO and rides a lot of mountain bikes. For Greg, 2013 was a pretty good year, having logged about 400 hours in the saddle; but at that rate, it’ll be 25 years before he gets to 10,000 hours of saddle time!  (If you use Strava or a similar ride tracking service, you should be able to pull up annual time stats to check your own progress.) Four hundred hours in a year works out to 1+ hour per day, which is more than most weekend warriors can fit in. Even if you squeeze in 2 hours of trail time EVERY day of the year, you’re still looking at 14 years to become an expert mountain biker by Gladwell’s definition.

Still, 5% of respondents to a recent Singletracks survey rated themselves “expert” mountain bikers, while roughly the same percentage (6%) rated themselves beginners.

Becoming an expert on mountain biking

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Quick! There was just a huge mountain bike explosion and CNN needs a “mountain bike expert” to get on air to explain mountain biking to viewers.  Will you get the call?

Perhaps. You probably like to read mountain bike articles since you’re reading this one, and maybe you waste an entire hour of your work day, 5 days a week catching up on MTB “news” and reading how-to articles. Great–you’ll be an expert on the subject in just 40 years. (In the days before the internet, that would have meant reading every MTB magazine cover to cover for decades.)

Now, if you work in the industry, it’s entirely possible to gain expert status much more quickly, though time spent entering numbers into spreadsheets, sending emails, etc. will need to be thrown out. But let’s be optimistic and say you spend half your work day actually thinking about and learning about mountain bikes. The good news is you’ll be an expert in the field of mountain biking within about 10 years time.

Becoming an expert at repairing mountain bikes

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Of the three “expert” designations discussed in this article, becoming an expert at repairing mountain bikes is probably the most attainable, especially if you work as a shop or team mechanic. Working full-time as a bike wrench, you’ll clock your 10,000 hours toward becoming an expert in just 5 years. Note: taking smoke breaks will extend this to 5+ years.

Becoming an expert mountain biker is a worthy goal for anyone who loves the sport–just don’t underestimate how long it will take or where you are in the progression. If anything, it’s exciting to think about how much there is to learn about mountain biking and that it will never get old!

*Note: I am NOT an expert on mountain biking or any other subject beyond sleeping, chewing food, and breathing. 

Quotations via BrainyQuote.com.

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# Comments

  • Greg Heil

    Great article! This definitely helps bring me back down to earth 🙂 I think it’s good to be honest with ourselves!

  • wilsonm73

    I think measuring hours is just one way to attain being an expert. Some people could get to 10,000 hours and never be an expert because they don’t have the skill set or capacity to be an expert. I think there’s more to being an expert than just doing something for 10,000 hours. Didn’t a 16 yr old kid just win the Whip off?

    I also think more people call themselves expert that truly are as well. I think skill set and capacity plus demonstrated achievement can make you an expert. I think what Gladwell is talking about is a master of a discipline of which there are only a few in the world of those in each discipline. There are lots of experts and only a few masters. There are some things I am an expert at in MTB’ing and others I am simply no good at. I simply like riding and don’t care what my designation is.

  • Highlander944@hotmail.com

    Ok I get the article but there are several major problems here.

    Consider all the trails rated “expert only”. If 10,000 hrs is the measure of expert, then these trails would be ridden by very few. One major reason people call themselves expert is because the trails they ride are rated expert.

    If this measure of 10k hours is used, then it’s very likely that no pro rider under the age of 25 is expert.

    When it comes to a skill level required to be proficient, using hours as a matrix is simply ill advised.

  • TGS

    Good article thanks!

    Mountain Biker is too generic a term.

    If being asked at whistler or Park City or any another gravity centric bike park I would have to check the beginner box. Even though I have been riding and racing a mountain bike for over 25 years.

    I am expert enough to know that some things encountered on a trail are above my skill level, ability or talent. And even 100,000 hrs of riding won’t make me expert enough ride certain features on certain trails.
    Some riders I consider experts because of there talent, experience, fitness(translate as dedication) and ability, but none of them will ever be seen taking a huge drop at the red bull rampage. Does this make them less of an expert?

    I can’t rebuild my shock or front fork or build wheels … does this make me less of an expert mountain biker?

    Hope the questionnaire at a big time bike park would have a more specific question than, Rate your riding ability?

    The term expert in mountain biking has also loss some meaning as it is and was used as a class designation for xc racing. I guy or gal with great fitness,speed,endurance and competitiveness can race in the expert class and may do very well. But are they expert mountain bikers?

    Think You’re a Mountain Biking Expert? Think Again.

    True enough- because the question is to vague.

    P.S. Loved Gladwell’s book outliers.

  • Fitch

    I’m a far better drummer than I am a mountain biker, and I’m nowhere near an expert in either field. But as a musician, I often use the phrase “the better I get at drumming, the worse I realize I am.” That applies to my biking, too!

    • Jeff Barber

      So true. I say the same thing: the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.

  • williedillon

    Mountain biking is one of the things I’m better at, but I would never classify myself as an expert. All you have to do is think about how many people are better than you at something to realize you probably aren’t an expert.

    I believe I’ve also read that the 10,000 hour rule isn’t really correct in some form or fashion.

    • Jeff Barber

      True. There’s been some research that shows the 10,000 hour rule isn’t all that accurate. Still, it’s a part of popular culture now and an interesting way to think about where we are in our MTB skill progression.

  • John Fisch

    Great article! Especially because it assuages my guilt at not calling myself an expert!

    Problem is, even if I rack up 10K hrs, my room for improvement is greater than my ability to actually cross that void. As I approach the half century mark, I no longer have either the legs or lungs I had when I started riding at age 35. Truth be told, I also lack the big brass ones I had when I was still immortal!

    Making peace with mediocrity is no easy task.

    That said, if I ever ride the entrance to Horsethief Bench clean, I’m gonna’ call myself an expert and if anybody doesn’t like it, tough!

  • fatlip11

    Well jeez. Thanks for bumming me out! Guess I’m a begginermediate.

  • Bubblehead10MM

    Lol. I like it. I can go with begginermediate. I’ve often heard the 10,000 repetition rule for grooving muscle memory. So like 10k pedal wheelies, 10k coasters, etc. (Good ones)

  • tholyoak

    One aspect that is overlooked is that if you take a break from the sport for a while, you will regress. I would have put myself at an intermediate level a couple years ago, but then I didn’t touch my mountain bike more than a handful of times since then, although I ride a bike to work every day that the weather is good. Last weekend, when I finally took to the trails again, I discovered I have lost a lot of the skill (and confidence) that I had worked so hard for, and now will need to regain it all over again.

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