Between shooting photos, tinkering with my bike, and wolfing down cinnamon bears (never mind what goes into product reviews), if there was a Strava trophy for “Jester of the Mountain” (JOM), it’d be mine everyday, all day. Still, these time-sucking culprits pale in comparison to the time I set aside for “sessioning,”yet it is during a session that you will develop better technique and confidence than you would trying to ride all hard and fast, ride after ride. Sessioning is the best way to enhance your mountain biking skills.
A jam session is what a band does live on stage when, in the middle of your favorite song, they drift off on a 9-minute jam, completely oblivious to the thousands of paid fans gathered before them. Repeating the same measure over and over, bouncing variations of riffs back and forth, until the song has become so far removed from its original score. Other than being annoying as hell to listen to, a jam session allows the band to explore their artistic potential, reach new heights, and perfect their art.
A session in mountain biking is practically identical to that of a band, in that you repeat a particular section of trail–often one that is challenging, seems to interrupt flow, or is super rad–taking various approaches until you master the hell out of it. The outcomes are feature-specific, but generally result in better technique and more confidence, measured by increased speed, more air, improved handling, and so forth.
Sessioning is the best way to enhance biking skills because if there’s something you can’t overcome on the trail, no amount of deadlifts, time on the indoor trainer, or backyard simulations will increase your capacity better than trialing the real thing.
Practice makes perfect.
When you take the time to session, the trail suddenly becomes your stage on which you can perfect the art of riding. The trail is the refiner’s fire; the jump, drop, and rock garden sits as the refiner and shall purify and purge you as gold and silver that you may offer a righteous shred.
How To Session
Find something to session: there are the obvious sections or features you always get hung up on, ride around, or walk through. These are gaps, tabletops, step-ups, step-downs, skinnies, drops or ledges, and all manner of sweet jumps and wooden features. However, it would be a mistake to not become attuned to and spend time on the less-adventurous stuff that may also give you a little trouble from time to time.
And yes, cross-country riders, sessioning is important for you, too.
Session that heinously-tight hairpin switchback until you stop dabbing your foot. Pick out and practice the only possible line that gets you up that one nasty rock climb on the course. Whip through that corner until you’re dragging bar, bruh! In short, session trail features that you find are more challenging than they should be, interrupt flow, or will create the opportunity for you to become better.
Scope it out: this is the most important step during your session, especially if you’re new to the feature of choice. Resist the temptation to just back up, charge, and huck it, without first, stopping to check it out. Even if you’re somewhat-familiar with the feature, something may have changed since the last time you rode by, especially in the spring when early season work parties have been through or winter conditions have naturally selected a change. Inspect which line you’ll take, the height of a drop, distance of a gap or tabletop, the lip of a jump, where you need to land, the run out or consistency of the landing, etc. And for safety’s sake, rule out anything that may make this a bad idea.
Walk ‘n’ roll: you might be doing this while scoping the feature, but if you haven’t already, go ahead and walk and/or roll your bike along the line you plan to take. This may not be necessary or even feasible on every type of feature, but it helps to see the bike (unmounted) along the path you plan to take. Case in point, a four-foot drop on my home trail has a few exposed roots about four to five feet apart within the landing zone, so it behooves the rider to place their bike in the proposed landing area to decide how far one must launch to avoid becoming entrapped between these roots.
Ride it until you rip it: …or until you can clean it two or three times in a row. Successfully clearing something once might mean you just got lucky. That said, don’t be all stubborn about it if you continue to fail. You’ll find that sessioning can be exhausting, as each run followed by a hike back up takes a little (sometimes a lot) more out of you each time. If it’s not going well after several attempts, hang it up and come back with some fresh legs another day.
Find a friend: besides sessioning being more fun with friends, you can get better faster when sessioning with riding partners. Look, you’re an awesome rider, but there are a lot of better riders than you. Session with people who know the line, launch, and landing. If you’re all on the same level of skill or the section is new to everyone, hitting it together allows for feedback as others watch you eat it, and you too can learn from other’s mistakes.
Session something long enough, and you’re bound to get it right, but the benefits of sessioning reach much further than that one single drop or rock garden you just mastered. The techniques you learn from one technical feature carry over to others that are similar in nature. For example, no two rock gardens or drops are the same, but if you’ve managed to successfully clean a few, you know generally how to handle them all. Session a specific feature on your favorite trail not simply for the sake of mastering it and it only, rather session it in order to add more technique tools to your armamentarium for every trail you ride and have yet to ride.
While the session may interrupt your pace, double the time it normally takes you to ride a loop, and make you the laughing stock of your Strava followers, consider the alternative: not mastering those trouble spots on the trail may be the missing link to ever getting the KOM or QOM you seek. Strava fixations aside, sessioning is imperative to improve your skill, makes a familiar trail feel new, and might just be the most fun you have on your bike.
Now, go get that JOM!