Rising to the challenges thrown down by mountain bike coaching when you’re already an experienced rider.
I’ve been a regular mountain biker for 12 years, ever since I entered the London Triathlon, borrowed a bike that turned out to be of the mountain and not road type, and got hooked on riding trails.
I’m an enthusiastic rider, rather than a great one but like to think I have managed to build some skills in that time (I’m still in one piece, for a start). Of course I also know that, like most of us, I have gaping holes in my skills set. I’ve written about some of them here – and as a result Si from Pedal & Spoke MTB Coaching – a man who has the patience of a saint, btw – kindly offered me a skills session to help iron out a few of my habitual creases. My last skills session was over three years ago so it was long overdue: its good to keep learning and also bad habits take hold easily and can be hard to shake off (as I was about to find out!).
So, back to mtb school I went, and to cut a long story short I wasn’t exactly top of the class – even though I was the only one in it. I won’t bore you with the inadequacy of my skills nor my embarrassing inability to adapt, but even the negotiation of a small log in the recommended fashion was beyond me – no matter how many times I tried.
The problem? My ears heard the instructions, but the part of my brain that does the unconscious, proprioception stuff (like riding a bike, for instance) – saw no need to take any notice. As far as it was concerned, I’d been clearing logs (incorrectly, but whatever) for over a decade – and Practice makes Permanent: I’m living proof of that. Of course, log hopping wasn’t the sole purpose of the exercise: really it was about progressing so that I am able to clear drops and jumps more safely. But unlearning old habits proved to be a massive hurdle – for instance, I never realised how much time I spend looking at the ground, which apart from making it impossible to pick a line or even steer properly, also LOOKS REALLY BAD. Forcing myself to look further down the trail though just felt really, really weird.
The other thing I need to unlearn – or at least forget – is the series of near misses and tumbles my enthusiasm for mountain biking has caused me in the last decade. I know riders who have only been riding for a year and can nip into the woods, see a jump and clear it without a second thought. Meanwhile, I’m searching for the best line, checking the camber, scouting for evil roots and trying to put the ‘Dreadful Tumble of 2009’, or the ‘OTB Incident of 2013’, or the ‘Tree Induced Surgery of 2015’ to the back of my mind.
To help me focus, Si suggests I write down the key points that I need to remember on my top tube. I can’t help thinking it would need to be the length of a broom handle to fit it all in but don’t say anything. Also, the first instruction is ‘Look Up’ so I’d never get to read the rest anyway.
“Should I just get another hobby?” I asked, quietly seeking an easy way out.
Should I forget my QOMs? Screaming with joy round the trails of Coed y Brenin? Flying down the red trails at Afan in awe of the athleticism of my bike? That cold glass of beer at the end of the day, to celebrate five fabulous hours in the saddle? Slogging my way around Battle on the Beach and loving every minute? Breezing up the biggest climb on Menorca having been warned by the guide that it was ‘really tricky’? The bottle of champagne we drank after four days of circumnavigating the island? Skimming along trails by myself, with friends, with strangers (the time I mistakenly followed a group down a trail, thinking they were my buddies only to be told, with an embarrassed mumble, ‘you do know you’re not with us? But you’re more than welcome to stay’)? Feeling like I was going to ride into the sea on the cliff top trail in Dorset? Hop, skipping and jumping my way down the rocky routes on Dartmoor? The Surrey Hills sunsets, the snow rides, the beach ride in Northern Spain? The riders who have thanked me for inspiring them to ride either by following me down trails or because of this blog? Should I pack away those memories and my lovely bikes, and give up just because I can’t manual (yet)?
Si tells me I am too hard on myself. He’s not the only one who has hinted at this. A few months ago I met Redbull Rampage rider Pierre Edouard Ferry and as we chatted he told me “unless you’re being paid to win, don’t focus on being the first rider down the trail – instead focus on being the one who finishes with the biggest smile on their face’.
Still, I ride home feeling like I have been a mtb imposter for the last decade, and that the only thing I have any talent for is feeling sorry for myself (looking on the brightside, I’m so talented at this that I could probably represent GB at the Olympics and win Gold).
As it happens, my route takes me up and over a hilly field, and there is an energetic but elderly walker at the peak, ahead of me. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to nip up the climb and catch him up, and he holds the gate open for me as I pass. I thank him and, apparently brimming with admiration, he says “You have a better heart than me!”.
That comment. He doesn’t know I’m crying with gratitude as I ride off.
Because it’s all relative, isn’t it?
So my fabulous heart and I will keep practicing those elusive new skills – and I’ll do it with a huge smile on my face.