Sunday, 9 February 2014

Back to basics

In training for XC mountain bike races, you can sometimes get caught up in a world of endurance, power, turbo training, hill intervals, lactate threshold and all those things that ultimately do make you a faster racer but don't necessarily do much for your technical mountain bike riding skills.  My view is that only I can make myself faster going up the hills (by training hard!) but that to get faster downhill and at high speed through corners or technical sections, a helping hand from an experienced coach can make a massive difference.

So, although I spend most of my off-road training rides on my Trek Superfly race bike, it was time to get back on my 26 inch all-mountain bike, with flat pedals, dropper seatpost and its 140mm of suspension travel:

(sorry to my sponsors for posting a picture of another manufacturer's bike! ;-)

I had booked myself a 3 hour private tuition session with Andy Barlow of Dirtschool, and we took to the trails of Glentress 7 Stanes with one goal in mind: to make me faster when gravity is involved . . . by getting back to the basics, focussing on smoothness and control.

You only need to look at Andy's achievements listed on the Dirtschool site to see the wealth of experience he can bring to anyone's riding.  Whether it's a private session like the one I did, or a group session with people at a similar level; whether you're an absolute beginner, have hit a plateau in your riding, or a racer like myself looking to gain those extra few seconds here and there; everyone can benefit from taking time out of your "normal" riding to focus on your skills.

The day began at the Buzzard's Nest carpark at Glentress, although I'm not used to seeing it like this:

Thankfully the trails were clear under the cover of the trees and even the exposed sections were just slushy rather than icy!

We had a good chat about what I wanted to get out of the session.  I explained my goal above and expanded a little . . . Some people think us XC boys and girls are roadies in disguise: fit but no skills.  I really don't think this is true, as XC courses can be quite technical in places.  That's where you can really gain speed over some of your competitors if you are smooth, fast and in control through the tight downhill bends, technical rock gardens or slippy roots.  Plus, you just need to look at the skills of some of our home-grown talent like Rab Wardell, Kenta Gallagher or Grant Ferguson to see that it's not just all about the speed on the way up the hills!

While I'd like to think I'm not the slowest on the way downhill (hopefully!), I do know I'm not the fastest.  Last year, the biggest improvement in my riding was my climbing but I did also improve my technical descending skills.  But sometimes it feels as if it's just luck, or the suspension on the bike, getting me down some of those sections.  And sometimes that luck runs out . . . and ends with a few bruises (both on my body and for my pride!).

I know that if I want to be competitive this year, I need to find those vital few seconds on the fast sections, whether that be a series of bends, or a technical line.

So, we got right back to basics, looking at my "attack position".  Most mountain bikers will have heard this term but there can be differing views on the ideal position.  The main thing I learned today was that I was not far enough forward and so I've taken that away as a key thing to work on.  The majority of your cornering grip on a mountain bike comes from the front tyre and if you don't have enough weight over that end of the bike, you're at risk of the front wheel washing out.

We also worked on my weight transfer to aid grip through the bend, as well as line choice.  I always thought I had a good idea of the best line choice through a bend but Andy opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking about it and not only is it faster, but it uses less effort and saves you frantically pedalling between the corners to make up time you lost in braking in the wrong place.  Here I am putting some of this into practice towards the end of the session, through a series of bends on the Glentress red route.  Note the attack position, with my elbows bent, head over the stem, eyes looking at my exit from the next corner (not the one I'm currently in!) and legs ready to extend into the next corner for more grip.  Sorry for the blurry image - it's a still from a video Andy took of me:

I should mention the video analysis at this point.  This is a huge benefit of a private coaching session.  While video could obviously be used in group sessions, the benefit in the private session is that you can spend more time analysing it, discussing the good and bad points of your technique, and then repeat the section of trail as many times as you need to get it right.

One thing that also really helped me was just following Andy down some trails.  The line choice made such a difference and this is exactly what I was looking for from the session.  In some ways it feels slower but that's because I was more in control, smoother, and therefore giving myself more time to react.  Plus, having to pedal less between corners as an XC racer means you've got more energy left for the next climb!

We also got right back to basics.  I'm ashamed to admit that wheelies, manuals and bunnyhops have never been my strong point.  But there's no point learning these just to look cool (although they do look cool - you can't argue with that!).  As well as really helping me with my techniques for these skills, Andy always explained where you can put them into practice on a trail.  I'll definitely be back for another session with Andy and we will spend more time putting things like the manual into practice on trail features:

I had some real "light bulb" moments with these skills today and I'm so determined to perfect them that I'm going to keep using this bike, with the flat pedals and dropper post, at least once per week during my training.  I always have built in skills practice into my training but would usually do it on my 29er race bike.

However, like a lot of XC racers, I had got a bit lazy being clipped into my SPD pedals and cheating when bunnyhopping or jumping.  We spent a bit of time doing jumps too, in order to put some of the same techniques that can be applied to corners into practice on the take off of a jump.  

So, while I'm not about to spend all my time in the bike park, I'm going to ensure I do at least one session per week on this bike, practicing everything I learned with Dirtschool this weekend.  As Andy explained to me, I can then transfer it all to the Trek Superfly 29er race bike, but just more subtly.  The flat pedals really help you focus on your technique and weight transfer, rather than just pulling the bike around using SPDs.

I finished the day with a lot of ideas buzzing around my head and that was Andy's aim: to fill my head with lots of new knowledge that I can now go put into practice.  And that's the key thing: practice!  While it was fresh in my head, I took a note of the key points and areas I need to work on so that I can get straight back out on the bike to improve them.

It may seem like a lot of money for a private coaching session, but I guarantee it is worth every single penny.  The dedicated attention, personalised advice, and time spent working on exactly what you need will improve anyone's riding.  Even if you think you're fast and have all the bike handling skills you could need, I guarantee you'll have more to learn.  Often, like myself, you think you are getting faster on the descents through skill but it is sometimes just a bit ragged and can only take you so far.  By getting right back to these basics, and making things smoother and more in control, you'll open up so much more speed . . . and a whole lot of fun too!  After all, that is why we all ride these things and it puts a far bigger grin on my face when I'm doing it properly and in control.

So, I'll definitely be back to see Andy in another month or two, perhaps to transfer these skills to the race bike and work on some more advanced techniques, but for now I'll be getting as much practice in as possible and I hope some of you reading this perhaps join Dirtschool for a private or group session in the meantime, having heard just how much you can get out of it!

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