Last time in this series I wrote about learning to maintain control while in the air. Today it's almost entirely the opposite - how I'm becoming a more confident rider by learning to lose control.
I'll start at the same venue as last time though - the bike park at Bryce Mountain. On one run, my coach Harlan was following me down Brew Thru, which consisted of a dozen or two jumps connected by deep berms and some flat corners. On the way back up the lift he remarked to me, "You're getting awfully loose in the corners." He was offering some constructive criticism, but to me it was a compliment he didn't intend. I regard my ability to let the tires slide in the corner as a small victory, not a flaw.
Let me explain. When I started riding again I'd brake too hard going into corners and rub off more speed than was necessary. Riding alone I had no idea, but as soon as I started racing and seeing guys gap me on twisty descents and even on corners in the flats, I knew I was giving away too much, and spending unnecessarily to catch back on. (Side note: riding behind someone faster is the single best way to get better on a mountain bike, and racing is the most efficient way to do that. As soon as one fast guy rides out of reach, another just pops up behind you, passes, and gives you a new target.) Naturally I turned to the resource I didn't have 27 years ago - YouTube.
Once again, there were no shortage of videos. I focused first on how to corner on the flats. Kyle and April's channel has a good one, and the drills in Alex Bogusky's lesson are helpful too if you have enough discipline to do them. The big thing that I took away from the videos is that I was visualizing turns in the same way I would on a road bike or even a motorcycle, and that is entirely wrong for a mountain bike. I found myself pointing my inside knee into the turn like a motorcycle (very bad) or pressing it against my top tube while I remained in the saddle like on a road bike (less bad but still not good). On a motorcycle, you can accelerate through turns by twisting your wrist, creating traction. On a road bike your body position on the bike is pretty well fixed but the smooth surface allows for good traction. On a mountain bike, uneven, slick and loose surfaces conspire against your traction, requiring a different approach.
You'll hear the term "bike-body separation" in the videos and it's one that sticks with me. It took me a while but eventually I learned to weight my outside pedal not just with my foot but by shifting my weight over it to remain largely upright, while leaning the bike into the corner. This way, the bike can track through the corner but I am keeping my weight as centered over the contact patch as possible. (This is a lot easier to learn with a dropper post.)
Once I learned this technique, I would try it at increasing speeds on corners to see if I could maintain traction. One time pretty early on I was pushing it through one of my favorite flow trails and I broke loose, sliding a few inches before my tires caught again, the bike uprighted, and I continued. An instant of abject terror (and my HR max for the ride, surely) was followed quickly by relief, and then two realizations: 1) I can break loose without going down, and 2) I don't know how fast I can go and maintain control until I know the point where I lose control. Confidently or foolishly, I tried pushing it through the rest of the trail and managed to break free a bunch more times, without going down. It was a bit of a eureka moment for me. Once I started riding bike parks, I broke the seal on knee pads. I wish I had started riding them sooner when working on cornering. Not because I crashed a lot, but because they give you the confidence to push it. I think they would have accelerated my learning curve.
My first run at Windham this week would have been my last run without these.
The best way to learn a technique is to do it over and over again, something I guess we call "sessioning" in MTB. Sessioning is kind of a hassle if it means doing a short run and then turning around and doing it again. If it's a jump line the payoff of being in the air is worth it, but corners are not as euphoric an experience. Instead, I do a lot of hot laps in a small trail system near my house. My favorite is about a mile in length and has 4 corners (2 left, 2 right) that I work every lap. So in a 45 minute ride I get 32 quality corners in, which is pretty good. I'm a huge fan of hot laps because they're incredibly efficient - you can isolate and repeat a skill (or several) while at the same time maintaining effort to build fitness that you can't do in traditional sessioning.
One more thing I learned about cornering. Putting a foot down seems like an intuitive way to confidently find that breaking point in your traction. But don't do it. Yes, you'll find that point, but you'll break way earlier because your body position is all wrong. If you take a foot off you can't separate the bike from the body and maintain your weight over the contact patch. So you will lose control at slower speeds, and take longer to get your foot on and resume pedaling - also slower. And the whole point of cornering better is free speed.
Harlan's point, however, was well taken. I was on a path to learning control by losing control, but I'll be cornering faster with the right technique that doesn't have me so loose in the corners. More hot laps for me I guess.