Relearning MTB: Send It School

Next weekend November will be at Flow State: The Vermont Mountain Bike Festival with a tent, some swag and plenty of time to hang out, talk wheels and mostly just ride. If you're at all within striking distance, do swing by. If you've been reading the blog you know Dave is splitting time between the shop in Rhode Island and a slice of heaven in Vermont, and he assures me the trails up there are divine. 

This is, I think, the first MTB event November has been a part of. Not coincidentally, it falls during a year when I (Mike) began re-immersing myself in the sport. Most of my cycling has been on pavement, but my roots are on dirt. I started racing BMX in the 80s and spend two years in the 90s living in Vancouver BC, riding the pine loam singletrack of the North Shore a few days a week. But I hadn't turned a MTB pedal in anger since 1994 - until a few months ago when I bought a full suspension 29er and signed up for a race. For me, that's a necessary forcing function to find some discipline and a plan. Over the next couple of weeks I'll share here a little about my journey back into the sport - what I've learned, resources I've used, and anything else that's making me a better rider and racer. 

A few years ago I read an article in the New York Times about a guy in his mid 50s who was taking tennis lessons. He worked regularly with a pro, practiced on his own, and obsessed over technique and tactics. Not uncommon - I think a lot of us want to keep doing what we love as we age. But what was unique about this experience is that before his mid 50s the author had never played tennis seriously. He was learning it for the first time.

The point he made about why he did it and how much it meant to him is one that has stuck with me. As we age, it's really easy to get caught up in what we have lost - speed, strength, agility, hair, mental acuity, libido, even friends and family who pass. And so it's pretty common to return to the activities of our youth to try to recall who and what we once were. But if we're trying to stave off the feeling of loss, this is actually counterproductive. Go ahead and try to do the Tuesday Night Worlds at 55, when you last did it at 39. I promise it's going to make you feel hella older, not like you filled your bottle at the fountain of youth. I was conscious of this as I got back into it, but didn't know how stark the difference between today me and prime me was going to feel.

About a month after getting the bike I booked a cabin in the woods outside Roanoke, VA and spent the week riding at Carvins Cove. Riding again was a rush - just being on singletrack in a silent forest was food for my soul. But I was slow, all around the park. Out of shape on the climbs, no punch on the rollers, and catastrophically bad at picking lines. I made the best of it and had a great time, but it was hard not to think wistfully about what 27 years ago me would have done on those trails.

One thing 27 year old me could never do though was jump. It wasn't part of the sport then like it is now. I had never been comfortable in the air, and now I was finding myself on trails that would have benefitted from it. And avoiding some that required it. As I kept riding and training and started racing, my inability to jump became a stone in my shoe. Constantly thinking about it, I finally decided to learn. At first that meant watching about 200 YouTube videos (my favorites are from advertising industry icon Alex Bogusky whose channel is devoted to 40+ MTBers, and a pro racer named Kyle who uses his channel to teach his girlfriend April how to ride). The videos feel super instructive, but if you're not able to put into practice in real time what they're trying to teach you it's hard to see them as anything but theoretical. No, I needed technical advice, repetition and feedback. I needed a coach.

So a week ago I signed up for a 2 hour lesson with Harlan from Take Aim Cycling in Virginia. Take Aim partners with the Bryce Mountain Bike Park, about 2 hours from Washington DC. So I also bought a daily lift pass and planned to spend a few hours making some runs in the park before my lesson. Bryce is not a big mountain but it is a superbly well developed bike park, accessible for all levels. 

At the beginning of my lesson Harlan and I took the lift up and perched at the top of Brew Through, a blue run characterized by about 15 medium sized tabletops connected by deep berms. The jumps are big enough to teach proper technique (I learned it's actually harder to learn on smaller jumps, where the ramp is shorter than a bike's wheelbase) but not so steep that you can't simply roll them without getting air as you're progressing. The top of the run had a roller followed by two jumps and we sessioned this section for much of the day. This allowed us to get in over a hundred jumps - so important to getting better.

No idea how, but my Garmin Edge 530 records jumps.

We had a breakthrough within 10 minutes. My stance in approach was all wrong - I was too low with my weight too far back. Harlan had me stand more upright with just a slight bend in my knees, my weight over the bottom bracket, and hinging at my hips. This immediately gave me more control and set me up for proper jumping technique. It reminded me of golf lessons I used to take. One of the first things you'll learn is that you're hitting the ball inconsistently because you're standing in the wrong place. Fix your stance and everything becomes easier. That's exactly what this was.

But to extend the golf metaphor, there is a lot to learn and remember in the moment, and it started to feel like trying to keep track of too many swing thoughts before playing the ball. Harlan was great with his teaching points though, and we broke things down step by step. One of the things I had trouble with was what he called "absorbing the jump from the neutral position." Rolling into the jump, he taught me to press the bike into the ramp. This loads the bike and helps stabilize it as it enters the air. Then as the bike travels through the lip of the jump, he wanted me to "absorb" it as it came up. At first that meant keeping the bike on the ground, but then as we started to catch air he wanted me to keep working on absorbing the bike so that my knees and elbows would be bent in the air. From this position - if you're balanced - you can control how and where the bike lands. I had big dead sailor energy where I was too stiff and the bike would often begin listing to one side, uncontrollable. Pressing and absorbing prevents this, if done right.

My problem is that I was trying to pull the bike into me in the air, using my arms. I couldn't get past this before the end of the lesson but have been working on it on my own on a jump line at a local skills park. What works better for me is not to think of "aborbing" the bike as it comes up, but instead to think of "catching" it. Let it rise into you where you're waiting for it. Once it's there you have control of it and can put it where you want. 

I still can't jump but even after a single lesson I have far more confidence rolling into jumps that I thought were way too big for me to handle. And I've got some tools work on my own, which I continue to do. More importantly, I'm learning something new, not trying to get back to something I used to be. Growth is good. 

Give a follow on Strava if you want to see where else I go and what else I do. And while you're there why not join the club of your favorite wheel builder brand?

 


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  • Mike on

    Hi Catherine. Looking forward to meeting you at Flow. Nobody told me about warm beer though. Dave…

    That’s encouraging Todd, thanks. I feel like I need one a little more practice and one more lesson and I’m ready for hot laps on the A-Line at Whistler. Manuals are high on my to-learn list as well. I want to spin on flat pedals before working on them though.

  • Todd Oickle on

    Dude!!!!

    I’m 53 and started riding 4 years ago. I made a promise to myself that I would take each year forward, learn and practice one skill during that year. This year I did the same thing as you, I decided it was time to learn how to jump. I tried to let my 17 yr old jack rabbit son teach me how to jump. He’s an awesome rider but a lousy teacher. I took a jump clinic from a local pro and I nailed it. It was like the MTB gods were shining down on me that day and I had a freakin blast. Keep practicing Mike it’s a never ending learning curve and it’s so much damn fun it shouldn’t be legal.
    I’ve been playing around with manuals the last week or two. I pulled the front end up with good technique two nights ago, it felt awesome.

  • Catherine Seiferth on

    I’ll definitely look you up on Strava Mike and both of us peppers are planning to be up at flow as well! I’m looking forward to being back home where the forest is green and the beer is warm. I don’t jump either though as I discovered it usually leads to my landing someplace other than the bike’s tires. It’s a blast though! I hope the flow festival is a good replacement for NEMBAFest.


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