Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mountain Biking Skill Clinics

Last summer, as I was riding recklessly down a rocky gully at a trail near Downieville, my tire got stuck on a rock and I ending up flying through the air over the handlebars, arms outstretched in front of me like Superman. As I slid on the ground, I cut my eyebrow open on some sharp shale rock, which started gushing blood all over my shirt, and found out several days later that I had broken a rib, too. After enduring the punishment of not being able to ride for my bike for 6 weeks, I decided to become a mountain biking skills clinic junkie. So far, I have taken Gene Hamilton's Betterride clinic, the Dirt Series, and Chris Duncan's one day freebie promotional dirt jump clinic. And crikey, if I'm not a better rider now than I was before, I should just hang it up right now! :)

The Trek Dirt Series is a 2-day clinic unique for being a supportive environment with all-female coaches.  They divide students up into groups for different levels of ability and experience, so you are learning at an appropriate level. On the first day, they put box jumps, skinnies (which can be nothing more than a 2x4 for beginners), and teeter totters of varying sizes for various abilities on a flat grassy area, where they are significantly safer than say, an equivalent sized feature on a rocky, loose trail with a cliff on the side. It's a great way to get over that initial mental blockage about whatever skill you are working on in a safe environment. On the second day, they take you out on the trail and show you how to apply the skills you learned on the first day. You do get the opportunity to work with a bunch of different coaches. There is something just fun and freeing when you are a gal and see other gals demonstrate skills with grace and style.

I think what helped my core skills more than anything was Gene Hamilton's Betterride clinic. This clinic is an in-depth, 3-day clinic limited to 6 students. The way Gene explained and broke down the skills into individual components, and gave drills to practice anywhere was valuable and easy to understand, duplicate & take home to practice. The instruction focuses more on the basic building blocks of trail riding rather than doing "tricks", but these core elements are the starting point for literally everything else. The benefit to my riding wasn't immediate, but after I began to practice the drills he taught, so many things came together for me on the trail which became completely intuitive. The end result was I found myself riding a great deal faster, however, somehow more relaxed and more safely at the same time. I was able to achieve the coveted "flow state" while riding as a direct result of skills I learned in the Betterride clinic. Gene makes a couple of key points - "practice doesn't make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.", (i.e. if you practice a skill over and over again wrong, you're ingraining the bad habit). The thing that is great about Gene is that he seems to have a genuine passion for people learning stuff. He got giddy and excited when any of the students executed a skill perfectly. And when you weren't getting it, he took it upon himself to stop everything, figure out why his explanation wasn't working, and explain it differently until you got it. Gene is very supportive, and it was a lot like getting a private lesson.

The clinic given by Chris Duncan was done at a local bike park with a pump track and several fun dirt jumps and tabletops. The clinic was a blast, and an opportunity to further hone the core skills I had already learned in the BetterRide clinic. It was certainly good value! Chris Duncan is a really nice guy, and extremely talented. He covered body position for the pump track, front and rear wheel lifts, bunny hops, dismounts, jumping off the lip of a bowl, among other things. Learning to ride a pump track properly is a great boost to being smooth and slick on the trail.

In summary, I have learned that coaching is a unique talent in itself and different coaches have different personal styles, too, which may or may not resonate well with different individuals. I'd recommend getting on the clinic mailing list, or read a couple of the coach's blog posts, if possible. This will give you a glimpse of their personal style, and if it resonates with your own. But if you are at all serious about mountain biking, getting instruction and most importantly - feedback - on your  form and technique on the bike from a professional is the best investment you can make.

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