Keep It Shiny Side Up

Article by John Horscroft
Monday 16th February 2009

- An Introduction To Mental Training for Mountain Biking -

Pat Horscroft totally focused and relaxed on a winter ride in the Peak District.

Examine the process too closely and riding a bike can seem like a kind of magic: a triumph of hope over expectation, or a case of warping the laws of physics just for fun. Sometimes, a bike stays upright simply because you believe it can.  Add a few obstacles, some rocks, a drop off, maybe a jump or two and the suspension of disbelief gets harder and harder until the inevitable happens, the shakes become wobbles and the wobbles become flailing arms, legs and bike parts.

Riding a bike comes down to faith, faith in your own abilities and faith in the bike’s capacity to soak up punishment and remain shiny side up.  A few simple rules can help you to do just that and move your riding on to the next level.

1: Looking Ahead

Looking ahead is the single most important skill in mountain biking but what does it really mean?  

At this point, the rider should be scanning the trail beyond the stream, nearest to the camera. The correct line of sight is marked by the red line.

Riding an easy section is no problem.  Trail features are small and infrequent so you’ve got time to size them up and decide on your line.  If you come across a few rocks, you’ll probably cope, but should they immediately be followed by a drop-off, uneven berm and some roots, all of a sudden everything begins to go pear-shaped.

The immediate consequence of this sensory overload will be a tendency for your field of vision to narrow, until all you can see is a few feet in front of your wheel.  The inclination will be to focus on the scariest obstacle until that is pretty much all that you can see.  You therefore follow that obstacle until it’s right under your front wheel.  While you’re doing that, the rest of the trail is coming up fast complete with new obstacles and different conditions.  Instead of processing that information, you’re still focused on one damn rock.  If you survive that challenge, the next technical test will be on you before you’ve had time to react.

Simon Jones negotiating one of the slabs at Dalbeattie.  Note that his eyes are keenly scanning the exit run, marked by the red line. It is of the utmost importance in technical situations not to become preoccupied with the ground immediately in front of the bike. Plan ahead! 

So let’s take a step back.  Instead of using the eye’s ability to focus on a just tiny bit of the trail, you need to rely on its ability to scan a large area, a function known as peripheral vision.  In other words, read the trail as if you’re watching a film, not reading a book, and allow your peripheral vision to work away unnoticed, assessing the trail, plotting a path and issuing the necessary commands.  The easiest way to do this is to look as far ahead as you can without focusing on any particular element of the trail.  By looking along the trail, your gaze becomes steadier, peripheral vision can do its job and you ride more smoothly as a result.  This works for everything.  When you’re jumping, look at the landing.  When you’re cornering, look through the corner as far as you can.  At its best, this technique will make riding feel completely effortless, in fact, just like magic.

2: Loosening Up / Relaxing

Simon Jones looking relaxed, eyes scanning the trail ahead. Note how his arms and legs are working to maintain optimum balance and posture, but are not rigid.

If you’re not riding well, check that you haven’t stiffened up.  If your shoulders feel hunched and your arms are locked out straight, it’s a sign you’re tense and as a consequence, you’ll ride poorly.  Slow down and shrug your shoulders a couple of times, take some deep breaths and relax.  My favourite trick is to bounce around on the bike a bit, make your arms and legs loosen up so that you can absorb the pummeling the trail is dishing out because another sure sign that you’ve tensed up is feeling every tiny bump in the trail.  When you feel light on the bike and you’re floating over the rocks, you’re back in the zone.

3: The Bike’s The Boss

Pat Horscroft letting her bike do the hard work

Remember, you’re only partly in charge of where the bike is going.  At least fifty per cent of the decisions are taken by the bike itself as it cannons of various rocks, roots and berms.  Trying to force the bike onto a given line can sometimes be counter productive and you’ll find yourself struggling against the laws of physics.  If the bike has chosen a given course, muscling it onto a different one can cause instability. It's far better to go with the bike even if it seems to be heading for the very part of the trail you were trying to avoid.  Trust the bike to soak it all up, stay loose and focused and float over the obstacles.

4: Find Your Forte

Knowing your riding strengths can help to resurrect your riding if you’ve had a spill or your confidence has taken a knock.  Go back to a trail you know well, one that suits you’re riding style and ride it a couple of times aiming primarily for smoothness rather than pure speed.  If you’re feeling good after a couple of runs, step it up and attack the trail, remind yourself that you can still ride.  

5: Train Your Weakness

Another way to deal with a lack of confidence is to identify the problem.  What’s the weakest aspect of your riding?  Rocks, roots,  steep stuff, drop offs, berms?  Once identified, train the weakness.  Find a section of trail that challenges your particular weakness, choose something that’s difficult without being scary and walk it first looking at the possible lines.  Next, ride it cautiously stopping if necessary until you manage to clean it.  Once you’ve ridden it clean, slowly step up the pace, choose different more difficult lines and build your confidence.

6: Aggression

Simon Jones fully committed at the start of the infamous Caddon Bank, Innerleithen. Aggressive riding is often the key to tackling situations such as this successfully.

Aggression is the holy grail of fast riding: ask any downhill Championship rider! Riding aggresively can either transform your riding or land you in A&E as I found to my cost while riding Caddon Bank at Innerleithen.  Having negotiated the big drop-offs at the top of the run, I thought I’d overcome the toughest test on the trail and began to ride like a loon.  While negotiating some fairly innocuous whoops, I decided I was going too slowly and put in a couple of quick pedals which propelled me over the handlebars.  Coming to, I discovered that my right shoulder was a very strange shape.

Controlling that aggression is the key to riding fast.  Riding with gusto will get you over obstacles safely and a dash of adrenaline sharpens the reactions.  The very aggression that got me through the drop-offs at Caddon Bank was my downfall on the whoops.  Learn to break the trail into sections.  If you’re feeling a bit cock-a-hoop after overcoming a tough sequence of trail features, put the premature triumph out of your mind and regain your focus.  

7: Practice, Practice, Practice

Pat Horscroft out on a local training ride: as with any sport, constant practice is the key to perfecting your biking technique and mental skills. 

Practice really does make perfect.  When I was itching to improve my jumping, I asked a group of youngsters at Glentress freeride park what I should be doing.  Getting low at take off?  Riding a hardtail?  Setting my suspension up differently?  No, they said, nothing technical, just more practice.  Start on the beginner jumps and when you’ve got those nailed, move up to the big table tops and ride them again and again and again.  The same goes for berms, roots, rocks and drop-offs.  Practice until it feels easy and it will be easy the next time you hit  the trail.

8: Go With The Flow

Some days you’re master of the trail, some days it feels like someone’s replaced your state of the art mountain bike with a 1960's Raleigh Chopper.  That’s just the way it is and there’s no point fighting it.  If you hit the trail and feel off colour, sometimes there’s no alternative but to back off a bit and survive to fight another day.  Forcing the pace when you’ve lost your mojo is a sure way to end up kissing dirt.  Back the speed right off and concentrate on riding smoothly.  That way you’ll end up in one piece and you can plan for the next ride when, if there’s any justice, you’ll be riding like a demon again.

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