Monday, 27 September 2010

Tahoe Weekender

Our planned end of September Tahoe weekend had been anticipated for a few weeks. A day of downhill madness at Northstar followed by a XC look at the Hole in the Ground trail. As lady luck would have it, Northstar was playing host to BikeSkills that weekend who, in turn, were offering various clinics. One in particular was almost too good to believe : Downhill Techniques with Steve Peat, Cedric Gracia and Gregg Minnaar! A full day's training and tutoring from world class MTB royalty! The class was an advanced clinic, but this was too good an opportunity to miss. I might be out of my element, but at least I'd be able to explain my broken bones by telling people I'd done it riding alongside Steve Peat ;o)

We arrived at Northstar, padded up and grabbed our steeds. Rosson, Spangles and In Soo were off to hit the trails for the day while I rode, nervous but excited, over to the Bike Skills tent. Our hero's were running late so I took to Livewire to get a feel for the bike and warm up. I'd swapped the standard flats on my rental Glory for a set of nice, new Crank Brothers Mallet pedals. With a big, flat bed and spindle they seemed a good mix of security and downhill practicality. They did a fine job and definitely helped with my confidence on the jumps.

Back at the camp and those of us taking the course got chatting while we waited. The clinic was to be lead by Karl Rogne. A really nice guy and excellent, patient teacher. Karl guaged our ability level as he chatted to us. For an advanced clinic, I was pleased to see a few others were more intermediate or cross country biased. Once Steve, Greg and Cedric arrived we hit the trails for our first lesson.

Lesson 1 : Cornering. After introductions and ride position basics, we sessioned a section of slightly burmed trail to work on cornering technique. I was all ears as this is an area that I really want to improve. We took it in turns to hit the corners, trying each time to incorporate the guy's advice. Keep your weight in the pedals, not the bar. Keep your centre of gravity over the bottom bracket by dropping the outside foot and weighting it. This keeps the bike pushed into the dirt. Also, lean the bike, don't try to lean the body into the turn. I've always tried to lean into turns, like you do on the road, but Greg explained you don't have the same traction or speed as you do on the road so it's much safer and easier to lean the bike and let it rail.

After a few runs at the corners it was time to head back to base via the Karpiel trail. Karpiel, which starts as a single black and ends as a double, is a lot of fun. Burms, jumps and big, rocky sections. I struggled to keep up on the rough stuff but Steve Peat had good technique advice. We learned about unweighting the bike ; When approaching rough rocky sections, pump the suspension and let the bike recoil and lift. Use this elevation to skim over the rocks, chose flat areas, or rocks, to pump again and unweight. Not really a bunny hop, but more a way of gliding over rocks rather than hitting them with blunt force - which is what I was doing. This is a great technique and one I kept employing. It makes rock gardens much safer and, crucially, faster! You almost don't believe it will work, but then you brace yourself for rough, and you sail over it with no dramas! This clinic was awesome!

Lesson 2 was jumping. We found a quite trail and sessioned two of the jumps. Again, our instructors demo'd and then gave feedback as we took turns hitting the jump. "The lip is your friend" repeated Cedric over and over. I asked Cedric about technique. I've always had problems trying to dictate the bike's path on a jump, but the opposite is really what I should be doing. Let the bike take a natural arc. By itself it won't screw up, so let it do it's thing. The important thing is to let the bike come up to you as you crest the jump, and push the bars down gently as you hit the downside. This advice, and my clipped in shoes, made the jumps much more fun and less intimidating.

We then took the morning's lessons and put them into practice on Livewire. Bikeskills had a camera crew on hand and, fortunately, I managed some sweet jumps whenever the lens was pointed my way. I was clearing table tops with way more confidence than before, but was still struggling with the bermed corners. Whenever I'd try to push it and not brake, I'd understeer. My front wheel would dig in and I'd fight to keep upright. So I couldn't help but brake on the corners - not good form. A laundry list of instructions were rattling around my head : drop the outside foot, lean the bike in, keep the arms light, weight in the pedals... A couple of times I nailed it and really REALLY felt the difference. The bike felt like it was on rails and a little moment of eureka was had.... but I couldn't quite get the muscle memory to hard wire it. My default would kick in and I'd be back to bad technique. On the last run, I took one of the steep left corners and, determined to rail and not brake, wiped out. My front wheel disappeared from under me and I overshot the corner - head first - into a boulder garden. Taking a dizzying whack to the head, I was thankful for my sturdy helmet saving me from the unthinkable.

After lunch we hit Livewire again to work on our jumping and cornering technique. I was completely dusted (as Steve put it) covered in trail dirt from my fall. By the end of the day most of us looked the same. Battle weary but grinning. I asked Karl about the cornering and how my wheel was understeering. He pinpointed the problem - I was turning the bike into the corners, not steering it. A big difference. "Push, wait and let the bike turn.." I'd been turning the bars rather than letting the bike lean over and steer itself. I still struggled with the technique, but tried to focus on pushing with my inside hand rather than my outside... This seemed like a good way of making sure I steered rather than turned. I still have a way to go, but I feel armed with the theory now. I just need to put the graft in until I successfully commit it to muscle memory.

The last lesson of the day was line choice through challenging terrain. We picked a section of the Sticks and Stones trail - a double black diamond. Steve, Greg and Cedric all demonstrated their line choice and made the steep, rocky descent look effortless. Most of the group had a crack at this section and did a great job of getting down it. I had a go, but baulked. I crested the top and all I saw were huge, bone crushing rocks. My brain wasn't processing line choice or pumping backsides for extra speed, it was wondering if my Kaiser would cover the inevitable spillage. So I walked it. It would've been a great end to the day had I cleaned it, but some things can't be taught in a day, and confidence on double blacks is something I'll have to work at and earn - for now.

We took the rest of Sticks and Stones back to camp. Karl followed me and gave tips on my riding position. I always keep my knees really bent to keep my centre of gravity low. But Karl showed me how awkward I looked compared to a straighter legged, more commanding stance. Great advice and much needed as we descended the rest of Sticks and Stones.

Back at base and I had to rush to catch the final gondola home. Missing a picture op' with the guys - damn. But the memories from that session are far more valuable than digital snaps. Solid pieces of concrete advice from the sport's best exponents. Riding a trail, with Steve Peat right behind giving critique, really is quite a surreal experience. But I intend taking all the info that was absorbed that day and applying it as best I can to the trail.

Day 2 and we hit Hole in the Ground. A beautiful, scenic loop on some of the best trails I've ever seen. Superbly well maintained and carpeted in places for longevity, this is a dirt lovers dream. The terrain is mainly rocky, with some steep technical drops and rock gardens. The climbs aren't severe, but the altitude is a killer. The first few miles of climbs were brutal. It felt like I was riding with a girdle. The thin air mixed with heavy trail dust left our lungs burning. But the trail is totally worth it. In Soo dropped behind while the 2 Jason's motored on ahead. I did ok, but for some reason my heart wasn't in it. My mojo has been lacking for the past few weeks. I need to get my Downieville self back somehow. Long hours at work and not enough quality time in the saddle have taken their toll physically and mentally. So I really didn't ride my best, which was a shame given these were some of the finest trails in Northern Cali'. Ah well. The whole weekend taught me there's a lot still to learn. Or at least, a lot to practice. But I'm in the best place in the world to do it. I need to shake myself out of this funk and enjoy the trails. Make some progress and feel good about my riding again. Thanks to Steve and the guys, I at least have the knowledge to take my riding forward. Once the movie I'm working on finishes, I'll have the time too. I can't wait!

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