Friday, 27 September 2013

Whistler Clinic

The coaching sessions taken by me and Dave with coach Oscar covered 3 half days and focused on the basics of downhill mountain biking (most of which is applicable to regular riding.) Because the weather was shite and the trails muddy, we got some bonus "bad weather" tips too. But over the course of three days, fundamental principles were demonstrated and hammered home time and again. Lift rides were spent quizzing Oscar further and making fervent notes. Here they are :

Body Position
  • Keep a 80/20 weight distribution between feet and hands. Try and keep this weighting, especially when growing tired as we tend to add weight to the arms.
  • Keep your head and chest up. This opens up your vision and keeps the weight in your legs. 
  • Keep feet level and don't change the leading foot (definitely something more applicable to downhill trails where the corners are bermed.)
  • Drop the heels on steeper terrain to retain traction (this also stops you from weighting into the arms as the terrain gets steeper and your weight is sent forward.) Dropping the heels has a visible effect on the rear tire and squashes it into the dirt.
The biggest revelation for me was how much I tend to hunker down and lean forward on the bike. It took a lot of work to force myself to basically stand more upright (which is how it felt) and open my chest up. But I felt the difference. Suddenly I could see more, which inspires confidence but more importantly I could keep the weight distribution to the 80/20 ratio. It also made me realise just how often my weight would shift to my arms due to incorrect body position.

  • Drop the heels and brake aggressively. Scrub speed in quick, deliberate motions. Dropping the heels is important as it keeps your body position neutral and stops your weight moving into the arms.
The heels down thing is something I've done before but not trained myself to do by default. The result is a constant weight shift forward which keeps me in a badly weighted neutral position.

  • Keep a correct neutral position. The body will drop into the corner a little, this is natural. But keep the weight 80/20 to make steering easier (Oscar demonstrated how just a little too much weight over the front hindered the rotation of the handlebars.) Keep the chest up! Don't drop the chest down to the bars.
  • Drop the heels a little, not as much as braking, but enough to keep you from weighting forward onto the arms.
  • Twist the hips through the corner and point your belly button to the exit.
  • Lean the bike... this is extremely important. The bike won't corner without lean. Feel the bike hit the inside thigh and open that leg out to allow for more leaning of the bike.
  • Use the outside knee on the downtube to weight the tires into the ground (I found this extremely awkward to do.)
  • Look through the turn and once you see the exit and are lined up, pump the legs. This forces the rear wheel into the ground for traction and gains you speed. It also returns you to a correct neutral body position.
  • Remember : Brake before the corner, lean the bike, look through to the exit.
The important things I found here (for any corner, although we spent much of our time on berms) was to keep from weighting forward. I soon realised just how much I'd lurch forward and overweight my arms. A combination of keeping my chest open and a more upright stance, plus dropping the heels helped to keep my weight more neutral. This allowed me to play with getting more lean on the bike and really trying to corkscrew my hips towards the exit. Achieving the final pump and squelching out of a tight berm felt awesome! But I approached every corner with a laundry list of instructions to process. It'll take a while to get everything into muscle memory.

Technical Trails
  • On technical trails, always lean the bike to steer. Leaning the bike ensures the front wheel takes the smoothest line possible and won't jar against rocks and roots.
  • Keep the heels down and brake less. Don't drag the brakes, instead pump them aggressively and deliberately on areas where grip can be found.
  • Pump the bike, don't rely on pedaling to keep momentum. Pumping also helps you remain balanced on the bike.
  • On muddy, wet descents, keep the knees in a little more than normal. This will control the rear of the bike and stop it from fishtailing around so much.
Oscar had us ride one of Whistler's technical blue runs with no pedaling. Conditions were slick so the challenge was even greater, but I was amazed at how my brain switched to seeing opportunities to squeeze out momentum instead of rough trail features. It definitely kept us sharp and picking smoother lines.

  • Keep the normal 80/20 attack position.
  • Commit to the jump, but keep the index finger covering the brakes.
  • Preload the suspension at the last second into the face of the take off ramp. You should be pushing the bike into the lip of the jump just before take off. If you're pushing down (vertically) you're pumping too early. Instead, catch the edge of the lip (on a steep lip the pump should feel like you're pushing horizontally almost.)
  • If you preload too early you'll get bucked by the bike and end up dead sailoring once airborne (something I do often and had no idea how it was happening. Having Oscar explain what I was doing wrong helped my confidence enormously.)
  • Keep your chest up and out once you're airborne. Don't hunch!
  • Pull the bars towards your chest and roll your feet forward. Rolling the feet seemed odd, but it allows you to keep friction with the pedal and prevents your foot from leaving it.
  • Focus on good take off. A good landing will always follow a good take off.
Although I still shied away from the biggest of the A Line jumps, employing Oscar's techniques pushed my jumping forward (and upward!) enormously. Knowing why I'd previously buckaroo'd on certain jumps and felt utterly helpless in the air meant I could prevent it and not worry about it. Also, giving a quick pump at the last second on the very tip of the jump's lip felt amazing! I immediately rode Crank It Up and cleared jumps with very little effort or speed, but with way more height and pop than before. I started to feel good about my jumping!

I did confide in Oscar about the A Line (and other black diamond route) jumps thwarting my confidence. He reassured me that it takes time to get comfortable in the air and that those jumps are in fact very advanced and I shouldn't feel bad about not clearing them. He also explained that, psychologically speaking, not being able to see past a big jump's face will always wilt the confidence until you know what to expect from them. This made sense. I couldn't understand why jumps on Crank' were such good fun and I enjoyed hitting them but the slightly bigger A Line jumps messed with my head. Now I knew why. The key to unlocking my confidence will be to master a consistently successful launch and feel comfortable in the air. Once I'm able to do that, bigger jumps will be fun. I did have a few Eureka moments where I was able to play with the bike midair and gain some good height and it felt amazing. I just need to keep that positive feeling in my head the next time I hit the bigger stuff.

  • Approach in a neutral position.
  • Don't try to pop off the drop, no need to prejump or launch off.
  • Push the bike out in front of you. Jockey it back into position as you hit the downslope.
  • Roll the feet forward a little to help guide the bike into the correct angle for the transition.
I've always felt pretty good about drops so was pleased that I had no real issues during the clinic. I was suprised at how many people would do a little lift before the drop. Its always made more sense to me to let the bike drop first and melt into the open space. The rolling of the feet felt good although its easy to overdo it and pitch the bike forward too much. But when done correctly the landing feels buttery smooth.

Writing up the notes feels good. It's allowed me to process them a little more clearly. Lots of bullet points, but my biggest revelations were jumping (demystifying where I was going wrong when I'd sometimes dead sailor has helped me a lot) and body position. If the only thing I work on between now and next season is fixing my attack position, I'll be in much better shape next year. But I'm determined to take everything on board and up my game. I want to feel silky smooth, flowey goodness the next time I ride the Glory down some steep, gnarly black diamond shit!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Whistler 2013

Its been a few weeks since we returned from this year's Whistler jaunt. In those weeks I've had some time to reflect on what was an extremely challenging week's riding. I've also had time to let my poor battered hands recover from a crash that was an almost exact copy of the spill I took last year. Hopefully now I'll actually learn my lesson(s) and keep my digits out of harm's way. Fortunately the Glory escaped pretty much unscathed. A little battle scarred and worn, she did me proud on the cold, wet trails of downhill mountain biking's very own mecca.

We've been lucky for the past couple of years, it would seem. Trail conditions and the weather have been balmy and beautiful. This year started out with an awesome day of sunshine, tacky dirt and grins all around as myself, Chris and Dave warmed up and settled into a week of solid shred. However mother nature had other ideas and we were soon greeted by sleeting rain and withering cold each day. The trails held up, for the most part, but after a couple of days the upper mountain soon became a sloppy mess. Still, we had lots of mid mountain trails to hit. Old favourites like A Line and Crank it Up, plus some technical blue runs and the ever challenging Dirt Merchant kept us busy and entertained. For the most part I felt good about my riding but still felt niggled somewhat by bigger jumps and finding flow on certain trails so when Dave had the idea of doing some coaching sessions I signed up too, keen to iron out my issues and make some progress - despite the less than ideal trail conditions.

We ended up doing three half day sessions with resident coach, Oscar. An amazing and calmly confident dude who has coached most of the top riders in the sport. Clearly at ease on two wheels, we were in good hands and by the end of the first session my head was spinning with new info. I couldn't wait to put his advice and tips into practice. By the end of the third session I felt convinced I had been taught some solid riding fundamentals that would help me to achieve my goals. But I was also painfully aware that I needed to change some core aspects of my riding to get there.

I've always enjoyed and responded well to being coached. However I have a tendency to try and implement everything all at once. So for the rest of the trip, every corner, every jump and every tech section.... even just riding fireroad, everything was being analyzed and processed as I mentally ran through a laundry list of things to do, positions to fall into, things to avoid. It felt like I did more things wrong than correct. My body position has been slightly, but significantly wrong, the way I weight into corners - also wrong. Wrong because I've hindered speed and flow by not moving correctly. But now I had the theory rattling around my head and could, at least, work on fixing it.

Over the course of the week I made decent progress. Oscar taught me some great tips for jumping and hitting drops, in addition to foundation skills like body position and weighting the bike and trail. But doing the clinic did change the tone of the trip for me. It felt more like doing homework than shredding with my mates and having fun. But that pressure was put on me by me.... I can't relax and go with it if I feel like I'm missing something. Not quite getting it.  So I came away feeling like I hadn't had as much fun or rode as hard as I'd hoped. But on reflection, it was a good process to go through. Better to know my weaknesses and continue the hard slog of progress than be ignorant and ride slower than I could be. I have some new goals and lots to work on between now and next season. But for now its back to our usual XC haunts and the Glory gets mothballed for the winter. In the meantime I'll write up Oscar's pearls of wisdom and post them on here. A reminder to myself of what I learned and what I need to keep working at.