Breaking the mold to become a better mountain bike rider

Last week I went on a trip to Southern California for some business. Of course, my wife and I mixed in some fun – it is hard to not have fun someplace that is 70 degrees when where you live is in the 20’s!

Part of our fun was to go back to Santa Barbara, which is one of the best spots in all of California. The area is beautiful and is a special place for us because it is where we met. She was my coffee shop girl at the Coffee Cat, I thought she was cute so I asked her out and her we are almost 10 years later…

Santa Barbara is also the place I first started mountain biking. I first got a mountain bike to commute to work but it did not take me long until I found out that you could also ride trail on it – and that riding trail was the challenging yet satisfying thing in the world!

I have not had a chance to ride in Santa Barbara for about 8 years and it was very interesting to go back and ride the trails I learned on. At first I thought the trials were shorter than I remember but then I realized that I had probably gotten a bit faster over the 8 years since I had last been there. It was fun to see the trail through the eyes of a more skilled rider and enjoy more of the flow it had to offer.

But I was also reminded that some of those trails in the mountains behind Santa Barbara are super sketchy and very challenging. The single track is steep, rocky, technical and (yikes!) exposed in a lot of spots and forces you to be on you’re A game in a way few other trails I’ve ever ridden do.

I was very lucky to learn how to ride in an environment that forced me to develop skills very quickly. I had no choice – learn how to balance, brake, ride switchbacks and pick your way through rocks and baby heads or else quit riding.

This brings me to my point…I am not a very naturally talented rider. I did not race or jump BMX bikes when I was a kid. When I first started riding I wrecked trying to “jump” off a curb. However, I did two things that really broke the mold in my education as a mountain biker that I think have helped me develop into a pretty decent rider.

First, I studied riding videos to see how the riders moved and held themselves on their bike. I also would spend time on basic skills on the street in front of my house. I would work on track stands, wheelie drops of the curb, side hopping up onto the curb and then back down again and some other basic skills.

The point was that I studied riding and then I practiced basic skills off the trail. If I had known about skills camps I probably would have went to one. It just seemed obvious to me that technical skill was very important and that you have to work on the basics if you want to be good at the harder skills.

The second thing was that I did not ride clipless pedals. One of the things I really took away from my time back in Santa Barbara was that there was no way I would have learned to ride my bike trying to survive those trails clipped in. I literally would have killed myself or, at the very least, gotten hurt bad enough to make me a more timid rider.

I had clipless pedals all set and ready to go because the guy at the bike shop said that was “what you were supposed to do”. After I had ridden toe clips for a few months they sold me some clipless pedals and sent me on my way. I was too scared to ride them on the trail and actually wore sneakers with my clipless pedals for several months. I finally realized that, despite practicing, I was not going to be confident enough getting out of my pedals to launch myself down Cold Springs trail with them on.

I bought a pair of BMX flats and never looked back.

So, two of the things that really helped me progress as a new rider and lay the groundwork for continued progression is early recognition of the importance of practicing basic skills and the fact that I might might kill myself wearing clipless pedals. This set me up with the basic balance and movement skills I needed while also making me more confident on the trail.

If you’ve never practiced your basic skills then start doing it. I made a post on the track stand, which is something you can practice in your garage. Better yet, look into a skills clinic and learn from someone who knows how to teach you better skills. I’ve taken one and it totally changed how I see the trail.

Also, if you’ve never tried flat pedals and your not 100% sold on clipless pedals then take the plunge and try them out. Buy a good pair of flat pedals (I ride the Crank Bros 50-50’s) and a pair of 5:10 sticky rubber shoes and go for it. I’d be willing to bet that some of you will find that you have more confidence and fun with the flats. Then you’ll turn to the dark side and start riding them all the time…

Break out of the mold and you may become a better rider for it.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Lee-Ann says:

    and here they’re trying to convice me to go to clips (-!

    Reply • January 13 at 10:00 am
  2. Chris says:

    I definitely agree that flats are the way to start.
    I have ridden bikes for years with flats before I went to clipless.
    Toe clips are (IMO) the most dangerous – there is no easy way to quickly get out of them. With clipless, I find the natural instinct to kick your foot out to the side if you are about to stack causes them to unclip. With toe-clips this does nothing and you fall. I once landed heavily on my ribs on a brick wall as a result of my feet being stuck in toe clips. I took them off the next day and rode with flats for the next 3 years before I went to clipless.
    Clipless are now second nature for me, and I enjoy being able to use muscles the whole way around the pedal stroke, so I’ll stick with them.
    I used to do a little bit of free-style riding with my old BMX, which provided a lot of the balance skills you talk of. Being able to stop dead on the track, pop the front wheel sideways over a rock and keep going is very useful on slow technical rock gardens.

    Reply • January 13 at 5:40 pm
  3. Steele says:

    Flats are def the way to start, but moving on to clips and practicing how to use them in my opinion is the way to go. Once you are comfortable, it is second nature and confidence inspiring. I ride many different styles, my jump, DH, and commuter bike all have flats, but my trail bike is ready to clip in and shred. I have hit large drops and jumps, along with extremely tech trail on them with very few “oh Shit” moments. I think it is very personal though, all riders are different. Just get out and ride and experiment!! Skip toe straps, that’s a no no for MTB.

    Reply • January 13 at 5:54 pm
  4. Mike I says:

    Interesting. As an XC rider I would never think to leave the house with anything but my clipless pedals, but it does make it hard to practice those little skills. I sometimes roll up the street and practice balancing on the curb, tracks etc, but in clipless pedals you cant push yourself far enough to improve without fear of falling awkwardly. I have an old BMX under the house, might give that a go. Thanks James

    Reply • January 13 at 7:14 pm
  5. Tom S. says:

    Wondering if you guys do skills clinics? Want to be able to master the manual and improve jumping skills too.

    Reply • January 18 at 8:45 am
    • bikejames says:

      I recommend checking out some guys who know way more than I do in that area. The people I know personally are Lee McCormackl (www.leelikesbikes.com), Gene Hamilton (www.betterride.net) and Joe Lawwill (www.bikeskills.com).

      Reply • January 25 at 5:49 am
  6. Darryl says:

    I have been riding my new flats for 2 weeks now and I’m enjoying my riding much more and I’m not going back to clipless. I have had a few endos while riding clipless, one crash resulted in a dislocated shoulder that required surgery ( one of the most painful experiences of my life, unreal rehab).
    I feel that there is a lot of dogma that comes over from roadie mentality (clipless) that is just not analogous to MTB riders.
    Unless your an elite XC racer lighter is not always better, a heavier wheel has more inertia and will resist deflection better through rough stuff and a big fat tire with lower air pressure actually has less rolling resitance,better traction and a softer ride.
    MTB is still a very young sport and we need to start thinking for ourselfs and stop looking for answers from people who ride road bikes and just want to sell us lite parts that may not be advancing our sport.

    Reply • February 20 at 12:01 am

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