Don’t get held back by your own success…

I forget where I first heard it but one of the most powerful bits of advice I’ve ever read was “nothing fails like success”. Once people experience a little bit of success with something they tend to stop looking for better methods and end up failing to really improve as much as they could. Remember that unless you are the world champion of something then odds are you can improve no matter how successful your past methods have been.

I call it the Fat Person Curling Soup Cans analogy – you can take a fat person who sits on the couch all day and have them start walking around the block curling soup cans, they’ll lose some weight. However, that doesn’t make curling soup cans the best fat loss method on the planet. If that person assumed that a little bit of success meant that they just needed to keep walking around the block curling soup cans then they would ultimately fail in their goal to attain a normal weight.

I bring this up because when I work with the high school mountain bike team I am reminded of how much this applies to mountain biking. There is a mix of kids, from those who are just learning how to ride to those who have a few years under their belt. What I’ve noticed is that the new kids are just trying to get down the trail – whatever body position and methods are getting them back to the parking lot in one piece are fair game. I can coach them on some basic stuff but at the end of the day they are using whatever methods they find successful and they will have to build a certain “comfort level” on the trail before they can start be conscious of what they are doing.

What I see with the better kids is that they ride like more competent beginners – they still employ the same methods the new kids are using to survive, they are just more competent at them and more comfortable on the trail. Sure, they are pretty fast on the trails that they know really well but their fundamentals are still off, based on bad habits they picked up early on.

What I also see is reluctance from some of them to try new methods that push them out of their comfort zone yet ultimately will make them better. They have two thoughts – 1) I can’t go as fast when I do that and 2) I’ve had success with this other way.

For example, one of the things that was observed at the last race was that the “fast kids” all stood up and pedaled far more than any of the kids on our team. Standing pedaling is a specific skill and type of fitness that needs to be trained yet most riders are pretty uncomfortable standing up and instead prefer to sit down, which is what they learned to do when they first started riding.

So, we know that one of the skills that separate fast riders from average riders is the ability to stand and hammer at will without becoming fatigued. You can’t train this by logging a bunch of miles sitting down – you have to specifically train standing pedaling if you want to improve at that specific skill.

However, if you take a rider who is pretty good at seated pedaling and have them stand more they will fatigue faster and they will have a learning curve on standing climbing to deal with – but we all know that if they continue to work on it eventually they will get stronger and more competent at standing pedaling and be faster for it. If they fell back on the “I’ve always had success with seated pedaling” excuse they will fail to become a complete rider and be as fast as they can.

On a side note, one of the things I recommend to riders when having them try something new is to go on a purposefully short ride, something in the 20-30 minute range. When you are on this ride you are not concerned about anything but applying the skill. If you try to go on a normal ride you’ll be tempted to fall back on your old habits as you fatigue or your ego starts to get hurt from not going as fast. Try going on one of these rides with your seat all the way down, forcing you to stand the whole time – this is one of the drills I have the kids do to force them to get better at standing pedaling.

There are a lot of examples of how this applies on the bike – standing up more, using flat pedals, changing your body position and skills techniques to name a few – but it all boils down to one thing. Having a willingness to empty your cup of what you think you know and take in another way of looking at things is the hallmark of successful person, both on the trail and in life. Don’t get held back by your success.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Rafael says:

    I use to say “What got you here, won’t get you there” 🙂

    Reply • September 24 at 12:26 am
  2. HB says:

    Hey James,

    Having recently come across your site, am really enjoying your posts – even though I’m a relative beginner.
    Your advice on going for a short stand-up only ride – what in particular should be concentrated on? Or are you just suggesting that going on a 20-30 min standing pedal will automatically improve your standing pedalling? I wouldn’t want to ingrain any bad habits while starting out if I can help it.

    Have you got a typo in the title? – Own instead of won? I suppose hard won success works too !

    Reply • September 25 at 10:06 pm
    • bikejames says:

      You would want to go on a 20-30 minute ride and concentrate on a specific skill. Standing pedaling works well for those rides, as does working on vision (looking up), body position, cornering technique and breathing. The idea is to focus on doing one thing perfectly for a short period of time.

      And yes, that was a typo…although it does kind of work either way.

      Reply • September 26 at 12:52 pm
  3. John K. says:

    What a great article. I remember when James started promoting the “stand up and pedal” concept. I tried it and was shocked at how quickly I fatigued, and how much I slipped on roots. I gave up on the concept within two rides and remained seated for 2+ years. This summer I revisited this idea and dedicated a portion of each ride to standing up and pedaling on climbs. What a difference to my riding and fitness this year. In fact, standing has become my go-to stance on a climb. My explosiveness and power have improved dramatically, and it’s taught me a lot about modulating power to the back wheel over slippery roots.

    Great job James!

    Reply • September 26 at 9:40 am
    • bikejames says:

      You probably freak people out with all that standing climbing. I’m always getting told that I’m going to wear myself out when I stand a lot but as you’ve experienced, once you get strong with it it is actually not that much harder than sitting down. Great job on pushing through and coming out better for it.

      Reply • September 26 at 12:53 pm
  4. Greg says:

    I enjoy all your articles but this one was one of the better ones. I know riding my single speed has helped me on
    my power and endurance standing as you can’t cheat a drop a gear you just have to give all at times and I really
    like the different way familar trails feel on a ss. Good advice on the short ride idea, have to do that to hone
    some skills.
    On a different note I have had good results from your ultimate workout program and was wondering if you might
    do a post on your thoughts on developing endurance as far as 100 mile days. I am setting a goal to ride the
    Co trail next year and would like to get your advice for building that kind of endurance and any adjustments
    that I can make to the program.

    Thanks for sharing your passion for training and riding.

    Reply • September 26 at 7:15 pm

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