Mountain Bike Skills Training Advice from the Pros – Part 4

The last installment of this series brings us the musings of Gene Hamilton. Gene is a Silver and Bronze medalist at Masters World DH Championships and the founder of Better Ride Skills Camps (www.betterride.net). Gene is known for his boundless energy and enthusiasm for our sport and has helped hundreds of riders build their skills and confidence.

What are the top 3 basic skills that you feel all riders should have?

1. Proper vision techniques, riders need to be looking ahead, where they want to go 100% of the time. Knowing to look ahead and actually knowing how to look ahead and then actually looking ahead are three different things. Actually looking ahead is tough until you understand how to do it and then spend a lot of time improving your vision with vision drills.

2. Body position, riders need to ride in balance, in a neutral position and independent of their bike. Most riders ride out of balance (elbows in, weight back, at the end of their range of motion). There are two old skills myths that continue to be passed on that need to be eliminated. One is, “when climbing keep your elbows in and down” which cramps your lungs and makes it hard to handle the bike. The second one is on a steep decent get you weight way back (which takes weight off the front end making steering and the use of the front brake sketchy and usually puts you at the end of your range of motion (arms straight out) so you are no longer in a neutral position (where you can react in all directions).

3. Balance! Balance is a skill that can be learned and improved. Trackstands are a great bike specific balance exercises but anything that challenges your balance is a balance drill. Balance boards, Swiss balls, wobble boards, standing on one leg, walking backwards up a steep hill are all great ways to improve your balance. I have been taught that 5 minutes, twice a week of balance work will greatly improve and refine your balance.

What is the number one skill you see missing from most riders in your camps?

Proper vision, they all know to look ahead but 90% of riders spend more than 60% of their ride looking less than 5 feet in front of their front wheel (this includes most of the pros I coach who are amazed how much they actually look down on the first day of my camp) I place a huge focus on teaching how your eyes work and how to look ahead in my camps.

Pros like CVD, Mitch Ropelato and the Buell brothers were amazed how much this (and the drills to master your vision) have helped them ride smoother, faster and much more confidently. Have someone video you through a nasty section of trail then review the video and honestly ask yourself, “am I looking 20-60 feet ahead the entire time?”.

If not you need to work on your vision because if you watch race dvds like the Earthed series you will see that Greg Minnaar, Steve Peat, Sam Hill and Nathan Rennie are never looking down. This is a tough skill to understand and master, even after I teach it and the athlete completely understands how it works and why they should do it takes a lot of quality practice using vision drills to master this skill.

What is the number one mistake you see riders make with cockpit set up?

For normal mountain bikers (not downhill riders) the #1 bike set up mistake is having a long stem (longer than 90mm) which puts the rider too far forward and really messes with the bike handling.

For downhill riders (who usually have a nice short stem!) it is brake lever placement. Often the levers are not at the right angle (causing a bend in the wrist), mounted too close to the grips (causing the rider to squeeze the middle of the lever where there is less leverage than at the end of the lever) and the lever engagement is too far out (making it harder to modulate and causing arm pump because this forces the rider to squeeze with forearm strength vs. hand strength)

What is the number one mistake you see riders make with bike set up (tire pressure, suspensions settings, seat height, etc.)?

For normal riders it is definitely too much tire pressure. Back off on the tire pressure and your bike will be smoother and roll faster on rough surfaces, we are not riding on pavement!

For downhill riders it is usually poor suspension set up, often too soft in the front to stiff in the back and/or really imbalanced rebound.

What is your favorite technical skills drill?

You know this question is how I started coaching out of state. On the website mtbr someone asked readers to, “post your favorite drills”. My reply was that drills are worthless without knowing; what the goal of the drill is, exactly how to do the skill perfectly, how the skill should feel, how the skill should look.

My favorite drill is my figure 8 drill, if you practice it perfectly (focusing on quality over quantity) it improves many important skills. The figure 8 done correctly works on vision, cornering technique, body position, weight placement and being relaxed. Unfortunately doing any drill 80% correct and 20% wrong makes you really good at doing things 20% wrong. Most riders (if they practice at all off trail) are practicing at best 50% correct and 50% wrong which as you can imagine leads to bad habits.

What is the number one thing that every rider should do today to gain more confidence and speed on the trail?

Answer 1 Sign up for skills camp/clinic with a qualified, respected coach. Honestly there are no short cuts to improvement.

Answer 2 Focus on being relaxed, smile, relax your grip and breathe.

Bonus question/answer: The biggest mistake I see riders making?

Confusing riding with training. There is no sport you get better at by doing the sport. All sports have skills and drills to master those skills that must be done to improve. Tennis players spent 20% or less of their practice time playing someone, ski racers spent less than 20% of their “on snow” time in race courses, professional golfers spend most of their time practicing specific skills, putting, chipping, driving not playing 18 holes, etc.

If you think by riding you are getting skills practice you are fooling yourself.

Skills development takes three things:
1. Knowledge of how to do the skill correctly.
2. Practicing the skill with a focus on quality.
3. Body awareness to know what you did right and what you did wrong so you can learn from your mistakes and continue to improve

If you know exactly how to ride like Greg Minnaar (which you don’t) that knowledge is still worthless until you train your body to execute that knowledge well.  So learn the exact, correct in balance in control way to ride and learn and do the drills required to master those skills.

Create a great 2010…


In case you missed them…

You can find Part 1 with Lee McCormack here

You can find Part 2 with Katrina Strand here

You can find Part 3 with Joe Lawwill here

-James Wilson-

90 Day MTB Skills & Fitness Program

90 Day MTB Skills & Fitness ProgramLearn how to permanently fix the bad movement habits that are really keeping you from improving your mountain bike skills. It isn’t “bad technique” that’s stopping you from improving your mountain bike skills. This program will fix the real cause - bad movement habits you don’t even realize are holding you back on the trail. Improve your performance and safety on the trail in just 90 days with the only workouts designed to integrate mobility, strength and skills drills.
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  1. Karmen says:

    Reading this piece leaves me even more excited to attend Gene’s camp this Spring!

    Reply • January 25 at 7:17 pm
  2. cookie says:

    I’d signup for a skills clinic in a heartbeat if we had them here in Australia.. sadly we dont have any! I’d really like to hear more about these vision drills if its possible! thanks.

    Reply • January 26 at 5:09 am

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