My earliest forays into the world of mountain biking primarily involved dragging and shoving my half-tonne, mud-caked, six-gear Emmelle through Exmoor’s boggy murk to reach a mile of semi-rideable rockiness that led to the road home. Over the following few years I hungrily discovered the sheer joys of rooty Devon woodland singletrack, slipping, sliding and crashing my way through my early teens until, at 17, myself and my best friend jumped on a train and blagged our way to Chamonix for an incredible introduction to alpine riding. With my eyes subsequently blown wide open I’ve continued to seek opportunities to experience a whole spectrum of different terrains and biking challenges throughout the world.
In addition to the obvious immediate pleasures and unforgettable memories that these experiences have provided, I was recently also pondering their lasting impact on my abilities as a biker. Undeniably I’ve learned how to crash! Broken bones numbering 17 (so far) are testament to that, but what about my skills development? As a professional mountain bike coach I’m afflicted with a constant need to analyse whether I’m still getting better or has age instigated my gradual and inevitable decline? And the conclusion? I’m not sure yet, but one thing is certain, I’ve served a long and fruitful apprenticeship that’s gradually and organically shaped my trail techniques.
Times have changed massively since my first rides in the late ‘80s. Mountain biking has witnessed exponential growth in terms of both participation and general awareness. Mainstream money has floated in and the results are seen in the plethora of trail centres that have made quick-hit 21st century mountain biking what it is. Whether this is a positive or not for the sport is a different debate – but my area of interest is whether the introduction of some of these groomed, sanitised and weather resistant strips has been detrimental to the skills development of the new breed of bikers?
For many, the thought of riding anywhere other than a trail centre has never even occurred
More often than not these days beginners that I coach have their first experience of ‘natural’ trails in their initial session with me. For many, the thought of riding anywhere other than a trail centre has never even occurred and increasingly I’ve noticed bikers displaying a noticeable trail centre style of riding that manifests itself in a few clear ways.
The first is a tendency towards remaining seated on downhills. I see this as being the fault of smooth, graded trail surfaces which, although punctuated by the odd rock gardens and drop, generally allow descending techniques that would’ve liquidised my internal organs if I’d attempted them on the rutted, washed-out rock fests I originally learned on. The availability of well-priced, decent full suspension bikes has also made this approach possible and therefore many people remain blissfully unaware of the fundamental importance of weight shift. On my local trails in Northern Ireland there have been a seemingly disproportionate number of broken bones for the amount of usage. Many have been caused by riders pitching over the bars because they don’t know to get their weight behind the saddle on drops.
The next issue I’ve noticed is a lack of cornering ability. While solid-surfaced, banked corners can definitely be a lot of fun, I think they can promote a lazy, passive approach to getting round bends among many beginners. On loose, natural, flat and off-camber corners, the fight for grip generates rapid improvements in terms of body positioning and pressure application, with pretty immediate feedback from the slippery ground. After a couple of washouts and grazed knees, riders tend to find the limitations of their tyres and realise how hard they can push into corners if they’re active and aggressive on the bike. While the non-slip nature of most trail centre corners prevents crashes, it also negates the need to search hard for more grip and as a consequence seems to slow development.
Finally, I often witness an inability to react to unexpected terrain changes. Many riders I meet have an intimate knowledge of every last drop, corner, bump and berm of their local trail centres. They can cruise round half asleep, safe in the knowledge that come rain or shine the trail won’t throw up any nasty surprises. All those innate, subtle weight shifts that are needed to keep them rubber-side down on the roots never get developed, and so their first taste of riding on wet mud and greasy wood becomes a total disaster. I’ve coached people who’ve ridden mountain bikes for years who have no idea that leaning a bike over on an angled root will almost certainly end badly and so they’re transported back to the realm of total beginner whenever they first leave the gravel tracks.
This combination of a static position on the bike, a passive riding style and the non-development of the subconscious adjustments required to survive wet natural trails has, in my opinion, stunted many new riders’ development. It’s not all bad news though, because there are obvious upsides to trail centres. Without them I reckon many of today’s bikers would’ve never initially taken up the sport and I’d always rather see lots of people riding not that well, than just a couple totally owning the trails. The other big plus is the growth of pump tracks. Few things give me more pleasure than seeing the local kids on chainless skip bikes with no grips or brakes, doubling gaps and carving corners instead of hanging round bus shelters being bored or staring at their phones. Our local pump track has become a really popular hang out for people who may otherwise never have bothered getting on a bike. If they get the opportunity and the inclination to keep riding then we’re going to witness a really talented next generation!
My message to anyone who may read this and recognise themselves is: please don’t take it as criticism! There’s a whole world of ever-evolving natural trails just waiting for you to take them on so get out there and get grinning. Just don’t forget the kneepads!