29 July 2008

BikeSkills Experience

I've been regularly riding Mountain Bikes since 1993. I'm strong, physically fit, have an awesome bike, and usually go with the "advanced" group when I'm riding with a club. So, it may come as a slight surprise that this past Saturday I decided to take a Beginning/Intermediate MtB skills Course.

One of the reasons that I decided to take the course stemmed from my experience as a SCUBA instructor. I had a student in an "Advanced Open Water" course who had been diving for about 20 years. For years, he'd been doing all of the things that I was going to "teach" him in the course. So for him the course was simply a way to advance through the ranks to become eligible to take the "Rescue Diver" course with his girlfriend. On our first dive, he descended the 15 meters from the surface to the ocean floor like a rock but came to a perfect stop and hovered about a meter above the ocean floor. I descended much slower and when I found him I noticed that his mask was partially filled with bloody water. I asked him if he was OK, and he responded that he was. We went on our dive, with him demonstrating all of the skills in an acceptable manner--It was evident he had lots of experience, but there were still things he could improve upon. After the dive, I asked him about the blood filled mask. He said that was normal, it happened on every dive. I ensured him that it was not 'normal' and that it was a direct result of his overly rapid descent. On our next dive, I had him descend slowly. Miracle of miracles, no bloody mask. He was amazed. He'd been having bloody masks for 20 years and one dive with someone who had the skills and knowledge he was missing changed his experience for the better.

The experience with that student lead me to realize that regardless of how long I had been doing something, I could always stand to gain something by interacting with someone with a higher level of skill and expertise who could coach and educate me. Of course, this assumes that the instructor is able to modify the course materials to fit my level and that I'm not so far out of league with the other students that the instructor has to teach two courses at the same time.

I googled Mountain Bike Skills Courses and found several different resources. I had Brian Lopes' book and had read it, but there was something lacking between the written page and my execution. The next thing I came across was the West Coast Style DVDs. I saw some clips from the DVDs on YouTube and decided to get them both.

The first one, West Coast Style Mountain Biking provided me with lots of important skills knowledge and a wide variety of skills to practice, and I continue to watch the segments to build my abilities. The second one, West Coast Style Freeriding Fundamentals, is more focused on Freeriding, as the title suggests, but still provides a lot of really good skills demonstrations. I would have liked them more had they really focused on slow motion replays of drills or specific activities, such as "Ok, now go try to do X, Y, and Z" rather than riders showing off their skills. I still recommend these two DVDs for anyone who wants to improve their skills and find out how to do a variety of tricks and has the patience to watch videos. Unfortunately for me, I'm not much of a video watcher. I get about 10 minutes into them and I start to lose interest or I want to go and try the skills as they're demonstrated. Since we're talking about Mountain Biking and not yoga, it has been really difficult for me to practice the skills as they're taught or refer back to the video quickly.

That said, the missing element for me was the link between demonstration, practice and feedback. I happened to see a YouTube clip from BikeSkills.Com on YourMtB.COM and followed the link to find out more. I was pleased to see that BikeSkills had an instructor, Joe Lawwill, in Orange County--less than 40 miles from my home.

I sent Joe a message asking him about clinics that would be appropriate for me because the only ones listed were "Beginner/Intermediate" and I felt like those might be too easy for me. Joe responded quickly, assuring me that "there's always an easy way and a hard way around an obstical" and that he was certain he could challenge me. Was he right!

So, Saturday morning, I drove to Aliso Viejo to meet up with Joe and the other participants of the BikeSkills clinic. We met at Aliso Creek Park, signed waivers and Joe started in with his "Do's and Dont's." He explained to everyone the value of having our brake levers positioned so that we could easily brake with one finger. Next, Joe set about describing the concepts of shock compression and rebound and then worked with each participant to tune our shocks. My shocks had both been set at the shop just a week before, so I was probably the fastest to adjust -- no adjustments needed. Other people took considerably longer. While this is a great service and worth the $89 course fee in and of itself, it did take a long time to get everyone set up right--time I would have rather had learning skills, or at least resting out of the glare of a rapidly warming sun.

We started off in a small flat dirt area at the beginning of the trail. We practiced pumping into dips. It was quite amazing to find that with a simple loading of weight into the front shock while the front wheel was entering a dip, I was able to keep the bike moving. We later learned that this technique could be used to navigate out of situations where the front wheel could get stuck such as a rutty, slow speed ascent or descent.

Pumps were followed by track stands. These were pretty easy for me, especially with all the road riding I've been doing.

The next skill we learned and practiced was the manual. This skill was really the basis for the remainder of the clinic. A manual is like a wheelie, except that instead of using a pedal stroke to lift the front wheel, the bike is thrown forward and the front wheel more or less lifts itself off the ground as the rider's weight is now over the back wheel and the arms are extended. I'd never been able to do a wheelie because I always tried to muscle the front wheel off the ground with my arms and had my body in the wrong position--too far forward. After seeing the manual being done, I was amazed at how easy it looked, and logically it fit. So, I tried my first manual and failed. I tried again, and had a limited amount of success. I tried a third time, after receiving some feedback from Joe, and I was so successful that I forgot to modulate with the rear brake and went over backwards landing on my butt and elbows (I was REALLY glad I had padded shorts and elbow guards!) I was bruised, both in the physical and ego sense, but the pain on my iliac crest and elbows didn't go away. After a few more sorry attempts on my part, we headed up the hill.

The climb was not terribly difficult for me or Joe, but most of the other riders were lagging far behind us. Joe stopped when we got to a rock step in the trail. At that point we waited for everyone else to show up. When they finally got there Joe went about describing how to clear this one foot obstacle. First, we would ride up to it, loading the front of the bike and then doing a manual to get the front wheel on top of the ledge, allowing the handlebars to come toward the chest. Then, once the front wheel was up, we would push the handlebars forward and down causing the rear wheel to lift off the ground and follow the front. It was kind of like a bunny hop, but going up hill. We practiced this several times before we turned around and practiced the descent--Coming up to the drop, doing a track stand, then pushing the bike forward with the arms and the body backwards. It was so easy.

We continued up the hill until we got to the top. We practiced going over a log for a few times, perfecting the skill we learned at the step. Then we moved a bit and practiced manuals up a larger step and then manuals off a small ledge.

The next exercise was descending a rocky, rutty, slope called "Rocket" Joe demonstrated how the pump action could get us out of a tricky situation where the front tire might get into a rut or encounter a rock that we needed to move beyond in order to not fall. He had us descend while changing lines in order to make the skill a bit more complicated. I didn't have any problems with this skill, zipping down the long bumpy rock face like it was slick rock. When I got to the bottom I had the opportunity to see how NOT to go down as one of the students did an endo. Good thing he was wearing a full face helmet and guards on his elbows and knees/shins. I guess he didn't pay enough attention to the "back and down" part of the instruction.

The final skill for the day was a three foot step up. It was all about using "helpers" and manuals. Joe demonstrated several different ways to clear this obstacle, at one point appearing to be flying up hill. Very, very impressed, but by this point in the day my iliac crest and elbow were hurting quite a lot so I decided to just watch. Some of the other students attempted the skill, but only the guy with the 29er was able to clear it.

Next to the three foot step was a 5 foot step that Joe used to demonstrate his prowess. As a 42 year old man, I marveled at his abilities, but had no inclination to attempt such a stunt (maybe next year :)

My plan at this point is to practice the skills and then go back in a few months time to get some more feedback and learn some new skills. If you're in Southern California, I whole heartedly recommend taking Joe's class. I feel more confident in my riding abilities than I ever have.