By Seb Kemp/Photos by Dan Barham
There's no mystical medicine that can make you a better bike rider. No shaman can miraculously bestow skills upon you. It takes a bit of hard graft to become a better rider. But this hard work doesn't have to be entirely joyless.
As I’ve suggested before you can get a coach or practice certain skills (‘Friday Five: Carving Turns’, but there’s another way to get better. Not faster, fitter or stronger (we've started covering them in Marx Conditioning's 'Increasing Hip Power') but better as in being more capable handling your bike, riding safer, maybe riding faster.
The secret to becoming a better rider is to dick about.
1) Ride Your Bike, Everywhere.
Your mountain bike doesn't have to be a special tool for special days. Get out and ride around the block, go to the shops, ride it to work, ride it everywhere. Basically, spend more time on it, learning how it balances, how to move it, and all the while your muscles and brain will be storing all these tiny moments of information. Ultimately, you’ll feel more at home when you go trail riding.
2) Skids and Wheelies.
Part of this go-anywhere, ride-anything outlook is just about pratting about. When you ride to the grocery store look out for curbs to hop up, on and off. Skid through the pile of leafs on the sidewalk. Pop wheelies in the driveway. Jump off the curb cuts. Do wheel lifts off ledges. Make some turns through a patch of gravel. And always remember to skid some more.
Just be more of a child. Get back to riding a bicycle in a fun way, not a purposeful way. Don't worry about looking like a Wally, you’ll make people envious of all the harmless fun you are having. Learn to just love biking in the way you did as a child.
Again, all this time will pay off on the trail and all the little skills you will get from hopping, jumping, pulling wheelies, skidding, generally being free to dick about, will help make you more comfortable on your bike.
3) Waiting in the Car Park.
Mountain bikers are bad at timekeeping. Arrange to meet at the trailhead at five-thirty and it will be six o’clock before everyone is there and ready to go. Use this time to just dick about more. Practice wheelies, track stands, skids, hopping up things. It will warm you up for the trail and give you more precious pratting about practice time. Use this time to tune your body and mind of all the fine motor skills you need for mountain biking.
4) Trials Challenge
Faff is another thing mountain bikers have down. (There are even rules to faff). Don't just sit there while Terry plays with his low-speed compression dial, John changes the height of his handlebar and Lisa decides whether she wants to ride with her jacket on or off. While everyone is mucking about set little trailside challenges.
Dylan Wolsky (the fast dingo from The Nomads race team) and I have been playing Trials Challenge for a while now. One of us will set a challenge, usually really silly, sometimes difficult, and then we will both attempt it until we get it, or the faffing is over and the ride recommences. It could be just hopping up a log and riding along it. It could be riding through a creek, up the bank, round a tree and back again. It might mean doing a manual the length of a skinnie. Anything, just think of fun, daft things to try.
Again, it will move you a bit closer to the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) says is necessary to master anything. Oh, and you'll probably be laughing at yourself and your friends (in good nature) while the attempts go on. Laughing is good for you and having fun is essential to biking.
5) Have Fun, Take it Less Seriously.
All of these things will teach you that biking is fun. Mountain biking is a preposterous pasttime when you look at it – grown men and women larking about in the woods on children's toys. That's all it is, nothing more. Don't be embarrassed, just go with it. Play games and don’t be afraid to lose because you’ll be the one winning in the end.
Laugh at yourself and then get on with smiling more.
Just dick about and you’ll never fail.