By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor
Last fall, I decided that I wanted to take a mountain biking lesson. It was a bold move, as you will learn, because I am a truly terrible mountain biker. Here is the story of my lesson, and the best tips I have to share for other riders who also have a strong self-preservation instinct when it comes to the dirt.
“What do you see when you look at a trail?” my new mountain biking instructor asked. We stood in a grassy park, bikeless. “There’s a rock, a bump… another rock,” he narrated, gazing at an imaginary vista from beneath his white helmet visor.
I replied instantly: “Danger! Danger! Danger!”
That was not the correct answer. Instead, I was apparently supposed to see a sine wave. For those without instant trigonometry recall, that is a perfectly symmetrical, rhythmic, up-down oscillation.
I do not see sine waves on rocky mountain biking trails.
It had been five years since I last rode a mountain bike, and the hiatus was for good reason: I was quite certain that I was the worst, absolute worst, world-champion-grade worst, mountain biker in the universe. I wrote an article about the situation for Bicycling last year, so here is the synopsis.
In 2013, I won the women’s Giro Rosa, the biggest stage race prize available for a female road racer. I decided to celebrate with a light-hearted jaunt to the mountains for the 50-mile Steamboat Stinger, peer-pressured by my older brother and his friends.
I got stung. Quickly I found myself descending singletrack with an ever-growing line of riders behind me who wished to pass. I was unable to help them, due to the fact that there was a drop-off on one side of me and a rock face on the other.
I was in tears of shame after the first of two laps, well aware that my incompetence was not what my fellow riders had been bargaining for as they trained for months and visualized ripping down the smooth, singletrack descent. Nonetheless, I decided to finish the race, but with the caveat that I would not pass anyone on any climb, lest I have to face them again on the downhill.
I had been aware that I wasn’t a particularly skilled mountain biker, but I was at the absolute pinnacle of road cycling skill and fitness and I figured that would count for something. So: if I was still this terrible with all of that advantage? Worst mountain biker in the universe.
Thus, I didn’t ride for half-a-decade while the lavender mountain bike I had gotten in high school matured to roughly the same age I had been when I acquired it. I hated the inner knowing of such incompetence, however, so I finally reached out to local instructor and (critically) reputed miracle-worker, Lee McCormack. Thus, that’s how Lee happened to find himself staring at me while I yelled “DANGER!” and a group of middle-aged women rode blithely by, discussing categories for that weekend’s cyclocross race.
We began gently, discussing bike philosophy and physics. We practiced off-the-bike rhythm drills. Then, Lee let me go to the practice track where there was a manicured series of tiny, even bumps. I survived, perhaps partially because I was too timid to actually get up the necessary entry momentum to complete the course without coasting to a stop.
After that, I followed Lee to the top of a small rise. He asked what I thought about the roughly 20-meter descent in front of us. It didn’t look so bad, until I realized that his actual intent was that I ride off a cement block that some jerk course-builder had positioned right in the middle of the track.
“That looks like a really bad idea,” I declared, this time as two kids rode past, not even pausing in their discussion about the casting in the latest remake of A Cinderella Story.
Lee explained that on a drop, putting all of my weight behind my seat would a) cause me to lose control of my bicycle, and b) give me extra momentum for an over-the-handlebars launch. Motivated to avoid that vision, I extended my arms, centered my weight over the bottom bracket, and was thrilled to return to the parking lot safely.
Surviving that first outing meant I was cleared to visit Lee’s beginner women’s class the following week. I was outmatched from the start in the preparation department. Jealousy filled every inch of my roadie-spandexed body as I looked at some of the women around me, safely protected by knee and elbow pads.
It felt good to learn with riders of my own skill level. Between loops of the practice track we chatted about what worked for us, cheered when it went well, and laughed when it didn’t. I got a compliment on the lavender bike, and nobody crashed—though I was the one to run squarely over the water bottle marking a turn in our cornering skills course.
I kept practicing my mountain bike cornering as I rode home that night, racing sunset across (paved) bike paths. Lee’s opening, can’t-make-this-up promise echoed in my ears: “Instead of ‘danger! danger! danger!’, you are just going to see this sine wave of love propagating in front of you.”
Realistically, I’d say my sine wave remains one of extremely cautious curiosity. Still, I thought, listening to the five-year-old rust on my chain, for the first time, there was hope–and that was a remarkable improvement.
Five tips for beginning mountain bikers
- Wear the gear. I was so jealous of the women in my class who had on elbow and knee pads. I was in no danger of breaking any speed records or impressing anybody with my skills. Having a bit more protection would have helped me feel less timid. As fear was my biggest hurdle, a small dose of confidence could have paid big dividends.
- Use your arms. Note: Using your arms does not mean tensing every single muscle in your upper body in anticipation of certain death. I tested that. One of the actions Lee emphasized was extending my arms as I crested a bump in order to maintain momentum and prepare myself to absorb the next impact. (My road-bike mnemonic device for this was recalling of the importance of pedaling over the crest of a hill to carry speed into the descent.) In general, the more I kept my arms loose and responsive, the better I rode.
- Keep your weight centered. The one thing I was certain that I knew about mountain biking was that you are supposed to get your weight as far back as possible in order to avoid going head first over the bars. Turns out, this is not at all true. Lee explained that if I unweight the front wheel, I will lose traction and my ability to control where I am going—definitely less than ideal. Instead, he recommended trying to keep my weight centered over my bottom bracket.
- Look ahead. Lee’s “sine wave” imagery works on courses that are far from symmetrical. He advised me to look ahead and try to visualize the rhythm of the trail before I got there rather than fixating on the next obstacle. I haven’t mastered the technique yet, but if nothing else, looking ahead gives me advance bail-out warning.
- Find your group. I really enjoyed learning with the entire group on my second lesson with Lee. Chatting while we waited our turn and cheering one another on was a lot more fun than attempting the same challenging skill over and over and over again on my own. Try to find a group that matches your skill level—I may have won a races on the road in the past, but when it came to mountain biking, the beginner’s class was exactly where I belonged.