We’ve all been there. The feeling of impending doom when we are riding along merrily on a trail and then we approach a technical rocky or drop descent or climb.
The conversation starts in our brain, ala panic mode: “What am I supposed to do, how am I supposed to do it? OMG What if I try and I FALL???” And this conversation usually ends with: “I’ll just walk it. I don’t need to prove anything... Next time I’ll do it…” followed with brakes applied to a screeching stop and then a not so elegant dismount off the bike… Sound familiar??
Yup. This was me. Literally at every ride at a bike park. At every MTB race. Chicken mode #LevelBoss.
I would watch my friends and other MTB Weekend Warriors fearlessly speed over features and I would chicken out. Don’t get me wrong – I occasionally did try, and yes there were crashes and bruises, but majority of the time I just couldn’t do it.
And then I started slowing down. I started getting left behind. And with that came the good old “why am I not as fast as x” conversation (Self talk is a real thing people!). The simple answer: Just like everything else in your life, you need to learn how to do something. And more importantly – you need someone to teach you.
When I started cycling – my husband took on the responsibility (thanks babe) to get me rolling through the trails on my bike. It was an awesome way for us to spend time together, but to be honest, it must have been extremely frustrating for him. He couldn’t get it when I flaked out, or when I slowed down when I got scared. He’d be riding bikes for almost 20 years on and off, and he couldn’t relate to an adult learning to do something scary.
His idea of riding is the slower you go the more likely you will fall. He would encourage me to go fast over rocky sections, which to me was the worst. I couldn’t compute that – speed and control to me were two different things at the time.
Hindsight is always a powerful thing. After three years of on and off development – I finally decided to invest in skills. I have attended group skills lessons, had one on one sessions and have watched numerous videos and read kick ass blogs on how to be a shredder on the trail. So, here is what I have learnt:
It’s all about body position
I recently attended a skills day with the Ride Like A Girl team thanks to my riding partner Mads (best birthday present ever). At the start of this session Victoria introduced this concept that I had heard so many times before in a very interesting way. She explained that when you approach a feature on the trail, you have to be connected to your bike and that you have to trust it to do what it needs to do.
Easier said than done right? But then she said something I didn’t hear before – to do this, you have to have heavy feet and light hands.
Here’s what that means: to have balance on the bike you need to be as connect to the bike as possible. This means that your weight needs to be at the centre of the bike (between the two wheels) at all times. You need to put all of your weight on your pedals. You have to centre your feet, drop your heels and if you do this right, the bike can move underneath you – and you will remain 100% solid.
You also have to ensure that your arms are in the correct position as well as your chest. My coach, Sarah, always says “Boobs2Bar” which literally means bend your elbows outwards, lower your chest and that enables you to maintain that centre of gravity. This allows your bike to move and helps you stay on the bike when going through an obstacle. Trust me – this works. It really works.
It’s about the shoes
I have a confession to make. When I approach a feature I am uncertain about, the first thought that goes through my mind is about falling. And more prevalent than that – it’s about being attached to my bike if I fall. And then I unclip my shoes…
So at the recent RideLikeAGirl skills day – I decided to do something different. I replaced my Crank Bro’s Candy Apple pedals for the day with flats. Don’t get me wrong, I was absolutely apprehensive at the start. I was so worried I wasn’t going to be able to get up the hills because I had been riding cleats since 2016 and was convinced that I couldn’t do that on flats.
And… I loved it. I was forced to do something I have never done before – use my whole weight to stay connected to the bike. I felt like I was more in control. I used muscles in my legs that I never knew existed – and my pedal stroke (which I had been working on for a while) just naturally clicked into place. I felt amazing.
I could approach the features with confidence. Instead of worrying about un-cleating in case anything went wrong – I could actually focus on the technique, on the feature, on feeling 100% connected to my bike. It was incredible
It’s all about the community
Learning from bad ass trail shredding women is the way to go!
Women explain things to other women in a language, and with reference, that makes it relatable and understandable. And when you put a group of women together – wow.
It just takes that learning experience up a notch.
You become braver when you are surrounded by strong women.
You become stronger when you ride in front or trail behind strong women.
And you feel instantly supported when you learn in a group.
It’s about working it
You have to consistently practice skills. It doesn’t matter if you are gravel grinding to build up those TITS (time in the saddle) or shredding on single tracks at trail parks – you have to consistently check the fundamentals. You have to feel the bike – you have to apply your skills and you have to try and do it better. And when you think you have it down, start again. Go back, learn more. This is how you control your bike. This is how you build your confidence and this is how you get faster.
So, here’s what to do if you want to be a better mountain biker:
Get a skills coach or join ladies’ specific skills lessons. Start with the basic fundamentals and repeat. And when you are braver, progress. A skills coach has the ability to understand where you are at. They have the ability to record you, and show you what you are doing wrong. It’s worth it.
Here’s who I have used:
Sarah Hill (The Threshold Coaching https://www.thethreshold.coach/): I’m lucky enough to do bi-monthly one on one sessions with Sarah. Most of the time we just have a blast on the bike – but we also ensure that we work on what scares me on the trail. We use the sessions to prepare for terrains that I want to race. This is a massive confidence booster.
Ride Like A Girl (https://masteringmtbskills.com/ride-like-a-girl/): this organisation is incredible. The way that Victoria and Wessel coach is relatable. I learnt so much in a single day with them – and if you go through their skills plan, from fundamentals (which you can repeat 3 times at no extra cost) to intermediate and even one on one sessions – you will be a force to be reckoned with on the trails.
Ride at a bike park. Not one that you are comfortable with – but at one that puts you out of your comfort zone. I usually go to Wolwespruit Trail park in Pretoria for my skills sessions with Sarah. There is so much variety at this park (from slippery roots, bridges, rocks, switchbacks and technical climbing and downhills) to help you progress. What’s really great is that you can go on your own (its super safe) – and focus on practicing what you learnt whenever you need.
Get flat pedals for those sessions you plan to work on skills. I know that there is massive controversy about this – but when you are learning to do something – take the complexity out of it. It’s easier to learn something on flats and apply it to cleats than the other way around. It forces you to adjust your position in a way that naturally gives you control on your bike. And when you are comfortable with something – use your cleats to repeat it. You will become faster this way. You will become more confident. I know I am going to do it!
Take control of YOU! You are the master of your fate. You are the person that knows your limit. But don’t let this hold you back. Do not be afraid to try. And if you don’t feel 100% committed – then don’t do it. Come back – and try again when your headspace is better.
Set yourself a goal. One of the easiest ways to do this is to enter a race that is a little bit outside your comfort zone. If you have a goal – you can focus your skills learning efforts to achieve that goal. I used Attakwas as my goal last year. In my sessions with Sarah I focused on technical climbing and descending last year – and as a result I went so much faster during the race. I approached each obstacle with confidence because I know we had practiced it during the year. And this resulted in the best possible outcome – I HAD FUN!!!! It was incredible to be in that position.
Find your tribe. There are incredible groups of women who have the same goal as you – to ride your bike and have fun doing it. All you have to do is look. Here are some suggestions:
DirtyHeartSquad (https://www.dirtyheart.co.za/dirtyheart-squad): I have met some incredible women in this squad. Join the community and meet up for rides!
Girls Support Girls (https://web.facebook.com/pages/category/Sports-Club/Girls-Support-Girls-2371789809554927/?_rdc=1&_rdr): Based in Johannesburg – this group of women do anything bike related together. From high paced road riding to trail shredding at the Spruit and Cradle coffee rides – they are the most supportive and encouraging bunch of women I have ever met.
You have got this! I believe in you...