Damn, I missed the Pinnacle again! My favorite race that I never make it to! And it turned out to be an awesome and slick course with a 20-strong elite class -- this race is absolutely on my 2010 calendar, I can't wait to find out why I'll have to miss it next year!
Luckily I have the best excuse, ever -- 2 days, 7 people, 8 hours, 67 miles at the Kingdom!
I have written enough about how much I like the place, so we can skip the ride recap. If you've never been you should go, and if you somehow manage to not enjoy it -- you should probably sell your mountain bike.
The weekend companions were top-notch and I had very little to do with it, turns out that Linnea has made it into the elite women's clique so I had pros in various states of non-retirement (Lyne Bessette and Sara Bresnick-Zocchi) to entertain me for the weekend. Did I ever push the pace in an attempt to drop the pro women, you might ask? And did I succeed in this endeavor? Some questions are better left unanswered.
Also entertaining me, albeit in a non-pro fashion, were Kate, Rosey and Doctor Cruise. Rosey was ridiculously active with the camera and Twitter, so if you're here to stalk me he'll probably throw out even more content on his blog one of these days.
My brain was feeling kind of empty (probably because I didn't try to memorize what happened at every second of a two-hour race, for once) so it started collecting some thoughts on riding a mountain bike. I've been racing mountain bikes since I was 7 or 8 or something -- seriously, 3rd in the kids race at the Bromont World Cup in 1991? Right here, baby. -- so I really should be able to string a coherent sentence together about technical riding. But I've never tried!
It's especially silly because if you asked me how to improve your nordic skiing technique I could give you a 3-page email and about 10 different drills to start with. But that's because people teach that stuff -- no one really teaches riding a mountain bike, everyone just "does it" and then some people magically become "good technical riders" and some people don't.
Anyhow. I keep trying to ride faster downhill, because I keep racing people who are faster than me uphill. I think I'm getting a little faster descending each year. Let's try talking about it instead of pretending that it's magic!
First off, dude, get off your seat. Sitting down is letting the bike do the driving, and since it's an inanimate object it doesn't drive very well. If you're tired, you can straighten your legs and arms to get some rest on the smooth parts. This is definitely not exclusive to hardtails, just because you might be able to sit on your dualie without being castrated doesn't mean you should. Stand up and show that bike who's boss.
Second. LET IT RUN. Your body and bike are only loosely connected. Your body weighs a lot more than the bike -- the bike can do a lot of crazy stuff before it actually affects your body's trajectory. If you don't need to turn, get off the brakes, keep your arms and legs loose and let the bike pick up speed while crashing into and over whatever's in the way. As long as the bike is roughly positioned under your body and doesn't hit anything really big (really big = 1/3rd the height of your wheel), you're good to go. Sometimes it even gets smoother as you pick up speed, since you're bouncing across the top of stuff instead of dropping into the troughs.
Eventually you'll see a corner coming up, and then you'll need to get some semblance of control back. But just because you need to get down to 10 mph to make the next turn doesn't mean you have to go 10 mph the entire time you can see it. If you weren't going to a bunch of hard/late braking, why the heck did you drop the money on hydraulic brakes? I rest my case.
Ok, corners. Cornering on a bike requires leaning your body in, which is pretty goddamn terrifying on a mountain bike at speed. Unlike road or (generally) cross, you probably don't have a consistent surface to turn on, so pushing yourself to the edge of traction only means you're taking a soil sample when you hit that root in the middle of the turn. MTB cornering isn't about getting to the edge of traction, it's about getting near it and then staying upright when you slip.
When I'm trying to carry speed through a dicey corner I look for only one thing -- a "bailout" rock, root, or berm that I can trust to lean into. If there's anything that looks suitable, take your line just to the inside of your bailout obstacle and stay loose -- if anything starts going wrong, you can loosen your turning radius (or more likely, a slipping tire will loosen it for you) and then BAM, carom off the obstacle and you're back on track.
In other words, look for stuff that's gonna help you make the turn, instead of fixating on all the stuff that might take you out.
If it's a smoother turn or a tight one at the end of a high-speed straight, you can also use the "outrigger" technique to push a much harder lean than you'd otherwise be comfortable with. On a fast smooth turn you can clip out your inside foot and hang it out and forward a bit, and the psychological boost of knowing you aren't going rip your elbow off if you lose traction is huge. If you were really awesome you wouldn't need the mental help -- but since you read this, you probably do. If it's a tight turn you might want to do a little back wheel drift to get around it, so since you're actually planning to lose traction, hanging the foot out should give you the guts to do it right.
Ok, that's about all I thought of for specifics this weekend, and there's obviously a lot more to riding technical stuff fast than I just wrote. Stay tuned. In the meantime, you can practice your skills(z) with my two favorite recreational riding games:
The Big Ring Game
Like everything good in life, I picked this one up from Adam Craig. It's as simple as it sounds -- all big-ring, all the time. A fully cross-chained big ring is way easier than the gears Thom P pushes for a 2-hour race, so I don't want to hear about how this is unreasonable. This is basically the reason singlespeeders are so fast. Big gears make you ride faster and climb harder, plus you're standing up most the time instead of sitting down like a dualie-riding couch potato, so maybe you'll figure out how much easier it is to hammer through technical stuff when you're off your fat butt this way.
No Brakes Game
A lot of times you're out on a solo ride, or a social ride, and you don't feel like going anaerobic, leaving a rooster tail of dirt on each corner, risking your life, or anything else that would help you descend faster. Maybe it's a recovery ride or some bunk like that, in any case, you don't feel like working hard. No worries, just start playing the No Brakes Game on every corner and you'll be out of your comfort zone in no time -- and into your "finding-out-what's-physically-possible-zone."
I'm not talking about bouncing off a tree at 30mph to make a turn without brakes, I'm just saying, you know that little brake tap you did there? Try skipping it. This turn you might absentmindedly drag a little brake on? Don't do it.
You'll be thinking about riding faster in no time, which has a lot more training value than thinking about drinking a beer or whatever else you usually do when you're riding your favorite trail.
You might notice that all of these things require you to actually ride a mountain bike. Maybe that should have been tip #1.
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