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My first Mountain Bike Lesson: Behold the power of feedback

Looking out over NZ's vast mountain ranges.
When I first started mountain biking, I thought I was alright. I'd been riding bikes my whole life, and I was confident that I knew what I was doing. But all that changed when I got to New Zealand.

I was working and riding in Rotorua, and I quickly realized that the level of riding there far outweighed anything I'd experienced before. These Kiwis were good, and they made it look easy. I felt like I was back at square one, and I knew I needed to up my game if I was going to keep up.

That's when I decided to take a mountain biking lesson. I figured, what the heck, maybe there were some tricks to it that I didn't know.

So there I was, ripping down a logging road with my instructor on the way to the trails. He asked me to show him my body position for descending single track. Easy, I thought, as I hung my torso back on the bike as far as I could, basically buzzing my butt on the rear tire, death-gripping the bars. I'd watched the videos, every mountain biker knows this.

When in doubt, weight back! Right ?

This was the moment when my world was flipped upside down. Behold to me, bikes have changed an awful lot since the early XC days, and thanks to the wonderful invention of dropper posts, there was a new technique, a better way of riding that I had no idea about.

My instructor went on to teach me the ins and outs of riding in a centered body position, along with a bunch of other foundational skills that needed tuning. But this small change in body position alone is what still sticks with me today. I could have learned nothing else in that two-hour lesson and it still would have been worth its weight in gold.

Looking back on my early days of riding as a teenager, I laugh now, not at how bad I was, but at how little I knew. I remember thinking that washing out and losing the front tire on every third or fourth corner was normal. I remember thinking achy arms and wrists were just part of riding mountain bikes, not bad setup or technique.

It's these memories that keep that first lesson current today. If I ever find myself "sliding into the backseat" or putting my weight back as I approach something steep, I remember that first lesson and correct myself before it's too late.

Not only are the Kiwis excellent riders, they also have a great sense of humor.

These days, now that I work as a professional mountain bike coach myself, I see this story play out over and over again with different riders I work with. We change something very small in their technique or mental approach, and suddenly, everything gets easier, like a lightbulb moment.

I have come across many a rider who comes into the lesson thinking they need to reinvent the wheel, but in reality, needs only slight adjustments to their technique or mindset. These changes could be as simple as their 'foot-pedal-position' or their self-talk before dropping in. And while these may seem like minor changes, they can lead to significant realizations that there is a better way to ride. Often, small adjustments in technique and body position can make a considerable difference in the overall riding experience.

The moral of the story is that we don't know what we don't know.

Oftentimes, riders (myself included) spend their days riding as much as possible, practicing on lots of varied terrain. You have a fair idea of what it is you should be doing. But are you doing it?

In my case, I knew back then that I needed to lower my center of mass to increase stability, but I didn't know that the way I was going about it sucked.

I now know that feedback is the critical component that is lacking for many riders.

We can watch all the videos, ask for all the tips from pro friends, and practice all we like. But if we don't have a trained eye to analyze our riding and deliver the right feedback at the right moment, we're going to keep riding around in circles of mediocrity.

That first lesson in New Zealand was a game-changer for me. I've gone on to take numerous more lessons, training, and coaching courses for my riding, but I do truly believe that because of that experience, even a single lesson can provide growth and insight that you'll remember for years to come. Because of that, these days I’m lucky to crash badly once a year and my body feels better when I get off the bike than when I get on it - not the other way around.

So 10 years later that one 3-hour lesson with a Professional Instructor is still paying dividends. My only regret is that I didn’t take it sooner.

See you on the trails - Jake



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