What are the most frequently asked questions on a skills day? We asked Dirt School’s Andy Barlow.
1. How do I jump?
In short, practise. Nothing is easy the first time you try and learning how to jump properly will take a while to master. When you see kids making it look easy it’s because you’re probably watching the 50th time they’ve been in the air that day. On top of that they’ve been coming to that same jump spot every day for weeks. That’s a lot of practise. If you want to improve your jumping, find an easy jump that has a mellow gradient and a smooth landing and be prepared to ride it a few times. Every time you roll over it, concentrate on resisting the energy that is trying to buckle your arms and legs. Instead, try and anticipate that collapse and power back into it with your legs. Pushing your body weight back into a jump like that, and driving through the whole shape, should make it feel like you are in control of the jump instead of the jump being in control of you.
2. I come into corners with good speed but I lose it all in the turn and come trickling out the other side. What am I missing?
To exit a corner with speed you need to build momentum. Think about it this way: if you were to stand up right now and jump o the ground, what would you need to do in order for your feet to leave the ground? Presumably you’d start by bending your knees in order to get closer to the ground and gather potential energy. Then you’d push away from the ground by straightening your legs so that all of your weight gets thrown upward. Exiting a corner with momentum is very similar. As you sink further into a bend, you should be driving your weight away by gradually straightening your legs.
This will build energy and allow you to accelerate as you progress. Balancing this drive from your legs with the amount of traction you have is the secret to controlling your grip and exiting with speed.
3. Bend your arms, get your body low, look ahead… there’s enough to remember about body position let alone how to actually ride. So where do I start? How do I go about improving my technique? Should I just think about one thing on each ride? Or on every trail?
The best way to improve is to be specific and set goals. To start with you have to work on one thing at a time. Body position is key. After a while though, we encourage our riders to break apart a technical trail and look for things like grip points over larger or tricky features, lines that set you up better for corners, and drops or steeper sections where you have to be low in order to stay neutral. Ideally you should work your way down and try each of these sections a few times so that you feel you have your head wrapped around it and your technique is smooth before you progress to the next.
On your way back up to do another run of the same trail, you should be really specific about what each one of those processes were. Almost as if you were making a list in your head. The goal in doing a full run is not to go fast. It’s to execute everything on your list as smoothly as you did when you were practising. Tick every one of them off neatly and with confidence. If you make a mistake don’t panic, instead go back to your list immediately and focus on whatever was next on it. If you can do that then your time or speed will speak for itself and your technique will continue to improve.
4. I feel confident riding my local trails, they’re loose and loamy and natural, but head anywhere else – it doesn’t even have to be gnarlier or steeper – and I don’t seem to be able to adapt. What am I doing wrong? What can I do to change this?
Riding new locations can be difficult. A large part of it will be that your mind is so busy reacting to all of the features and turns that you won’t have any time to think about much else. You have to make so many decisions in order to deal with what’s coming up in front of you that any weakness in your technique will suddenly become exposed.
A good way of dealing with this is to have deliberate checks where you get a rest in your decision making. Every time the trail calms down, notice what your body position is doing. Are you stood up? Or have you started to shrink backward in your stance? Are your elbows bent? Or are you in self-defence mode with your arms locked out? Are you braking where it’s safe? Or are you trying to catch your mates and carrying too much speed everywhere, resulting in you braking in all the difficult bits?
Being honest with your reflection will set the tone for whatever is ahead of you on the trail. Just because you messed the first few corners up, it doesn’t mean your whole day will be a disaster. It only takes a split-second to change from an unrealistic goal of trying to ride fast on something that you’ve never seen before, to deliberately having good technique resulting in confidence over unfamiliar terrain.
5. The Skills section in mbr new and extra weight is the push tells me having my outside foot all the way down when cornering is a bad idea, the logic being I can’t then push harder for more grip. But I can’t feel that pressure through my foot anyway, so I have no idea when to push more or less. What should I feel?
The push we often recommend in the Dirt School skills articles refers to the amount of strength that a rider uses to drive their body weight back against the trail. Look at it like this. If you are freewheeling along a at surface, then the amount of ‘push’ that you’re exerting is no different than standing in a queue at the supermarket. You’re holding your body weight up against the effects of gravity. That’s it. However, when you start to roll through things like jumps or corners, the trail will exert an additional force back against you as it changes direction. The amount of extra force that you have to exert in order to not buckle under that
that we often advise.
I wouldn’t say that you feel it through your feet any more than you feel the additional force of climbing stairs through your feet. Instead, you should think of it as standing up, and using the power available in your legs against an increase in the forces acting upon you – same as you do when lifting your weight up a ight of stairs.
Keeping your feet level with the surface you are on gives you more room to use your legs, and more strength and control over how much force you can push back against.
This is all a consequence of the equation for centripetal force – mass times velocity squared divided by the radius – which is basically what I describe every month. How does this translate to the trail? The faster you go, the more you weigh, or the tighter the turn, the more you have to push to balance the centripetal force out. No need to get your calculator out, but interesting all the same.