It was my husband’s idea to buy me a mountain bike lesson. While I’m fine going uphill or snaking along a groomed trail it’s a different story when it comes to rooty descents and drops.
Too often he’s had to help me up off the muddy ground, or shaken his head in disbelief when I’ve given up on a drop off because ‘there’s a scary root’, or waited for me at the bottom of a descent while I slid down on my backside.
Buying me a mountain bike lesson was his quite large hint that it was time to improve my skills.
Frankly, I was dreading it. I knew that there was no point in having a lesson that covered the stuff I was comfortable with. If I was going to make any progress I would have to trust my instructor to guide me through two hours of riding out of my comfort zone.
With this in mind, I devised a cunning plan to avoid doing anything remotely scary for the entire lesson: talking, continually – maybe so much that we never actually get out of the car park. I may not be so hot on the downhill skills, but talking? I am expert.
Fortunately my instructor, Richard Kelly from All Biked Up, was not one to be fooled. A decade of mountain bike tuition means his patience is as finely honed as his riding ability and we were soon heading onto the trails at a relaxed pace as if we were on a normal ride, having a nice time.
So what do you want to get out of this lesson?
Richard asked. Guessing that a cup of tea and some cake wasn’t the right answer I confessed that, to be honest, it wasn’t that I wanted to go faster down hill: I just wanted to be able to feel confident about doing it “I’ve had enough of being scared” I said.
Luckily it transpired that this was the ‘right’ answer as, according to Richard, anyone can go fast (“except me” I interjected) but that doesn’t mean they’re riding as well as they could, nor – more importantly – riding safely.
It was a relief to learn that the lesson would not involve a baptism of downhill, root strewn fire. Instead we went to Richard’s ‘office’ – a flat piece of trail where we went back to basics on riding position. Richard produced an iPad from his pocket and photographed my riding style – poor foot position, too much bending at the hip and not enough at the knee. The result? Head too far forward, resulting in a lack of balance that was an over the bars face-plant waiting to happen.
Richard’s advice to look up up, keep my heels down, flex my knees and keep my tail bone tucked under to avoid getting ahead of the bike’s forward movement reminded me of learning to horse ride. Transferring the skills, while easier said than done, makes perfect sense as both disciplines are so dependent on balance. The mountain bike downhill position – straight arms, heels down and knees bent so that my bum almost touched the back wheel initially seemed like the perfect way to lose control: but when put into practice it instantly turned the bike into a wobble-free speeding arrow.
He also adjusted my cleats to make dropping my heels easier, adjusted the seat height and listened patiently as I went into far too much detail about the fact that my padded shorts kept getting caught on my saddle when I dropped back (since put right with a padded knickers and running leggings combo).
We progressed to a small drop where I could practice my new skills. I was still talking for England, though now it was mostly ‘Can I just try that once more’ as I dropped down over and over again in an effort to undo my bad habits and turn myself into Rachel Atherton. Two hours later I’d learnt loads, proved that I don’t like to give up on a challenge (even if it is only a two foot drop) and hadn’t been scared once.
With the lesson almost over we headed off in the direction of the car park. I was flooded with relief that I hadn’t had to do any technical downhill AT ALL – until Richard veered off the trail into what I knew only too well to be a testing, twisty, very rooty, singletrack.
At the end of the singletrack you can turn right and roll down steeply to join the main trail below, which I’d managed before, or head left into a longer downhill section with a sheer drop that I’d never dared go near.
“You can go first” said Richard. So now I was really going to have to put into practice what I’d learnt – or risk ending my lesson in an ambulance. It was at this point that I finally stopped talking.
Under Richard’s constant stream of instruction –
Ignore the roots, look at your exit points, heels down, bend your knees
And with his front wheel seemingly two inches behind my bike, we sped toward the bottom of the first descent at a speed that was, for me, unchartered territory. I was really enjoying myself as the right turn came into view – and then Richard uttered the words I really didn’t want to hear:
Now go left!
Suddenly, I was on a trail I’d never ridden before, going faster than I’d ever gone before, heading for a drop that, two hours ago, would have had me in tears. I froze as the bike rolled up and round the approach but – with Richard’s now much louder instruction to “get behind the saddle and BEND YOUR KNEES’ ringing in my ears – I sank backwards and rode over the top.
I am happy to report that not only did I survive (you know this already obviously, or else how else would I have written this?), but, for a very brief few seconds (we really were going quite quickly) everything suddenly dropped into place, felt right, felt fantastic in fact – and I didn’t want the trail to end. As we shot out of the bottom I was grinning from ear to ear.
I can safely say that I learnt more about riding a mountain bike in that two hour lesson than I’ve learnt in the last five years of riding. I still need lots of practice (and probably more tuition) to undo my old habits and make my new skills my default setting, but my mountain bike lesson was definitely worth getting a little scared for.
With thanks to Richard Kelly from All Biked Up in the Surrey Hills.