Mountain bike riders can be classified into roughly two categories depending on age: BMX era and pre-BMX era.
Bicycle motocross, or BMX, started with kids mimicking motorcycle motocross racing, which grew into a serious sport worldwide. Those of us over the age of 35 who were stuck in Little League and/or gravitated toward any sort of endurance sport missed the BMX era. Consequently, we are now forced to hone our balance, coordination and reflexes by playing catch-up with gravity.
For you triathletes and the rest of the pack who landed in other sports or other commitments, you'll have to learn to loosen up. Most of us who come from a road bike background hold ourselves in a rigid, static position while riding.
On a mountain bike, you need to stay loose and keep your body in a constant state of fluid animation. Frustration and anxiety are not emotions you want to bring with you when you ride. As soon as the ride ceases to be fun, you might as well hang up your bike because you are no longer learning anything.
The first thing to remember about relaxing is to avoid the tendency to hold your breath. Breathe deeply with a controlled rhythmic pattern of out-breaths. Try to time your exhaled breaths with the rise and fall of the cranks and the flow of the terrain. Once in motion, take a moment to flap your elbows and legs as you descend. This will help loosen your body.
The best way to remember lessons learned on a trail is to analyze a particular trail's conditions and determine a realistic, progressive course of action. Decide in advance, for example, how you're going to scramble up that steep slope, or that you'll use that rock in the middle of the trail for a ramp to get air.
Try to avoid thinking of things like rocks and branches as obstacles; they are, rather, conditions of nature. You did not come to the woods to conquer nature; you came instead to co-exist with it. When you fail—and we all fail—try again.
Let's say you're trying to jump a particular log, and maybe you've tried a couple of times unsuccessfully to get over the thing. Rather than accept the frustration of failure, step back and downscale to a slightly smaller log, then proceed. When you succeed with the smaller log, reinforce the successful procedure several times to boost your confidence.
Always pre-run a particularly difficult section of terrain or a certain task like jumping the log. Always build your confidence by repeating something you did well several times before moving on to the next obstacle. For most of us, progress comes from combining self-analysis, observation and a healthy respect for our own personal learning curves.
I recommend riding with and imitating experienced riding partners; just make sure you don't try to progress too rapidly. My first experience learning to ski taught me about that pitfall.
I was progressing nicely with the other beginners on my skis until my more experienced friends challenged me. With more ego than brains, I abandoned the lessons and leapt up the ladder in leaps and bounds. The results were predictable: I ended up tackling slopes I wasn't yet ready for, failing and then losing valuable self-confidence, which slowed my learning curve to a crawl.
A better approach would have been to constantly take mental notes of my friends' methods and repeat techniques on my own, gradually taking the degree of difficulty a bit further each time. Pushing the envelope of adventure does not mean your mistakes have to be paid for in flesh and blood. Progressing slowly may require a bit more patience, but it means you will be less likely to take self-destructive risks.
This methodical, progressive technique helped me safely set the bicycle land speed record of 152 mph. Later, a challenger who attempted to break the record by progressing too quickly broke 13 bones instead.
Just as imitation and slow progression are important for learning radical techniques, you may fail, but remember: failure isnt fatal nor is success forever. If you fall, big deal, get up and try it again until you get it right.
If you are just transforming from road to dirt, descending will be an experience you won't forget. You can look forward to returning home tired and dirty, maybe even a bit scraped, but more importantly, you will feel good about yourself. Riding off-road is exhilarating, and after you have traversed the element of defeat a few times, the fun will come in spades.
Four-time NORBA National Champion John Howard conducts off-road and road camps and clinics through the School of Champions.