Back to basics
Riding a bike isn't difficult right? It's something most of us learn as a child and then don't give much more thought to. I wasn't one of those kids that had any particular interest in tricks and such; I could ride no handed if I felt like it and ride with a mate on the crossbar/ handlebars/ saddle if the need arose, but that was about the extent of my prowess.
Coming from a road cycling background and having ridden a bike competantly for many years, I found myself a little out of my depth when I crossed over from tarmac to dirt. I had a lot of fun on my first foray on the trails in January of this year and, after a few outings to different trail centres, using hired bikes available to all, I quickly realised that I'd need to acquire a mountain bike of my own. One I could set up just right for me and have readily available to hunt down new adventures at a moments notice. How exciting!
Getting a bike proved challenging in it's own way (as I'm sure any vertically challenged person can vouch), but was comparatively easy to this off road lark. There was so much more to it than getting yourself sitting comfortably and pedaling! A whole new language to learn for a start and whilst I had no problem understanding it. I couldn't translate these new words in to what I actually had to do on the bike. The road cycling had given me great fitness levels, so to begin with I did alright hitting the trails with no aim other than getting round the course in one piece, and even ventured to some natural trails in the Peak District.
The more I rode, the more I enjoyed it and I began to realise if I was going to get the most out of my off road riding then I was going to have to start right at the beginning with the basics. I'd watched lots "how to" videos but still found it hard to put in to practice.
Cycling has introduced me to some great people, including a crazy trail cat I'd met earlier in the year when I first tried off road biking and always found him positive and encouraging about my progress. So when it came to choosing someone to help me improve he felt like the natural choice - but was he up to the challenge of turning this trail kitten in to a trail cat too? Loving the trails as he does it didn't take much to convince him this was a great idea, and since he has his sights on coaching as a career, this would be a great little experiment for both of us. My experience of riding with him had already taught me that he has a very relaxed way that puts you at ease straight away; perfect for getting you doing things outside your comfort zone then!
Phase one of Operation Madskillz saw us heading to Llandegla, a North Wales trail centre I'd visited a few weeks before and was to prove the perfect location for putting me through my paces. Making our way to the purpose built skills area I felt strangely nervous but my friend was calm and patient, explaining exactly what he wanted me to do clearly before showing me what that looked like then asking me to have a go myself. He broke the techniques down in a way that made sense, giving me instant, helpful feedback and, once I'd mastered the movements that made up the larger techniques, I had the confidence to put those in to practice in a safe environment under his watchful eye before moving to the trails where it really mattered. So what difference did this make to me? Well having been to this very skills area so recently it was easy for me to recall my previous attempts, especially as these had been videoed in the same way my friend was now doing.
I'd done ok on the small jumps but just couldn't land the bigger ones properly at all and I approached the drop offs with a little more caution than they needed, so didn't get those right either. With my friend's guidance I'd gone from just about getting air, catching my back wheel on landing to clearing the jumps with confidence and landing the drop offs smoothly. My mate was just as chuffed as me when I nailed it! And I didn't need to take is word for it either. Pedaling up to the top for another run, I passed two lads who had hit the jumps before me and watched my attempt. "You've got that really dialed in love, much better than me so fair play" said one. I looked across to my friend and he grinned at me like the Cheshire Cat before adding "don't get cocky, now do that again".
The biggest improvements for me were made out on the trails themselves. The skills I'd been shown helped my bike handling no end, putting me in a much better ride position for the obstacles and descents before me. I gained as much as twelve minutes on some of the trail sections I'd done the fortnight before. To my amazement I had even taken myself up to 2nd place on one descent, just one second off the top spot! A very unexpected outcome! Still buzzing from the days achievements, we set off for phase two: The Beast of Coed y Brenin. I'd never been to this trail centre before but had heard great things about it and it being the UK's first trail centre - I was sure it'd be everything I was expecting and more. I wasn't wrong!
By now I knew enough to know my friend would never ask anything of me that he didn't believe me to be capable of, which is a fantastic confidence booster - especially when faced with trails more demanding than those I've ridden before. He'd already warned me I should expect to crash because everyone does; it's all part of it. But I found I didn't so much crash as just come off really slowly at really daft places. I'd hit a rock wrong and just about stop the fall from that but then come off getting going again or lose traction on a climb and doink off to one side. The daftest tumble of all was bouncing off a large root that had a massive sign warning of it's presence, the kind you can't really miss and I didn't! Luckily trail cats, even newly trained ones have many lives, and knee pads! Laughing as I picked myself up I reminded myself not to concentrate so hard on avoiding an obstacle that I end up right on it!
Trying my hardest to remain focused, I rattled down every rocky, rooty, twisty, turny, descent The Beast had to offer with that same familiar aim; to make it in one piece! Reaching the start of a series of sections named after the Adams Family, and my friend's favourite part of the trail we agreed we'd just let fly, no stopping until the end. Taking the lead my friend went first and was soon out of sight. And though nowhere near as quick, by now I was feeling a real difference in my riding. Obstacles that would have had me hesitating before were tackled without pause and finished with a big grin at the end to find my friend perched on a rock grinning back at me.
Getting back to basics had really helped bring my riding on in a way I couldn't have imagined, and I'm super chuffed with how much progress I'd made in such a short time. And of course it helps having a great teacher too! Wherever my next off road adventure takes me I'll be much better able to tackle it for it that's for sure!