This particular post was originally inspired from a session I had a with a student several months ago. Despite having regular 1:1 coaching sessions and riding further than ever before on more technical trails, they felt like they were struggling with their development.
After a somewhat elongated conversation to determine the cause of this nagging feeling, we managed to isolate the culprit: the need for speed. That desire to ride faster. To prove to others and yourself that you're a competent mountain biker because your top speed is increasing. After all, if you fill up Strava with a continuous stream of PRs, you must be getting better... right?
Fast forward to the present and throughout the numerous students that join us, there is still a common perception that being a better rider means being able to keep up with the person in front of you. It seems that being able to go fast is the most popular measure of your ability to ride well. Unfortunately, focusing on speed, trying to keep up with the person in front of you can actually slow you down.
I will even admit to being caught up in the whole need for speed thing for many years. Constantly checking my PRs after every ride, trying to figure out how I would scrape out a few more seconds from a time by trying to determine how reckless I could be around a corner or if I could just take that scary jump a little bit faster, I focused on fitness and out right pedaling speed to improve.
Which in hindsight was crazy - because I hate pedaling. I eventually plateaued, due in part to small wheels, poor fitness and that whole dislike of pedaling. So I began to search for other ways of becoming faster.
And then I discovered something that is sometimes just a whisper in the winds on the trails - technique.
During one of our recent courses, Harry, a talented young rider, focused on trying to keep up with me through a series of corners. As we progressed further into the section, he began to fall further and further behind. In discussing this with Harry, he admitted to being on the edge of control (or out of it) while trying to keep up with me and not focusing on his riding technique. When we repeated the exercise but with Harry focusing on his own riding and his cornering technique, he stayed much closer.... almost too close. Geez kids learn fast. But I digress...
Technique is that thing that a lot of mountain bikers like to believe they have mastered. In some cases, it's quite possibly true. But in a lot of cases, riders simply point to their Strava times and say to themselves "A new PR! I must be getting better!"
In actual fact, the reality is they're likely getting fitter, but not necessarily more skillful.
Don't get me wrong. There are obviously a lot of really fast, fit and skillful riders out on the trails. But they're skillful because they've actually focused on refining their skills, not just because their physical endurance has increased.
As a person trying to improve your mountain bike riding skills, it's easy to fall into the trap that riding faster means your riding better. That riding more and more kilometers means that your skills are improving.
Yes, you'll get some improvement by virtue of being on the bike and tackling different types of terrain over time. What you won't necessarily achieve however, is an improvement in your core riding skills - cornering, braking, pumping the trail, low speed balance... the list goes on.
These skills, the core riding skills, often require you to slow down, refine the technique and consciously repeat and practice the skill until your body and mind accept the motions you've ingrained into your subconscious as second nature. And once you've done that, the exercise of taking these skills to the trails should also be done slowly, gradually building up your speed as you become more confident and natural.
Why gradually? Because it's all too easy to get caught back up in the whole speed thing and throw out the correct technique as you chase those elusive seconds down. And then you just end up reinforcing poor technique instead of the correct skills.
So if you really do want to become a more skilled mountain biker rather than just a fitter, stronger rider, put some of your riding time aside to practice some core riding skills. It will make you a safer and more confident rider who will be able to find flow on the trails much easier.
And ironically, you'll likely end up riding faster than before, but hopefully more grace and style!