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Mountain bike skills training with Gene Hamilton: Part 2

Posted by: Jen Hanks |August 10, 2012 10:42 PM
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Written by: Jen Hanks

I recently had the opportunity to work individually with Gene Hamilton, head skills coach with BetterRides.  As I mentioned in my pre-lesson write-up, I participated in a 2010 clinic, practiced the skill drills provided, and subsequently improved dramatically.  However being over a year and a half out from the clinic, I wanted and quite frankly needed, some fine-tuning.

We met at 10:00 sharp on a trailhead that Gene was familiar with in Park City and went over a few of the topics I wanted to cover.  The first thing Gene did was look at my bike set-up.   He suggested a wider handlebar.  My current 24” wide bar is a good but 2-3 inches narrower than what he would recommend.  He also pointed out that my stem is a bit high, but due to my fork set-up I can’t run a lower stem without lengthening it. In Gene’s opinion, and I agree, the shorter/higher stem versus the longer/lower stem is preferred.  Finally, he suggested I try a drop seat-post especially when riding highly technical trails. 

I could go into detail about all of the skills we practiced, and I will touch on some key techniques I learned, but first I would like to talk about why I think Gene’s methodology is so successful at improving skills for all levels of riders from long-time pros to novices.

First, Gene truly is an expert at teaching proper mountain bike skills.  He has dedicated his life to learning proper technique and how to effectively teach it to others.  I learned that Gene is continually improving his skills as a coach by analyzing video, reading books on how to effectively teach, and working with some of the best technical riders in the world.  One of his mantras is to "be a student everyday”, this applies to him as well as his clinic participants.  Even top pros, like Ross Schnell and Sue Haywood, have benefitted from Gene’s instruction, learning new or different skills to help them gain a few seconds here or there.  Additionally, the curriculum Gene has created focuses on the foundational skills of mountain biking including proper body position and technique and he provides skill drills that can be practiced both in a parking lot and on the trail.  He points out that it takes countless hours of practice to learn a new skill, however, unfortunately, the old (improper) skill takes just as long to be unlearned.  He jokes that the best thing that can happen to someone after a clinic would be a huge snowstorm forcing the student to practice skills for 6 weeks in a parking garage!  Finally, Gene’s proper technique allows a rider to feel more stable on the bike.  After mastering a skill, you feel like you are riding slower, because you are more in control, however your time is faster.  You don’t have to be a downhill daredevil to go faster!

Here are some of the key things we reviewed/discussed/practiced:

Vision, vision, vision:  It's what separates us from the roadies.  Gene strongly recommends pre-riding racecourses and dialing in visual reference points to help rail blind corners or overgrown trails.  He also recommends staying about 25 ft. behind a similarly skilled rider on a downhill. This allows you to see visual hazards (i.e. rocks) that could result in lost time or a mechanical.  This does not apply if you are more skilled and planning on passing!

Steep climbs:  When climbing steep pitches on the 29er, because of the longer chainstay length, sitting up  taller as opposed to getting low helps keep rear tire traction. Totally works! 

Steep downhills:   80% of braking power comes from the front brake, so if you want to maintain control on a steep downhill you need to be able to use your front brake without skidding.  To do this, contrary to what I had been practicing, weight needs to be a bit farther forward.  This trick worked for me immediately as I felt much more in control of my bike even on the steep loose descents of the Galena Grinder.

Switchbacks:  Brake harder going into them so that you go into the turn more controlled and use the 2nd half of the turn to increase speed and exit faster.   By doing this, you maintain an overall higher speed.  Yep, this totally works too!  Note: It is okay to hold brakes to scrub speed through a tight turn, but it is not okay (will result in lost traction) to let go of the brakes and then grab them again later in the turn. 

The rest of the session was spent discussing teaching philosophies, approaches to training, and race strategies.  In addition to Gene’s mantra of "be a student everyday”, he had many quotes that resonated with me. "Enjoy the process” and "Be the best you can be, everyday” were some of my favorites and pretty much sum up my approach to training and racing this year.  I truly look forward to the drills, practice, and subsequent mastery of skills resulting in increased speed and faster race times. 

Check in later for an update on how my skills training is going and how mastery of my new bike skills have affected my race times.   

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