Coach’s Column: Improve Skills to Get You on the Podium

Question: What skills do you often see lacking in mountain bike racers at the expert/pro level that can keep them off the podium?   What drills would you give to address those short-comings, and are they best addressed in the off-season?


Answer: As riders make advancements with their fitness it’s important to also improve skill proficiency. The degree to which a racer’s unique skillset matches the demands of a racecourse will certainly affect the likelihood of a podium finish. Most racers have a good sense of what skills they’re proficient with and also what they can continue to improve, at least relative to their competition. At the expert level and especially so in the pro ranks, most riders can stand to improve several aspects of their riding skillset. Gaining technical proficiency can lead to faster lap times without pedaling any harder. Even small improvements can help a lot. Improved skills can yield greater confidence and more focus during a race.

Skills play a huge part in every mountain bike race. Here a rider is tested at the 2015 Moab Rocks stage race. Photo by: Raven Eye Photo

Skills play a huge part in every mountain bike race. Here a rider is tested at the 2015 Moab Rocks stage race. Photo by: Raven Eye Photo

Identifying a rider’s skills profile is a great way to start.  A simple conversation about a racecourse can identify areas to improve upon – whether it is cornering, descending, rocky terrain, mud, jumps, drops, sand, off cambers, etc. The off season provides a BIG chunk of time where improvements can occur, so it’s smart to set some goals and proceed accordingly. Getting more time on the trails can help, as can riding a bike that’s different than the one you typically race on.  Training with bigger tires, more travel, or generally a more capable bike can help to reinforce core skills and allow you to make advancements and gain confidence. These adaptations can carry over when you return to your typical race setup. Revisiting the basics of proper body positioning will allow you to advance on any of these fronts. Get your form and technique dialed in before ramping up the speed. This will ultimately allow you to advance further, plus you’ll be more confident and see the progression.  Think smooth first and allow fast to follow.

If you’re snowed in for the winter and unable to ride outdoors, I’d encourage you to consider a mountain bike training camp. Even if it’s just a three-day weekend you’ll have a ton of fun with it and it’s an excellent way to brush up on your riding skill. The more you’re able to ride trails and actively looking for challenges, the more your skills can develop.  Give it time, keep positive and you’ll continue to improve over the long term.  If you don’t have a great sense for the core riding skills or you want to fast track your improvement I’d suggest seeking out some expert coaching with a skills coach. If you’re investing time into skills training you want to make sure that you’re focusing your attention appropriately.

For many of us the challenge of skill development is what got us hooked on mountain bike riding. Even as your racing ambitions get more serious it’s important to keep committed to the serious fun of developing your skillset. Remember, your fitness will only take you as fast as your skills allow, so it’s important to keep well rounded with your training approach. Enjoy the riding!

Travis Woodruff is a USAC Level I (elite) certified coach who holds a B.S. in Kinesiology with emphasis in Exercise Science. He’s coached riders to five MTB National Championship wins and has over 15 years of personal racing experience. Since 2005 he’s competed as a pro mountain biker and has coached full-time. His business, Momentum Endurance LLC, is based out of Prescott, Arizona.