Dig In: Pack Your Bags, We're Going to Camp
By Katherine Fuller | IMBA Communications Manager
There is a badass in me trying half-heartedly to get out—a woman who wants tattoos and purple hair and to be a freerider who shreds gnar in Dr. Martin’s. But in reality, I'm as practical as a little black dress (one that's made of wrinkle-free material) and my self-preservation instinct goes to eleven. I do own a pair of Doc boots but, needless to say, my mountain biking abilities have plateaued since I started riding four years ago, and I believe it has to do with my overactive need to know.
I finally understand Nike's slogan, "Just Do It." Some people are naturally wired that way; they will go out and do something over and over until they figure it out and improve. I'm more of an “All Things Considered” person, who wants to understand what needs to happen and dons knowledge like a suit of armor. Without it, I feel unable to charge into battle, whether that battle is a professional meeting or a technical trail.
This is Going to Solve All of My Problems, Right?
I’ll admit that when I signed up for a women-only mountain bike skills clinic with Trek Dirt Series, I was anticipating that it would be the apogee of my riding experience so far; the knowledge gained would offer a hefty dose of magic fairy dust that would solve all of my fears, erase my doubts and do something about my utter inability to ride switchbacks. After two intensive days in Winter Park, CO, I learned that I’m not as terrible of a rider as I thought (cornering abilities aside, which are still nonexistent), which was oddly disappointing because it meant no revelatory breakthroughs. I also learned that I need to stop spending so much time in my head and spend more time on the trail.
I also learned that most of the questions floating around about how to learn or master a mountain biking move can be answered in one shot: Take a skills clinic. There are no magic bullets to riding a mountain bike other than plenty of practice, but a skills clinic just might help unlock your internal secret stash of greatness.
A skills clinic will also teach you the next level of trust in yourself and the bike, which seemed like the two biggest barriers for most of the attendees (that, and looking ahead). Though Dirt Series didn’t change my life overnight, it did improve my riding. I’m a firm believer in approaching mountain biking like skiing: taking a lesson should be an obvious step in the learning process and it will help. You may not undergo a magical transformation every minute of the experience, but something from the clinic will click and permanently improve your riding experience.
For example, I ride flat pedals most of the time (Dig In will write about that, vs. riding clipped in, in a future post) and learned that I wasn’t getting maximum power from my legs, nor did I have maximum control of the bike, because my foot placement on the pedal was off; I was much too far back trying to rely on my toes. D'oh!
But by far the best thing about a skills clinic is the practice, in that it provides an ideal environment for concentration (and you can wear all the body armor you want!). You don’t have to worry about falling too far behind your riding partner; you can session whatever challenges you; you can focus on something other than "just don't die on this ride;" and a handful of other people are going to be right there with you, struggling, succeeding and offering advice and encouragement. You can ride with your attention zeroed in on mastering a single skill, rather than your brain jumping from the root in front of you to the rock garden ahead to yielding for another trail user to the little drop followed by a tight switchback, etc., etc.
Being able to session a problem spot 10 or 20 times is a phenomenal way to gain confidence and finesse. Even if you miss a feature the first 19 times, when you nail it on the twentieth try, you might never miss again. It’s a moment of glory that’s hard to describe, and harder to forget. I watched riders bail ass-over-handlebars off skinnies (but they were caught by spotters—another advantage of skills clinics) before finally rolling across the same skinnies without incident. Their joy was palpable and infectious, and their success seemed to move them up to a new level of prowess and confidence.
I particularly liked Dirt Series’ format because there are enough options and coaches that you can get some amount of personal attention, whatever your skill level. The near-pros went up the ski hill on day one in full body armor to huck downhill bikes and learn advanced techniques. Those completely new to mountain biking were able to spend more time working on the bike-body connection and do smaller versions of basic skill drills. Those of us who fell in the middle could chose our own adventure because the coaches provided different sizes of obstacles, and allowed us to work them at our own paces and speeds while still observing us individually. It's a good balance that you might want to seek out if you sign up for your own clinic.
So, Is a Skills Clinic Right for You? Probably.
You should know that my enthusiasm for women-only mountain bike skills clinics is very real because I’m not the most likely person to advocate for camp of any kind, especially gender-specific types. Other than Space Camp (hell yeah I went), I hated camp as a kid. All the songs and string-tying activities were of minimal interest, especially when my Boy Scouts friends were instead being dumped in the middle of nowhere with 50-pound packs on their backs and told to find their way out, 20 miles through the woods.
But playing bikes for two days is totally different, and useful for both the thinkers and the doers. The way Dirt Series does it is to offer skills drills in the morning, usually in a grassy area using props and pre-built features. In the aftenoon, it's time for cross-country and/or downhill rides to practice what has been learned so far. The first evening after the riding is done, they offer a space to socialize and mini clinics on suspension setup, basic bike maintenance and drivetrain adjustments.
After going to camp, I have to accept that my mountain bike skills are not going to improve at breakneck pace, which is a little hard to swallow since I work in the bicycle industry. But I'm having fun—which is what matters—and the ability will come. Dirt Series was a jolt I sorely needed to just get out there and dig in. Now, when a companion yells, "Just do it!" I feel more confident about making the attmpt because my knowledge base is solid.
Know that when you sign up for skills instruction, you can’t expect miracles. But you also can't improve much just by reading tips or riding only once in a while. If anything, a clinic equips you with a reserve of success memories. If you come across an unfamiliar rock drop on a trail, you can dig into your brain for a coach's words of wisdom and remember nailing something similar at camp, thereby increasing your confidence and the chance that you’ll attempt the feature and come away unscathed.
My biggest piece of advice is to push yourself at a skills clinic. Get help with what you know challenges you, but otherwise, go for the gusto! If you truly get in over your head, no one is going to make you do anything that is beyond your abilities completely or downright dangerous. But trust the coaches (Amy and Candace, two awesome Dirt Series coaches, are pictured above left). In my experience, the coaches knew better than I did about what I was capable of, and were way more patient than even the coolest riding buddy about letting me practice something over and over and over.
Now Get Out There and Dig In!
Mountain bike skills clinics, especially those focused on women, are becoming easier to find, so you should be able to sign up for something that suits your riding level, riding style and personality (that last one is actually pretty important). They include everything from free, half-day affairs associated with bike races and festivals, to two- and three-day camps that often require travel, advance planning and a financial commitment. There's no way I can find and mention all of the professional clinics (so feel free to add to the list) but here are some of the biggest and most well-known in the U.S.:
- Beti AllRide
- Midwest Women's Mountain Bike Clinic
- Trek Dirt Series
- Ray's MTB Women's Weekend
- Sweetlines and the Sugar Showdown
- Sacred Rides
Additionally, the IMBA Instructor Certification Program trains about 50 new ride guides and/or mountain bike skills instructors each month, many of them in the U.S., so check with the local IMBA chapter (find yours here) to see if it offers skills clinics. If not, consider attending a chapter meeting and suggesting it. Chances are, you won't be the only one who has been wanting such a service.
Did you miss Katherine's introduction? Read it here. Next week (Monday), Dig In will continue its staff profile series with an introduction for Aimee, IMBA Advocacy Manager. She'll then share a hilarious tale of selling her mountain bike in the middle of a horrible ride.