The most essential thing to learn to do in mountain biking is…anyone?
Well, I believe the answer is how to corner.
Every trail has corners, it’s the only thing that every trail will have. Corners might be the only feature that singletrack in a Welsh trail center and an ancient packhorse track in the Upper Mustang district of Nepal will absolutely have in common. Or A-line and Moab’s Porcupine Rim. Or the Fifth Horseman and Bobsled.
Learning how to corner properly should be every mountain biker’s primary focus. A lot of riders skip this skill and go straight to trying to huck drops, sending sweet gaps or skidding down steeps. Many seasoned veterans still haven’t focused their learning bone on cornering, or have forgotten to keep their turns sharp. Myself, I’m still working on my cornering, every day and every ride, and I always will.
You see, once you get around one corner you find there’s another one waiting for you.
And…well, you might end up back on the same corner again and you still have to get round it cleanly.
Cornering on a mountain bike is much like life. Life is full of twists and turns and we have to train ourselves to deal with bends in the trails of our lives and not slip and fall when we’re faced with a curve. Our daily practice should be to train ourselves to look up, see the corners coming, set ourselves up for them in the best way possible, identify the most favorable line through it, employ the techniques we have learned previously (Note: in life, pointing your pecker might not always be the best solution), and look for the exit of the turn as early as we can.
Sure, life, much like trails, is often full of drops and blind senders and rooty off camber sections and awkward up-and-overs. These things require balls and bravery, as well as the adoption of technique, skill and an acute assessment of the dimensions and risk vs. reward computation. Occasionally we are faced with seemingly insurmountable climbs up unrelenting, sun scorched, baby head-riddled fire roads, other times it’s tricky little uphill sections that take dozens of attempts or years to successfully clean, either way it requires a resolve, fortitude, and perhaps a little stubbornness to keep on getting up the ups when everything around you appears to want to take you down.
Now, I’d be content to leave you to masticate on this notion but I’ve been advised by a good friend and valued editor (can you guess who?) that perhaps I should provide some experiential data that would back up this thesis rather than just languish in postulation. So here I go, laying my heart out to dry under the bright lights of public scrutiny.
(NOTE: if you grasped the above or you think I’m talking nonsense then I’ll warn you now that there’s absolutely no reason to read any further).
The First Turn
As a kid I moved around a lot. My parents no doubt thought that the grass was greener somewhere else and we’d bounce from one town to another, always across to the other side of the country. This meant that as soon as I made friends and started to feel at home somewhere I’d be faced with packing up and moving on, only to have to start from scratch in another new town where I was the newbie with an accent and everyone was a stranger.
The hardest move was when I was 13 years old. Fortunately, for once we moved during the school summer holidays rather than mid-term. Unfortunately, this meant I had six weeks to amuse myself.
Rather than spend the entire summer kicking a football at a wall over and over and over again, I began exploring the country lanes, the bridle paths, ancient copses and rolling hills by bicycle. These first forays started out short and simple but I soon began to look further into the Ordnance Survey maps for inspiration and destination as my little legs and lungs acclimatized to considerable stints in the saddle. I didn’t really realize I was mountain biking at the time, I just knew that if I was pedaling and seeing what was around the next corner or over the next hill then I was distracted from the crushing reality of the loneliness I felt that summer. On top of the move, it was obvious that the already gossamer thin bond of my parent’s marriage had finally snapped, making life at home unpleasant.
As long as I was on my bike, moving somewhere on my own accord, I had a purpose that would interrupt the typical inner dialogue of a juvenile mind and the added despair of my current predicament. Being on the bike gave me a sense of autonomy that was empowering. It was me that determined if I turned left or right, or went straight on at the lights or chose to dive down a leafy idyll that suddenly caught my eye. On the bike I wasn’t at the mercy of my parent’s impulse to uproot. I could choose the next destination. I was in charge.
The bike had revealed that I had the essential compulsion to make my own route. I’d been forced into a blind, rough turn that had me braking late and had put me off-balance. I’d skidded, dabbed my foot a little and got a little out of shape but I’d actually managed to stay upright. I’d come out of this turn not just unscathed but eager for the next one, bolstered by what I’d learned on that last corner and willing to apply it to obstacles. Since then I’ve relished finding out what’s beyond the next corner.
Nearly The Last Turn (On This Particular Trail At Least)
For the past five years I’ve pursued my dream job, a position which I’d been thinking about since not much longer after than that first ride: mountain bike media chap (aka Media Whore). I never wanted to be a pro mountain biker, I’d always wanted to be one of the guys who made the magazines that I’d impatiently wait for each month and which I’d utterly gorge upon from cover to back cover. I looked up to the faces and names of the people that put together magazines like MBUK and DIRT and always thought they had the best job – riding all over the world, being showered with the latest and greatest in bike parts and they could make their passion their job and vice versa.
I’d started to make that dream a reality. I hadn’t expected it to happen but I’d worked hard to foster the conditions under which my childhood fantasy could become real. I thought I would be happy and for a while I was, but about a year ago I hit a turn too fast (or perhaps I underestimated the corner) and I was sent flat onto my face. This crash left me a little dazed and as I tried to piece together what went wrong I looked at my bike and started to blame it for pile driving me into the dirt.
But of course, it wasn’t the bike or the corner or conditions at the time that made me take a dive. It was how I approached that turn. I’d gotten cocky and not setup for that turn correctly. I’d failed to spot the dead log in the apex that would ultimately force me to wash out. I was left with dirt in my mouth, my eyes, and in my hair and I was over it. Of course, I’m not going to fully expose the literal truth behind this metaphor but I was burnt out on this dream I’d pursued. I didn’t want to work for the mountain bike media anymore because I’d bitten the dust once and had my scare.
Well, that’s how I looked at it at the time. Now I see it differently. I didn’t crash, I just took a turn differently than I thought and I ended up slightly offline (without knowing it) and had ended up traveling down a different path. The mud on my face was from the new trail being covered in brush and puddles which made it hard to see at first. It took following a few good friends and watching the lines they took to get me feeling like I wasn’t so bike shy anymore. Sometimes the line is not obvious and it’s a good idea to ask for help because the answer might be right under your nose. For me, the answer was to step back a little from the MTB media and reevaluate what had appealed to me so much when I desired that role and what I’d enjoyed doing when I was doing it. Now I’m back to working with my hands and staring at a computer screen much less. Now I’m happy to do much less and be happy with the results, just so long as I’ve put in my best effort.
In life as it is in mountain biking, rarely is there any easy terrain and if it is easy it doesn’t fill you with the same excitement that the more challenging parts of the trail do. A flat, meandering double track is only usually fun and memorable when there’s a great view or friends to chinwag with, and while it’s fun to fly through the forest with easily gained speed down a wide, buff piece of handpicked trail, you know that sooner rather than later you’ll be faced with something more taxing.
The more corners we have to take then the better experienced we become, just so long as that with each one we are mindful of what worked, why it worked, what could we do better and how we can use this knowledge on future corners.
But be it hucks or ascents, there’s nothing that constantly tests our mettle and sharpens our ability as much as corners do. Everyone can ride a corner and we are all faced with corners, each day of our lives but it’s how good we become at cornering that makes us the person, or rider, we are.