The perpetual search for better skills: there’s always something to work on

The perpetual search for better skills: there’s always something to work on

As someone who makes a living from riding a bike, I am always looking for ways to be a better rider. I look after my body and I stay fit, but the things I go away and work on when no-one is looking are my skills.

Why skills?

When you see cycling on the telly it’s usually the god-like aerobic fitness that sets the professionals apart from us mere mortals. Mountain biking is different: it’s the skills that mark the difference between winners and those making up the numbers.

Yes, the professional downhillers or enduro champions are supremely fit, but what makes them so much better than me is their skillset and the ability to use it when they need to.

Rio Olympic Mountain Bike- Men

I’m a big believer in improving my skills. If I sneak off to the woods to work on something the chances are that it’s something to do with honing my skills. There are lots of reasons having a better skillset can make you better, and this is why upskilling is so important.

Just plain faster: skills to get you from A to B

Sometimes the value of good skills is that they get you from where you are to where you’re going more quickly.

The best example of this I ever saw was an enduro race a Queen Elizabeth Country park. On a particularly steep stage there was a slalom between two fallen trees that everyone dragged their brakes round, almost taking off their rear mech. Then a rider came down who used the first one as a kicker to jump over the second. He just went straight through at speed where everyone else was slowing down, gaining about 5-10 seconds over everyone else in one 10 yard section. He had the skills to see the different line and the skills to execute it. Incredible.


Or easier: skills to keep you fresh

I have riding buddies who are much fitter than me. They should be able to ride way from me at the drop of a hat, but they can’t (always). So how do I keep up? Application of skills at the right time means you can go down the same piece of trail at the same speed using less energy. Simple really, if you can carry speed through a corner then you don’t have to get on the pedals on the way out.

Equally there are skills that allow you to take less of a beating over rough ground, so you’re fresher when you get to the next hill.

More relaxing: skills that give you confidence

Probably the biggest advantage of a better skillset is that I am more in control more of the time and that there is more of my awareness that is available for things other than hanging on for grim death. I have a mantra about confidence:

Balance leads to grip. Grip leads to control. Control leads to confidence. Confidence leads to relaxation. Relaxation leads to enjoyment.

Wansdyke singletrack

The more you are in control of what is going on, the more you can enjoy it. I find it interesting when I ride with some people and they claim that there was no grip on a particular bit of trail. Especially when I’ve gone down it with them, at the same speed and in control. The main difference is the application of skill to give balance & grip. The same is true when I ride with people more skilful than me and I’m at the edge of my comfort zone (you know who you are).

That’s why my first though when faced with a lack of grip is to wonder what I could do to make it more grippy. The same is true of something scary: it’s scary because I don’t have the skills to do it comfortably.

Working on skills

So, when I’m out on my own, I’m usually thinking about how I can ride better, not how can I ride faster (though the two often go hand in hand). I think about how I can apply lessons I’ve seen or heard. What if I put my weight just there? What if I push here rather than there? What if I try that line rather than the usual one?

Learning or honing skills can be like night and day. There are real lightbulb moments where you suddenly think “now I get it!” or “that’s what it’s supposed to feel like.” When I apply it to my normal social or work riding it feels great because everything is easier and smoother. And I can keep up with the racing snakes (most of the time).

The most recent one was a simple comment about whether I align my body to the front wheel or the back and the difference it makes to my balance. It sounds really simple but it made a massive difference to how I think about my posture.

I know I’m not perfect. I know what parts of my skillset need work. So, I work on them. It’s what I do.

Why is this important?

One of the most important uses of my skillset is in looking after my group. If I am completely in control of what’s going on with my bike, then I have mental space to be keeping aware of what everyone else is doing. I can see what people are finding difficult or enjoyable. I use this to tailor the ride so that everybody has fun, or to make sure I can give the level of support that people need to get the most out of their ride.

Changing seasons

I can also see if people are doing things that are making their lives difficult and help them try another way.

What it all boils down to is that my skills are being put to use to make sure you have a safer, more enjoyable ride. And, before you think that I find everything easy, I am also well aware of what it feels like to be out of my depth (been there) and scared (been there too) and how not-fun that is. So, I’m well tuned-in to what it’s like for other people and how to avoid it happening.

But what about me?

There’s no time like now to think about riding skills. They make riding safer, easier and more fun. There are loads of tutorials littering magazines, have a look at them and give their suggestions a go. It’s tempting to look at “how to jump”, but you spend far more time on the ground so look, instead for tips on posture, balance and weighting the bike. They will revolutionise your riding.

Doing the left-right shoogle

Doing the left-right shoogle

So, get out there and enjoy. Or come out for a ride with BackPedalling and let me look after it all.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Thoughts, Uncategorised, 0 comments
Locksmithing and mountain biking navigation

Locksmithing and mountain biking navigation

Really? Locksmithing? Navigation?

I heard a story on the radio today*:

I got locked out of my house the other day, so I called a locksmith. He came around, fiddled with the lock for a couple of minutes and the door popped open.
I was very pleased until he handed me the bill: £120.
So I asked him: “What is the bill for?”
He replied: “When I started I really wasn’t very good. I grunted and swore for about twenty minutes and often broke the lock in the process. I charged the customer for both my time and a new lock. They were really pleased and often gave me a tip. Now I’m much better and quicker, people query the bill and never give me a tip.”
“So, this bill is for your expertise and how little time it took you?”
I gave him a tip.


It got me thinking. In many walks of life, we respect effort above results. We want someone to work hard rather than deliver.

How can this be applied to riding?

Prior preparation prevents etc etc

When I took my leadership exam, one of the most challenging things was the navigation. I was a boy scout, I’ve been a long standing hillwalker, rock climber and mountain biker. I’m a pretty competent mapreader. I am completely comfortable navigating so when I signed up for the course I thought (in spite of people’s warnings) that this would be the easy bit.

Mountain biker lost

Mountain biker lost. Courtesy  Photo AJB

But that’s not what they wanted. What they wanted was for me to navigate without looking like I was navigating. Think about that for a moment…No stopping to have a wee squizz at the map to check whether this is the right gate, no getting the map out to check which of the two paths ahead I should be taking, no chats about “where would you like to go”. The whole thing had to be seamless, unbroken and (more importantly) right. All this on a route I’d never ridden before so I was reliant on getting the mapreading spot on.

In effect, I had to look like I wasn’t navigating at all. Not only did I have to know where I was but also where I was going next at all times. I suddenly started feeling a lot of pressure. Thus I went away and practised the process of navigating as I went over and over again until I was confident I could do it when being assessed.

Why did I have to do this? Because I’m supposed to be leading a group and you’re supposed to be having fun riding your bikes. So every second I’m looking at the map you’re not riding or having fun. So I’m not doing my job. It also looks like I don’t know what I’m doing, which doesn’t really inspire confidence.

In the real world I’ve usually planned the route and then pre-ridden it so I’m not navigating blind. However, if the route has to change for any reason, I can still do it if I need to.

Back to looking busy

So the end result is that it never really looks like I’m working hard on the navigation, the planning or making sure everyone’s enjoying themselves.

That’s because I’ve worked hard to get good at it and make it look effortless.

That’s what you’re paying for: me making sure you’re having fun all the time.


*The story was from New York, so I paraphrase and change the odd detail here and there.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Rides, 0 comments
Reflections on Rio

Reflections on Rio

So, what has the Olympics got to do with real world riding?

[keep reading to the bottom. There’s something in it for you]

This is Nino Schurter

Nino is from Switzerland.

Nino likes to ride his bike.

Nino is incredibly fit.

Nino is a staggeringly capable bike handler.

Nino is Olympic champion.


I’d like to be like Nino, but the sad truth is that I am, at best a pale imitation. I’m relatively fit, I’m reasonably capable at handling my bike and I’m definitely not from Switzerland.

This is Jenny Rissveds

Jenny is from Sweden.

Jenny likes to ride her bike.

Jenny is supremely fit.

Jenny is an insanely gifted technical rider.

Jenny is also Olympic Champion.


I’d like to be like Jenny, but I know she is far faster, fitter and stronger than I’ll ever be. Nor am I Swedish.


Where I am like both Nino and Jenny is that I really enjoy riding my bike.


So, the Olympics then.

For years I’ve had a thing about “cross-country racing.” It somehow never really lit my fire. It seemed to combine all the least interesting bits of road cycling (weight obsession, ludicrously high fitness level, lack of technical interest) with the worst bits of mountain biking (The best bits of singletrack are no use for races because you can’t overtake and there’s no way of designing a long course that doesn’t have boring bits on it, the best bits of a ride are often the social ones). I’d kind of written it off as flat-barred cyclocross.

To sum it up I heard (second hand) someone say of XC racing: “Don’t go looking for the pain. It’ll find you soon enough.” Does that sound like any fun at all?

I heard someone say that mountain biking has more in common with surfing than road cycling. There’s some truth in this. That majority of people who ride mountain bikes have little to no interest in racing in the sense of donning lycra and standing on a start line. There’s far less of a club culture with informal groupings of riders being the norm. There’s also far more of an emphasis on exploration and enjoying the kinaesthetic experience rather than going as fast as possible towards a finish line. There’s a reason that XC racing is not a big deal in Britain.

Having said that, quote someone else: “No general rule is universally applicable.”

So I sat down and watched the Olympic mountain biking more out of a sense of obligation than anticipation. I was expecting flat-backed, lycra clad almost roadies awkwardly doing battle with a farmer’s field that had a few rocks strategically placed in it.

Peter Sagan, Tour de France stage winner and current road World Champion had decided to ride the mountain bike instead of the road race because he thought the course suited him better. Doesn’t that say a lot?

Peter Sagan

Peter Sagan

How wrong can you be?

Very, it turns out.

Something has happened since the last time I watched a cross country race. Something very good.

Riders have become more capable. Far more capable. They are no longer stiff-backed road cyclists on the wrong bike. Now they are real, genuine mountain bikers who revel in technical, demanding trails. They’re happy with their bikes in the air, they’re happy with drop-offs, they’re happy with steep rock gardens. They’re riding full-suspension bikes because they’re more capable.

This means that the course designers have had to up the level of technical difficulty to engage these riders. When I say “upped” there were several bits of the course where I thought “I’d quite like to take a look at that before ploughing into it”. I certainly would be wary of facing them when I was knackered. The course looked like a red trail centre. For the first time in years I even thought: “I’d like to have a go on that”.

In short, it’s turned into something that was recognisable “mountain biking”. These races managed to combine some of the best bits of road riding (the supreme physical effort, the gladiatorial combat at the sharp end) with the best bits of mountain biking (rewarding skill, significant technicality & speed, risk and commitment when taking on features).

It was great. I was hooked for the whole race.

To answer my original question: it’s got far more to do with real riding than I expected.

For the dedicated, here’s the entire men’s race:

And here’s as much of the women’s race as I can find:

But it’s not the be all and end all

Having said all that, you’re not going to see me grace the start line of an XC race any time soon. It did, however, inspire me to get out and ride.

If it’s inspired you, and you’ve got this far I want you to get out and ride your bike too. So here’s a little something to help you:

Here’s a 10% discount code for you. Simply enter “fiverings” on any ride for the rest of the year and you’ll get a discount. You can use it as many times as you want, on as many rides as you want.

I look forward to seeing you.


Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Ride with someone better than you

Ride with someone better than you

It’s an old truism of mountain biking that the best way to improve (apart from actual coaching) is to ride with someone faster than you.

Try to stay with them, watch their line, their body position, where they brake, where they don’t, all those kinds of things.

Over the years, this informal has been a lot of fun. I remember playing ducks and rakes down some of our favourite local descents. Nothing makes you go faster than your mates right behind you. Very little is scarier than only being able to see your mate’s rucksack in front of you. Tip: don’t get too close. It works though.

Those rides seem a long time ago. These days my riding buddies are of more of a cross country persuasion. We’re pretty quick, with a bunch of Strava Kings of the Mountains between us. Great for setting a target going up hill but, when the trail points down, the story is often the same: “Andy, why don’t you go in front? You’ll only get held up.” It means I can see the trail ahead but doesn’t really improve my skills particularly.

I’m always looking for ways to improve my riding. I read magazine articles and try to put it into practice. I watch videos of the trail gods throwing shapes and try to do the same thing when I’m out. None of this is a substitute for seeing the real thing in action.

Which is why I was excited to be heading off to see my old friend Phil for a day’s riding around his local haunts in Kent. Phil and his mates are much more gravity oriented than my riding chums. At least one of them has successfully completed the Megavalanche which is a bit extreme for me. So I was looking forward to learning something new.

Here’s the Strava profile of the ride for your entertainment.

The ride was sold as “more cross country than sessioning descents” but I’d been out with Phil before and wasn’t fooled. Actually, I was. It really was more of an XC ride, but that didn’t matter. There were a few chances to watch these fellas in action. They were all quicker than me when gravity beckoned. They were definitely more skilled than me. But there I was, as close to their back wheel as I could manage (which was often not that close if I’m honest). I managed to see how they went about things, how they set themselves up, when they were fast and when they were slow, what line they took. A thousand tiny lessons. All of which will be added to my skills bank and used when I’m out here.

So what did I learn from them? What the line into a steep bend looks like. That my tyres will hold on round those bends. That brakes are sometimes my friend and sometimes my enemy.

Did they learn anything from me? Carry a spare banana. What persistence up loose hills looks like. That Hampshire riders can ride steep chalk slopes well.

Did I learn anything from the ride as a whole? No one uses Strava in Kent or I wouldn’t have got a top ten placing on a road climb riding a mountain bike. That loam is a lovely surface to ride. That a mid ride pub stop can be fraught if you’re covered in mud.

Most of all though, none of this matters if you’re having fun. So just get out and ride.

Thanks to Phil, Tom and Griz for showing me round their local woods. I’ll come back and ride them again when they’re dry.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments