Last weekend, I returned to Dirt Series to work on some more skills. I’ve spent the past year working on what I learned at the last camp, and while I believed that I had improved, I really hoped I would be able to validate that belief on the same set of drills and obstacles I originally learned them on.
When I showed up Saturday morning, I was shocked to see myself in group F8 out of F9. Last year, I was in group B3. (B being the morning session out of A-F, 3 being the afternoon session out of 8.) I was worried I’d answered the giant pre-camp survey a little too aggressively, but once we got on our bikes, I did just fine. I actually got bumped to group 9 for the afternoon, and I felt super comfy with everything the entire weekend.
The format was similar to last year’s with one exception being the Saturday morning session for returning riders. Instead of doing a little bit of everything, we spent two longer sessions on jumps and straight line riding plus drops. This worked out great, as I didn’t feel as much of a need to spend time on things such as switchbacks, braking, downhill dismount, etc. It also meant I wasn’t totally worn out by the afternoon ride.
Once again, we got to choose what we wanted to focus on Sunday morning. Last year I chose jumps and straight line riding because they seemed fun. (Straight line riding was fun because it had a teeter totter, but I also found it extremely useful.) This year, I went with high speed cornering, which is a huge weakness of mine, and wheel lifts, because I never quite perfected the pedaling wheel lift from last year.
The skills breakdown:
Manuals / Jumps – I’ve done a ton of manuals since I learned how to last year. It makes little drops way more fun when you’re carrying some speed. Last year, I remembered being told I was landing too hard. And while I didn’t mess up any launches, I certainly could have done them better. This year, I’ve pretty much got the basics dialed in, and doing a manual off a box felt pretty natural. I got to progress from the little box to the big box to a ramp, which we raised, then raised again. I think in the end the end of the ramp was just over two feet off the ground. I was a little intimidated by the trajectory and height of the final launch, but then I thought, “Everything’s felt great up until now, and this is just the next step of the progression. If you don’t do it here, where will you do it?” So I did it. And it felt great. I hope our camp photographer caught that jump!
Straight Line Riding / Drops – We had the same width planks this year as last year. The big difference for me was the planks no longer seemed narrow this year. And why? I’m pretty sure it’s because of “ready position” / “cowboy legs”. All I had to do was tell myself to get into that position, which by now just means “get loose”, line myself up, and roll.
Random tidbit of knowledge from this session: When riding with flats, your feet actually rest a little more forward on the pedals. The back of the pedal should meet the middle of the foot. I’d been standing on them with my weight on the balls of my feet, which is what I’m used to from clipless pedals.
High Speed Cornering – Boy did I need this clinic! I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in this blog, but one of the things I tell myself a lot when I’m riding is “relax”. Most of the time, I’m telling myself this as I’m going through a corner. I do it because I’m afraid I’ll either not make the turn or slide out trying. Of course, not being relaxed just makes it worse. I felt that relaxing, ready position, cowboy legs, counterbalancing, etc. was only part of the equation. I wasn’t sure what I was missing, but I knew I needed something else to make me trust myself and my bike through those corners. So that was my goal: additional technique to trust to comfort to relaxation to better cornering and flow. It took over half the session for things to finally click, but when it did, boy was that a giant lightbulb! So here it is, the secret to cornering at speed: putting weight on my front tire. I’d been keeping my weight too far back because that’s what I do when I feel tentative or scared. That, in turn, was reducing my ability to turn. It wasn’t until my front wheel slid out during the clinic and Lu told me why that that missing piece fell into place. I shifted my weight forward and cornering got way easier. I’m totally excited to work on this. It’s gonna make me way more flowy, comfortable, confident, and speedy out on the trails.
Front Wheel Lifts – We started with a basic front wheel lift, which wasn’t all that new to me, but I did get what I came for out of this session. I’d found the pedaling wheel lift way more difficult than I thought it should be, and during the demo I realized why: I’d been weighting the front of my bike too much and trying to lift the handlebars as I pushed down on the pedal. Let’s read that again: lift the handlebars while pushing down on the pedal. Doesn’t make much sense, right? Turns out I just needed to get my weight off the handlebars and really just use them for control. If I mash on those pedals with my weight back, the bike will want to come up. Magic!
I got to ride a couple new-to-me trails in the afternoons.
On Saturday, my group descended Rocky Ridge at Santa Teresa. What a super fun trail! I totally want to come back and ride up it, then ride down it. I had a great time, despite losing a screw from one of my cleats during the descent. As if all those rocks weren’t enough of a skills workout, I had to ride over them with only one foot clipped in! No big deal, just a little extra challenge.
Actually, not being clipped in was a great way to drill into my head the importance of keeping my heels down on descents. On a higher speed (smoother) part of the descent, I bounced off the pedal after hitting a rock because my foot was level. Nothing like real world example to reinforce basic techniques!
On Sunday, my group shrank to just four riders. We got to ride Braille, otherwise known to me as the trail that’s too steep for me. I’d never ridden it, but I was excited to. And when I was done, I thought, “That was steep?” Hah!
What was really cool was that I did a good number of trail features I either did not previously dare to attempt or did poorly in the past. I rocked the teeter totter on Ridge instead of launching off it, launched off a jump I’d previously dropped off of with a thunk, rode up and down a huge fallen trunk I’d only stared at in the past, and successfully rode a skinny I would not have attempted before this weekend.
Amusing moment: A choice between a reasonable roll and a gnarly looking drop. Our coach showed the gnarly line, then let us decide what we wanted to do. Since we were there for a while, we started getting psyched out about it. During this time, a guy came by and rolled the easy line. He then watched our coach drop the gnarly line. He hiked his bike back up, started on the gnarly line, and braked right before the drop. I got on my bike. As I thought about whether to attempt the gnar, one of the groups behind us came by to leapfrog and go work on something else. The coach dropped the gnarly line and the rider behind her just followed without thinking. The rest of the group took the easy line. So then I thought, “Well if SHE can do it, I can too!” So I did it. It wasn’t bad at all! As we rolled out, the aborted drop guy walked his bike up the trail for another attempt. If a bunch of girls can do it, he can too, right? ;)
I almost forgot mention our coach for the day. All the coaches are super awesome in many ways, but sometimes we get a sprinkling of “celebrity” coaches. Our coach for the afternoon was Kathy Pruitt, who has been Junior World Champion, repeat National Champion, and is the current Cyclocross Singlespeed National Champion. And there she was, guiding us down Braille.
That reminds me, she told us not to shift our weight back too much going downhill, even when it’s steep. (She’s a downhill expert so she definitely knows what she’s talking about.) At first, this made no sense to us, but she explained that if we shift our weight back too far then we can’t steer. This really made me think, since I often just get my weight back, point my bike down the hill, and let my suspension guide me down through rough stuff. But she was right, when I do that, I can’t really steer.
One last thing about Demo: They got permits to shuttle us from the parking lot up the bumpy fireroad to the gate, then from the bottom of Braille back to our cars. Wow, can every ride at Demo be this cushy?
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After our ride on Saturday, coach Julie suggested I consider coming back to help out at a camp next year. I thought that was awesome, partly because she thought I could, and partly because it meant I could help out at a camp that’s helped me so much. A few days later, I got a call: Could I help out at the San Rafael camp the following weekend? Absolutely! So I did, and I had a blast riding sweep for Saturday’s group 3.
I also learned something listening to Amy, who coached that group. She talked a lot about flow, and recounted what someone once said to her: If your front wheel has traction, it doesn’t matter what your rear wheel is doing. It was a really good way of hearing the same core concept that clicked for me in the high speed cornering clinic the Sunday before. Hearing that concept three different ways from Lu, Kathy, and Amy was great. It really helps it sink in.
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To review, let’s start with last year’s list of things to work on:
– Easing off my brakes instead of just letting them go – I think I’m better at it now? I certainly don’t grab brake as suddenly; I really notice it when I do on the Mojo.
– Landing more smoothly instead of just slamming into the ground – I’m going to guess that I’m doing this better, as I wasn’t told that I was slamming into the ground. Maybe the extra travel on the Mojo helped, but I think my more relaxed cowboy legs body position helped too.
– Wide, loose, cowboy legs! – Check! Makes everything so much easier.
– Wheelie lifts/drops – Worked on that some more this year, finally got it to click!
– Manuals – Oh yes. Feeling smooth!
– Skinnies – Skinnies feel less skinny now thanks to cowboy legs and my now comfy ready position.
Goals for this year:
– High speed cornering – Weighting that front tire, feeling more comfortable and confident, riding with more flow.
– Pedaling wheel lift – Mastering it and actually using it somewhere out on the trails. Maybe the Gap root? I can lift higher pedaling than pulling, and it’s a great uphill/slow speed maneuver.
– More trail features – The Braille ride showed me that I can do a lot more out there than I’m generally willing to attempt. I can jump higher and farther than I think I can, and I can roll a skinny with much greater stability than in the past. Let’s get out there and do it, me!