Riding new trails and coming back from injury

Here’s a question from Josh, who is a volunteer coach in New England Youth Cycling.

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Thanks so much for all your work this year for NEYC. Also, hope your shoulder surgery recovery is going well.

Have a few questions for you:

1) Do you have suggestions or ideas about how to coach navigating a trail / how to ride a new place? Some of my coaches are experienced mountain bikers but relatively new to coaching.

2) Steps to take for coaching a rider coming back from injury (injured during a practice ride on a tough-for-them descent).

How to help riders explore new trails

I suspect you’re asking for an easy trick, but I have to give you the real answer:

The only way for riders to feel confident riding new trails is for their core skills and confidence to match the demands of that trail. It’s that simple.

I played trumpet as a kid at military academy. I was very good at playing military marches, and I was the company bugler. I was skilled in a very narrow style of trumpet play. In college they needed a trumpet in the advanced jazz band, and they threw me right into the fray. Jazz is way more complex, and it shifts continually. A great jazz trumpet player has such a mastery of various styles that they can follow the rest of the band and create group flow.

I wasn’t that skilled. I couldn’t keep up, and the teacher continually stopped us and had to correct me. I was simply not qualified to play in that band.

Riding a New England trail is like sitting in with a creative jazz ensemble. The core movements are all there — position, braking, cornering, pumping, pedaling, etc. — but they happen in random order and in myriad combinations. It takes a very high level of skill to be able to ride these trails with utmost confidence that you can mix and match the moves as needed.

I’ve worked with 11,000 riders and trained more than 1,500 coaches for NICA, NEYC and other groups. I know for a fact that very few riders and even fewer coaches are spending the time to adequately develop skills.

So, to be realistic:

1) Ideally you pick trails that match the abilities of your riders. That’s tough on East Coast chunk.

2) I know easy trails are not always possible, especially when you have groups with mixed skills. So you, as the coach should know the riders’ abilities and help them understand which lines to ride and which ones to ride or walk around. Make sure there are no judgements for not riding a section. Celebrate smart decisions, not stupid bravery.

3) We only operate in two states: Full go and full no. If there’s any doubt, walk it out.

If you and your riders want to be able to ride more terrain with confidence, you have to do the skills work.

That’s all there is to it.

See below for some funner tips for riding new trails.

Helping a rider come back from injury

This is a great question.

1) Know how the crash happened. If you understand how it happened, you can avoid the mistakes that caused the crash. This gives you confidence that crashes aren’t the act of a malevolent god — they are the result of avoidable mistakes.

I was working with a famous CEO in the cycling world. He went into a turn too fast, freaked out, pushed his head back, washed out and crashed. After the dust settled I checked in with him. He, shaken, said “My front tire washed out!” I gave him the tough love he needed: “Tires don’t just slide out. You entered too fast. You entered too tight. You freaked out. You pushed your head away from danger. The front tire got light, then it lost traction.” If you don’t make those mistakes, you will not crash.

2) Most people who get hurt also experience trail trauma. Trail trauma is like all trauma — it gets stored in your body and can affect you both on and off the bike. I help people with this all the time. One pro enduro racer got so traumatized from crashes on his bike that he lost confidence at work too. I helped him with his skills and mindset. Now he’s back to winning races and leading productive work meetings.

3) Revisit the core skills. I cannot over-stress this absolute truth: You can only ride as well as you’ve honed your skills. If the crash happened in a corner, go back to the most basic cornering in a parking lot. Once the confidence is there, step up to dirt then gradually work your way up to the type of corner the rider crashed in.

That CEO and I did a few other corners perfectly then went back to the one he crashed in. I told him to remind his lizard brain that he is going to execute perfectly, and a crash won’t happen again. He ripped that turn and was stoked!

Be a responsible coach: If you are a coach, you should NEVER, EVER take riders on trails that are too tough for them. The fact that you used those words is such a red flag. Ideally you don’t take that rider on that trail. If that’s not possible, coach the rider to understand what they can do, and help the rider get around sections that are too tough.

If someone gets hurt because you took them somewhere they’re not ready for, and you didn’t help them manage the situation, that’s your responsibility. Let me be clear here: You’re not just scraping a kid’s knee, you’re messing with their psyche and their life.

We all love mountain biking. It’s awesome! But I have to say this loudly:

Coaches are not taking proper care of their riders. People are getting hurt. I was an expert witness on a case in which a coach forced a 14-year-old rider down an illegal downhill trail that the kid said he was afraid to ride. The coach also told all the kids to turn on Strava so they could compare times. The kid is now a quadriplegic. That coach’s laziness, lack of professionalism and ego has irrevocably changed the lives of that kid and his family. The settlement was many millions of dollars. His dad is encouraging me to tell this story so this doesn’t happen to other families.

Master your own darn self. Like I said, I’ve trained about 1,500 volunteer coaches. Out of that number, about 1 percent are what I consider solid enough riders to serve as role models on the bike One percent! You can only teach what you know. If you want to serve riders well, 1) continually develop your own kung fu and 2) only teach within the scope you’ve mastered. Make decisions that keep your riders — and you — in your safe zones.

That’s enough tough love. Now for some fun.

Tips for taking on new trails

Assuming you’ve prepared your riders and you’ve chosen an appropriate trail:

Embrace the adventure. This is fun and exciting. Get stoked about exploring, seeing new things and experiencing new trail shapes. When you encounter a beautiful view, stop and appreciate it.

Session sections. If you rush from point A to B, you miss so much. When you encounter a challenging section, get off your bikes and take a look. Come up with various ways to ride through (or around) it, then practice them. If a section is just plain awesome, do it again!

Lead by example. If you’re a coach, show your riders the process of assessing sections and making smart go/no-go decisions. Perhaps you purposefully decide not a ride a section you can handle, just to make the point that saying No is groovy. Part of this is maintaining stoke whether you decide it’s a go or a no.

Celebrate everyone’s strengths. Each rider in your group is unique. One might be great at technical climbing. One might rock the rocks. One carves corners. One takes amazing photos. Celebrate every single person as an essential and valued member of the group.

Set up the bikes for shred. You don’t know what you’re going to encounter. As a rule, optimize the bikes for all-around confidence and fun, not all-out race speed. This means neutral RADs, high RAD angles, dropper seat posts and grippy tires.

Get lots of media. If it didn’t happen on Instagram, it didn’t happen, right? Whether or not you publish your photos and videos, people love seeing themselves, and the images can be way helpful for coaching. It’s also a great way to embrace the adventure.

Have fun! That’s it.



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