The Way of Looking Ahead

Hi Lee,

Hope you don’t mind answering a couple questions from more of a beginners perspective. The best piece of advice I got from your book is also the hardest one for me to consistently achieve – looking farther down the trail – especially on rocky technical climbs.

If I look at a rock before I pedal over it, I fall every time, look ahead and I pedal right over it. It’s totally counterintuitive – especially to someone 40 yrs old. Feels like I am forcing myself to constantly keep my head up and ignore potentially dangerous obstacles. The question is, is this simply psychological? It feels like when I look at an obstacle everything is the same, cadence, position on the bike etc.

Thanks, Mike

Scan to the next turn, and let your peripheral vision handle the one right in front of you. This will make you ride smoother and straighter. The money line here is right over the rock.

Hey Mike,

The No. 1 most important skill in riding (and in life) is looking forward to where you want to go. This is also the No. 1 thing we all fail to do.

Reasons to look where you want to go:

1. Your brain will take you wherever you’re looking. If you stare at the rock in front of you, you will likely stop there. If you scan past the rock into that sweet turn, you will likely go there.

2. Your detailed vision is great at deciding where to go next, but it is bad at tracking motion and controlling your muscles. That’s what your peripheral vision is for. Once you’ve identified an obstacle, keep scanning forward to the next one. Let your peripheral vision track what’s below you. You don’t look at every step on a flight of stairs, do you?

3. Looking forward helps maintain proper balance over your feet. When you look down at that rock, you tend to curl forward and put too much weight on your bars. Not good.

We all agree you need to look where you’re going, so why is it so hard? Our failures are indeed psychological, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

The Way of Looking Ahead:

1. Master your core skills. Position, braking, cornering, pump and vision. When you’re on trail, pick specific reference points: usually the entrance to the next turn, definitely beyond that big rock. Look ahead and let your body and bike do their thing.

2. Gradually build your confidence. To ride any obstacle well, it must be a non-issue. Start small and slow, and work your way up. Over time, you will learn to scan right over bigger and bigger obstacles at higher and higher speeds.

3. Push (gently) against your boundaries. We all have a threshold where we stare at the obstacle, get tense and start to suck. Acknowledge this. I can easily float off a 5-foot drop with perfect form and no worries. When drops get closer to 10 feet, I start to stare and get nervous. I can either concentrate on perfect technique and go for it, or I can take another route. I frequently choose the latter.

Years ago I was with Brian Lopes at the Sheep Hills dirt jumps in SoCal. Everything was big and peaky and pros were flying everywhere, and I was scared to hit anything. “Yeah, I know how you feel,” Brian said. “On the moto I get nervous when the jumps get up around 80 feet.” We all have a threshold. His is now way past that. And yours will soon grow beyond that one big rock.

Master your skills. Work up gradually. Have fun. Say braaap!

— Lee

More info in Mastering Mountain Bike Skills.

12 replies
  1. Eric K says:

    As a racecar driver I’ve learned that this is also critical when driving, so you can practice there too.

  2. Chris says:

    This reminds me of pool/eight ball: when breaking, no matter how hard I try, I can NEVER hit the cue ball by aiming for the FRONT of the cue ball as when I aim for the BACK of the cue ball.

    I was once watching a documentary on car accidents which stated that the area of vision that a human can focus their concentration on is the size of a quarter at arm’s length. The rest is peripheral. For example, you can’t look at one letter on a page of a book and still read the entire page without moving your eyes from that letter.

  3. Roger Mooney says:

    A little bit of practice everyday, and you’ll learn where your limits used to be!

  4. o says:

    One thing that really helps me when going downhill fast, is the following advice I indirectly got from Marla Streb:

    “Always keep your head level, as though you are walking”

    Somehow, it really helps to stare far ahead and engage the peripheral vision this way.

    Otherwise, well, looking ahead and thinking a few steps ahead is the most valuable skill in mtb, cars, chess or life in general.

  5. Mike says:

    This is all great advice – thanks. Lee I left my copy of your book at a buddy’s house. He enjoyed it so much I am leaving it there and buying another copy from you…

  6. Ray Bareiss says:

    Some sad news about Santa Teresa: A few months ago, they sanitized the lower section of Rocky Ridge, from the last switchback to the bridge, taking out nearly all of the rocks. Recently, they also completely destroyed the Fortini singletrack, turning it into a four foot wide quasi-fireroad. At least we still have Stiles (for now).

  7. Curtis says:

    Ray, I feel ya. That place used to Rock, now it’s a freeway. I just hope we have a gnarly winter and that place gets TORE up.

  8. cycloscott says:

    As a wise old friend once said: Try to imagine that you are nothing but a head, floating down the trail.

    2 points to Lee if he can recall who that was.

    Bummer you’re booked up for NorCal. I’d love to get Gail into one of those sessions.

  9. leelikesbikes says:

    That was Greg Dahler!!!

    He was the original Zen master.

    Another: Sometimes I just show them my wheel until they crash, then I pass them.

  10. jimmy says:

    Looking ahead is great for trails you don’t ride that often or is new to you.

    On a race course it’s best to set marks to hit. After hitting the the first then you immediately focus on the next. This is especially true in turns. If you’re looking ahead at the apex of the turn you will start to turn too early and probably forced to brake after the apex and screwing up the turn. If you focus on the mark to start your turn then focus on the apex you exit faster and be ready for your next mark.

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