Words by Ryan Leech
It seems unanimous - trials riders are wizards on technical trails - we also ‘have a knack’ for learning non-trials mtb skills quickly. Why? There is a unique culture of practice in the trials riding community that most mountain bikers aren’t exposed to or aware of. I’d love to see these strategies and mindsets spread deeper into the mountain bike world, so I have summarized five of the key elements for you to consider. For reference, I’ve been a professional trials rider since 1997, and a coach for almost as long.1. Go Local
Give me a curb and a bike and I can keep myself entertained for hours. There are endless skills and drills that can be practiced within minutes of your door, no matter where you live - just jump on your bike and go play! This goes against the general belief that a ride requires a big chunk of time which includes driving to the trailhead - for busy lives this means just one or two rides a week, if lucky. Trials riders however know that they only need 20 minutes to get a quick session in. These short rides don’t require a trials bike either - your full suspension will work just fine - just rip to the park to practice cornering on the grass, drops on the retaining wall, bunny hops up the curb, or manuals down the street - the list goes on!2. Session
If a mountain biker passes a challenging section of trail, they generally walk, or try it once before moving on to ride more trail. A trials rider, however, will stop and session that challenge for as long as it takes to perfect it - or at least to make progress. My friend Jeff Lenosky, aka the Trail Boss, said it well:"Most riders who mess up an obstacle will just continue on. If you ride that trail once a week it could take months to sort out that tricky section as opposed to a 30 minute session where you can take 10 or 20 tries, which is what trials riders do." - Jeff Lenosky
Or as popular IG’er @ddangerousdave says:"I've noticed there's less of a session culture in mountain biking. A challenging line is seen as part of the ride, something to be attempted a few times or walked, whereas I'll session it until it's dialed. The feature becomes the ride." - Dave Herr
This change of approach is easier said than done. Many trails are too busy these days so it’s dangerous to hike up and down to practice a feature, so choose your session feature wisely. Secondly, ‘sessioning’ isn’t part of the culture, especially when riding with friends. If your riding buddies aren’t into it, they may become impatient - so be clear before the ride that your intention is to practice and progress rather than logging an extra trail or two on Strava. 3. High Definition Visualization
Partly due to the fact that trials riders session, we get infatuated with conquering individual skills or features, and will repetitively practice them not only in real life, but in our minds eye as well. This mental imagery is a skill and with practice we’re able to conjure high definition visualizations and scenarios so that we can test out different movements to see what works and what doesn’t - all without the physical risk and toll. This can be done on location during a practice session or in any spare moment during your day - these visualization skills give us a huge advantage. Popular trials youtuber Ali Carlkson shares:"For me half the battle is mental, I almost never physically try a trick/move/line if I haven’t already mastered it in my head. Of course mentally conquering something doesn’t always translate to reality, however for the most part conquering moves mentally can give me more confidence to try and increase the chance of success, even if it takes many attempts for my body to catch up."
Additionally, gathering raw ‘feeling’ data while riding rather than just ‘thinking’ data is important. It adds fuel to your visualization, you can weave in these experiential feelings while practicing in your head. My long time trials friend at Cirque du Soleil shares:"I've noticed over the years that I start out with a mental picture of a new skill and how I think it's gonna feel. Sometimes this works well but not always. When I'm not figuring things out I switch to a more intuitive approach and try to feel rather than think. Going with sensory input has helped me make progress on a number of skills that had me struggling." -Lance Trappe
Visualization is a deep topic, and is chronically under utilized in the recreational mountain bike world. I’ll be speaking more deeply on these five strategies in an upcoming webinar
and hope you can join. These are such fascinating and fun topics to explore and integrate no matter what level your riding is at.4. Creative Play
Trials riders are problem solvers - kind of like rock climbers. We’re constantly seeking the best or most enjoyable way to navigate challenging obstacles and terrain, whether a boulder, a railing, a log or interesting urban architecture. We take the skills we have and apply them in playful ways to the terrain - and we take this same approach to the trail.
The line of least resistance is generally not the one a trials rider takes - the trail gives us a general route, and any time we can find a better, more stylish or enjoyable line we take it. This approach allows us to be constantly challenged - even on a flat bit of trail we end up pulling a manual or carving mini turns - packing as much fun into every inch of trail as possible - we’re in charge and riding the trail vs the trail riding us.5. Conscious Repetition
During a practice session I’ll happily try the same move over and over. To an observer, it appears I’m making the same mistake. Popular psychology says be careful not to engrain these failures into your memory - but when you’re conscious, that’s not what’s happening. Similar to Lance's quote above, trials riders are hyper aware of every micro nuance, they can feel the slightest variation between attempts and each try is a new opportunity to feel something you’ve done right, and/or feel something you’ve done wrong. I asked a trials riding friend who is also a sports psychologist to comment on this:"Due to the nature of the sport, trials riders typically engage in 'deliberate blocked practice'. That is purposeful repetitions of a certain action with focused attention on specific improvements in performance. Indeed, some mountain bikers also do this when they 'session' a corner, jump, or line. However, the 'typical mountain biker' engages more in 'random practice', That is, they log miles on the trail and thus practice a vast variety of skills (riding berms, roots, drops, flat turns etc.) in the random order in which the trail presents them but without the focused repetition of deliberate practice." -Dr. Matt Barlow
Trials riders look at the micro level and are not concerned about the end result. Say I try a manual 100 times, and on that 100th attempt I finally felt a small variation that correlated to a positive result. I’ll then continue practicing until I can repeat that same result, and if it takes 95 times to do that, then I’m making progress and stay motivated. Most riders however will give up after a few tries, let alone 100! Trials riders are willing to continue this cycle until that positive result requires only 80 attempts, then 30, etc, and will mesh that result with a stack of other ‘right feelings’ and results until the move is dialed. A world champ trials rider can attest:"First thing is definitely hard work and lots and lots of tries to master a new skill. I like to try it as much and as hard as I can and then take a little break off the bike. In this time off your mind body connection will sort this data and you’ll see ... next time you ride, you’ll see progression!" -Kenny Belay
It’s not that most riders don’t have enough patience, it’s just that most riders don’t give themselves enough time to experience the addictive benefits and results of sticking with it - and thus don’t get to develop their patience skill. Like most things, patience is built. It’s a muscle.Conclusion
My primary hope is that this article encourages you to spend more time on your bike between trail rides, and more time sessioning challenges while on trail rides. If you can mix in some visualization practice and develop more nuanced bike-body-mind awareness during your repetitive practice attempts, your skill level will certainly ramp up. The payoff is incredible - with a trials riders’ eye and abilities, every trail ride is filled with creative opportunity and fun.
If you’d like to learn more about each of these topics I’ll be offering an interactive deep-dive webinar
on September 29th, and would love to have you join in.
Happy (and safe!) practicing,Ryan Leech has been a pro rider since 1997, and runs an online mountain bike skills coaching community called RLC-MTB Coaching. https://learn.ryanleech.com/ He’s supported by @shimano Components, @norcobicycles Bicycles, @MarzocchiMTB Suspension, Kenda Tires, and Ryders Eyewear.