Wednesday, May 19, 2004
The eyes are the windows to the soul... yeah, whatever. We are Mountain Bikers and not concerned with such sensitive pablum. We just want to ride better and faster. Now the eyes, or more precisely, how we use them, become more important than some romantic notion. While you are working over that sweet technical singletrack at a high rate of speed, your brain needs images to process in order to make the incomprehensible number of decisions required to keep your nose out of the tree bark. If you optimize how these images are gathered you can really expand your comfort zone. You will be going faster and it will feel easier. Unfortunately, for most of us these skills are not natural and must be learned, trained and practiced until they become second nature every time you get on the bike.
A big problem that many newer off-road riders have is simply that they don't look far enough ahead while they are riding. Even if you have tons of experience you will probably still benefit from constantly telling yourself to look farther up the trail. I'm sure it has happened to all of us. Things start to get technical with rocks, wet roots and other nasties threaten to yank away our front wheel. To try to keep this from happening we focus on what is just in front of our wheel. It works, we manage to stay upright, but we're not going as fast as we could. We're fighting the trail, never really ready for what's coming next and just not able to get on top of things, to get a good rhythm going.
Here's the trick: our subconscious knows what to do. We've (hopefully) executed these small maneuvers successfully a thousand times before. If we relax enough, managing these obstacles will become instinctive. The trick is to focus on what is down the trail and let instinct take care of what is under the front wheel. How far down the trail we need to look depends on how fast we're going. Obviously, the faster you're going the farther ahead you need to focus. But, it's safe to say that it's farther up than what you are doing now.
As I said before this is not something that comes naturally. Our conscious mind wants to know that the front wheel is going to be okay. It just doesn't want to trust that job to the subconscious. This is where training is required to overcome this tendency. Every time you're riding singletrack, whenever it starts to get even a little technical, you must force yourself to focus farther up the trail than you naturally want to. Pick a distance, say ten meters (think ten yards, my American friends), then whenever you fall back into your old routine just move your focus that distance further up the trail. It may be a little scary at first. Your conscious mind might think it doesn't know what the front wheel is going to do. While you are developing this skill you will need to continually reassure yourself that you can handle what's coming without staring at it whole way. A good way to transition from the old "staring at the front wheel" to our new method is to scan the trail as you ride. Try to spend most of the time looking well down the trail, but every few seconds have a quick glance at the ground close to the front wheel for reassurance. Just don't forget to look ahead again afterwards.
Another benefit to keeping our head up is that due to the workings of the inner ear our balance is best when our heads are level. This is why that cop had you tip your head back for that sobriety test last New Year's Eve. So, even if the going gets really slow, try to keep your head up.
If you have any doubts about the effectiveness of this technique try this: go watch a downhill race or look at some pictures. Downhillers tackle brutal terrain at speeds that seem incomprehensible to many cross-country riders. Try to see where they are looking. I guarantee you'll not see them staring at the ground in front of them. Rather, it will look like they are reading the ground a hundred meters ahead.
While I am talking about how best to use your eyes while riding there is something else that needs to be discussed. It is a phenomenon known as "target fixation". When I work with new off-road riders I tell them that this is the single-most valuable technique I can give them. Boiled down to its essence it is this simple, you will be drawn to whatever you are looking at. If you're not
careful this can be a bad, bad thing. Let's imagine a nice stretch of trail with one big, bad, rim-eating rock. If you're focusing on that rock you will ride right in to it. That's target fixation. The obvious cure is not to look at the rock. That's only part of it. Our goal should be to see everything but only focus on the narrow path that we want our wheels to take. A technical trail needs to be scanned so that the best line can be found but once that line is found that should be the only thing you see. Then the scanning, selecting and focusing routine is repeated, over and over and strung together seamlessly. The
difficult part is that you have to completely disregard, even make disappear, something that really bothers you. Think about this: a 2 by 6 board lying flat on the ground. All of us could ride right over that without a problem or a worry. Now, if we suspend that 2 by 6 30 feet above a creek bed we've got a problem. The task isn't any more difficult but most of us will be terribly distracted by the drop on either side of the board. If you can focus totally and completely on the board you can ride it. I ride with some young guys whose ability to ride scary stuff amazes me. Razor's-edge ridges, narrow log bridges, wet rock faces with only one rideable line, it doesn't phase them. What bothers me is that I could ride it too, but my focus isn't strong enough anymore. Don't let this happen to you. Every ride, focus, concentrate only on the good. Don't even acknowledge the bad and the ugly.
Here is one way that we can make target fixation work for us. On fast, relatively wide turns, like a logging road descent, we can borrow something from the car and motorcycle racers. On a turn like this we want to make our arc as large as possible to maintain our speed. We do this by entering the corner as wide as possible to the outside. Start to cut in towards the far inside of the corner. At the halfway point of the turn, known as the "apex", we should be as close to the inside as possible. Now we can start to drift back out to the outside of the corner and hopefully we can exit it at a high rate of speed on the far outside edge. The visual focus technique that the throttle-twisters use is this: as they are entering the turn but before they commit they will pick the apex and focus on where they want to be at that point, which is at the far inside. Focusing on the apex will draw you right to it. Once committed to a line and heading for the apex the point of focus needs to change. Now the rider will lock onto the point at the outside of the track where he wants to be at the exit of the corner. Once past the apex he will start accelerating to this exit point. In high-speed turns this technique can be used to great effect on a mountain bike as well. On a good full suspension bike you can take the fastest line even if it isn't the smoothest. If we're careful we can even accelerate away from the apex. By straightening our outside arm and shifting our body weight a bit to the inside we can reduced the lean angle of the bike and get some clearance to pedal. Do this smoothly and carefully so as not to drag a pedal which can lead to some nastiness.
As you perfect these techniques you will find yourself going faster with less stress. It won't be easy, it will take diligent effort to become second nature. But it will be worth it. Your comfort zone will have expanded and you will be on your way to becoming a true Zen mountain bike master. And isn't that really what it's all about?