Staff Rider Mark can often be found getting the miles in on his Road Bike. He had never been particularly interested in Mountain Biking.
That changed this summer though and before long, Mark was seeking help from a professional 4x Racer in the shape of Tom Dowie. Read on for Mark's accounts of his transition from out and out roadie to Mountain Biker.
Riding a bike is just like...well...y’know. Most of us have at some point learnt to ride a bicycle. For some it was at the hands of a parent who would lie convincingly that ‘yes I'm holding on to the bike’ until the realisation dawned that not only had they stopped holding the bike as you were riding along but you were actually doing it alone. Or maybe you just had a group of friends you used to muck about with when you were small and gradually it just sort of happened. Despite learning to walk pretty quickly (according to my parents) I had been slow to learn to ride a bike. It’s not that I didn't want to, I was just useless. Friends, parents and one uncle had all watched my pitiful attempts which basically amounted to me treating the bike like a scooter with a saddle.
- "Look, you get the speeder bike when you get the back end out on this"
Looking back there were two main problems.
- As a kid I wasn't terribly brave.
- Nobody could actually tell me how to do it.
Bravery isn't really a problem any more. At some point most people I ride with have winced as I've charged into something only to be short-changed by lack of skill. The second point? Imagine somebody who has never ridden a bike in their life asks you how to do it. You would more than likely say;
‘Well, you just kind of do it.’
-which is obviously no help whatsoever. Eventually you would probably get there with some advice on looking where you’re going etc but it’s not as easy as you think. It’s not easy to describe how to do something that comes naturally to you.
This summer I cut down on the road riding and started improving my mountain bike riding. My off-road plugging to date had just involved riding around the fields in my local area. XC basically, which didn't really hold the technicality or thrills that I wanted. I had started riding with colleagues one night a week at Chicksands Bike Park.
For those who aren't familiar with it, Chicksands is an area of woodland that houses Downhill, jumps, 4X, Dual Slalom, Freeride and XC tracks (home of the 40ft gap jump folks). My riding there had consisted of rolling over obstacles, rolling over jumps, rolling over doubles.
Lots of rolling.
I would watch the others casually speed over things in the way and launch gracefully into the air and land smartly on the other side. As I grew weary of removing pedal spikes from my shins I looked to my colleagues for advice. Just how did they clear these things so easily?
‘Well, you just kind of do it.’
‘You don’t “just kind of do it.” How are you doing it? You must be doing something’
Lots of suggestions followed. ‘Try this’ or ‘try that’ and whilst my cornering improved, getting through obstacles efficiently and jumping was still woeful.
‘Maybe you should try to get some coaching’ suggested Grafham Cycling staff rider, Crutey. ‘Tom Dowie coaches down here. Book a session with him.’
- Tom Dowie in racing mode.
Tom Dowie is a professional 4X racer who competes on a UCI World Cup level. When he’s not racing he’s running Chicksands bike park, teaching people how to ride bikes better and carrying out routine maintenance and upgrades on the blue Volkswagen Caddy that I found myself standing next to filling out the standard ‘who do we call if you die paperwork’. After a friendly chat we walked into the bike park and he asked me to ride a couple of runs of the 4X track. He rode alongside me watching as I rolled the berms and jumps to see what he thought. After one run Tom declared that he had seen enough to work with. The cornering whilst not amazing wasn't the area that needed the most work and today’s focus was going to be pumping and jumping.
‘If you can’t pump, you can’t jump’ is Tom’s mantra.
Back at the start gate of the 4X track Tom asked me what if I knew what pumping was. After my bumbled explanation we mutually decided that it would probably be better if he just told me. He talked about the physics of pumping. This was good. Physics is a real thing rather than a point of view of what pumping is. It was a definite rule that could be followed and results achieved. Tom got busy laying out cones on the approach to the first jump and, after some explanation of basic riding position, demonstrated and explained ‘The Pump’. It turns out I was wrong about the pump.
It is not;
1. All about the arms.
2. About pushing the bike into the floor to make it recoil up.
Tom demonstrated a movement that looked kind of like he was a puppet on a string that had just been let go but then quickly retrieved and pulled up again. He also demonstrated how the timing of this movement coupled with a couple of other mentions on body position and looking ahead on the approach to a jump dictated what the bike did. I took to the start gate to roll down to the jump. I’ll be honest, I had some small doubts that what Tom had shown me was going to do anything. It seemed a bit too simple.
But it worked. Not straight away, but eventually.
- Dowie shows me how it’s done.
Timing was everything. Too late in the approach and I could feel the wheels lift off the ground (not the objective of the pump) but time it just right and the bike moved over the bumps eerily smooth, almost as if the bumps weren't quite there or were not as big as they looked. Tom watched as I repeatedly pumped over the jump offering hints and correcting me as necessary. For a while I found it a little bit tricky to get hang of the rhythm of pumping but a little bit of riding on flat ground mimicking Tom’s movements whilst counting out loud improved this no end. After a while the feeling of the back wheel digging in on the backside of the slope began to show and putting pressure on at right time made the bike pick up speed on the way out. After a while Tom was satisfied that I had got enough grasp of the principle to move on. After another pump session further down the track we moved on to the quad.
- Pump a jam.
The quad used to be the fabled Chicksands triple. But some re-shaping has built a monster of, depending which side of it you hit, four bumps or a double with a hell of a kick to it. Tom showed me how to attack the four bumps before handing me the floor. It went well and Tom told me that I was definitely picking up speed through pumping. This got the better of me and on the next run I focused on building my speed. I pushed my legs down on the backside to build my speed. It went wrong. A look at the track behind me showed scars across the tops of the bumps that showed that my loss of focus had in turn lost the smoothness. I went back to focussing on pumping and let the speed develop as a result of proper technique. Once Tom gave his approval it was time to jump.
Jumping is brilliant. There is that moment when you go through the apex of a jump that your whole body sits at zero G for a brief moment, like driving over a humpback bridge. If I’m being honest it’s the thing I’d like to be really good at and also the thing that I'm most apprehensive about. Bravery wasn't so much an issue as I attacked most jumps with gusto, but a complete lack of proper technique had seen me experience zero G before being pummelled into the floor with a set of handlebars in face or saddle in my stomach one time to many. Tom selected a ‘step-up’ jump to practice which was perfect as I would be landing (ideally) at the apex of the jump. Tom laid down his cones and instructed me on the ideal spot to pump. I rode through the berm before the jump and approached. I jumped and the rear wheel clipped the step up.
- Keeping the speed on the approach.
“Come into it faster and look down the track” Tom suggested whilst pointing to the cone he had placed down the line as a focal point.
I came out of the berm carrying more speed and pumped just right. My back wheel clipped the step up again.
- Getting it wrong. The back wheel hits the step and I pull a stupid face.
“Lift your legs up once you leave the ground” Tom instructed.
This time I sped out of the turn pumped and picked my legs up the bike cleared the step and smoothly landed on the track. When you get it right it feels so smooth that it’s hard to believe that you ever left the ground, but Tom confirmed that I had actually jumped. Repeat runs were made and when it failed I knew exactly why. I could feel when something had been wrong and was able to self diagnose not looking properly or pumping to early but when everything was right it felt pretty good.
- Getting it right. Both wheels up and I clear the jump like Bambi running from a forest fire.
Crutey arrived from performing no-handed back flips whilst juggling chainsaws on the other side of the park to watch and confirmed that I had improved no end. In the end my performance dropped off purely from being knackered and we called a close to the session. Looking back I learnt only one thing during the coaching, but its one thing that changes everything. Pumping is the Swiss Army knife of riding, a versatile tool that you can use in almost every situation to make you a better rider. We walked back to the car park and loaded the bikes and thanked Tom. He threw his bike in the back of the Caddy and pulled out of the car park whilst making a noise that suggested the engine under the hood wasn't the one it was built with. I headed back to Grafham Cycling for the Gore night ride whilst mentally shuffling my calendar around to make sure I could get back to Chicksands to practice what coach had shown me.