A few months ago, when I was thinking about things that I needed to improve on for a solid Xterra season, the first thing on the list was technical MTB skills. I realized that in the course of a race, I was losing time and expending way more energy navigating the technical bike sections, and if I could spend 10% less time and energy just by working on skills, not by getting faster, that’s a no brainer. So I signed up for a clinic with Ninja Mountain Bike Skills and decided to try really hard to keep an open mind. I’m not a huge fan of clinics just on a personal, self conscious level, so this was a big step for me.
It was amazing.
This is less about showcasing specific skills I learned, and more about what I learned about attending a clinic, if that makes sense.
Attending a clinic is hard: It means you need to check your ego at the door and even if you’ve been riding for years, you need to have a beginner mindset if you want to really get anything out of one.
With that said, here were my main takeaways:
1. If you are self-conscious, decide which makes you more comfortable—a clinic with your friends, or a clinic with total strangers. I get twitchy at the thought of screwing up in front of people I know, so for me, taking a clinic across the country from home, with no one I knew, was ideal. It’s like public speaking—I don’t mind being in front of a large crowd of people I don’t know, but when it’s my friends and colleagues, that can be really stressful for me.
2. Embrace being a beginner—no matter how seasoned you are, you don’t know everything. You will learn much more if you approach it as a new experience and picture yourself as a blank slate.
3. Check your ego at the door—you get more out of a clinic if you make mistakes and get corrected. If you’re timid and try to do things slowly or in a small way (i.e. taking a corner slowly instead of trying to get some speed with the technique you just learned) you’ll do them right but won’t improve much. I generally try to make myself go hard enough to crash at least once at these things—that way I know I pushed my limits!
4. Don’t try to teach the class—if you have riding experience, it’s really tempting to start talking over the teacher, ignoring him or her, or correct other people around you. Don’t do it. You’re here to learn, not teach. Encourage your fellow students but don’t try to teach them yourself. Odds are good they don’t want to hear it, anyway.
5. Have fun—this is actually the hardest for me. For me, clinics are terrifying, screwing up in front of groups is terrifying, and not being good at something is terrifying. But if you can switch that mindset and start thinking of it as playing, start laughing, start joking around, make friends, and act goofy (I make car noises on the bike), then it turns from work to play pretty darn fast.
If you’re thinking about finding a clinic, I also recommend emailing the person running it and asking some questions. I asked about what skills would be covered and what “intermediate/advanced” meant, and I think it paid off—there were definitely people in the class who probably would have benefited from the beginner session first, and there were people who were so advanced that they should have gone for a specific clinic like the jumping one that they offer instead. I was in a good spot—not a beginner, and with pretty decent control over the bike, but green enough that I had a lot of room to improve. And at the end of the day, I had a whole bunch of new skills, and a couple new friends!
Things I learned, that I didn’t totally expect to learn: I learned a lot of tricks for going up and over stuff (the different kinds of hops) and mastered lifting just my rear wheel off the ground. I also figured out the difference between a bunny hop and a flat hop, and actually could feel the difference. Most valuable though, was the cornering skills section. We were talking about leaning the bike and maintaining body position, and while I was having trouble figuring that out when we were talking about fore and aft at first, I totally understood the side tilt thanks to all of my practice on the road bike with standing. So I was pretty psyched when I was able to actually rip around turns on a gravel descent. It’s still not easy winding through trees at a ton of speed, but I definitely started to feel a lot more comfortable on the bike.
Bottom line? Sign up for a clinic if you’re looking to get better on the MTB or ’cross bike. Just make sure you do your homework first, and show up with a good attitude.