Riding Tip/Editorial


Words Lee McCormack
Date Jul 22, 2020
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Lately I've been SO STOKED on riding! I'm riding almost every day and getting really fit. As stoked as I am, I must admit I've been descending slowly and carefully relative to my potential.

Why am I riding below my potential?

1) Medication. A couple years ago I was diagnosed with depression. I've had a hard time adjusting to riding on meds.

2) Risk aversion. I cannot afford to get hurt. Like most of you.

3) Life stress. When I am stressed off the bike, it makes me tense on the bike. It's like there's a direct connection between my broken inner child and those damn brake levers.

As a professional mountain bike skills coach, I believe we can all benefit from help.

The more control you give up in a moment by letting go of the brakes, the more control you gain overall.

I recently rode with a guy names Myles Rockwell. Myles is a dad and a cool fellow, and he happens to be the 2000 Downhill World Champion. We went to our local gnarly spot. Stuff I know. Most of what Myles said to me I say to my clients every day, but it's different when you're at your limit and it's being told to you. My base is good. As he said, I have good enough skills, I'm strong enough and I'm riding great equipment. The limiting factor is mental.

I'm braking way too often, way too passively and way too unconsciously. I know about this! I teach emphatic braking to people all the time! But I'm struggling with it. I think it comes from 1) the meds, 2) anxiety, and 3) a habit that I've developed from lots of "successful" braking. Successful meaning the braking has given me the result I want — that I haven't been crashing. But I'm not achieving Flow either, and that needs to be part of the goal.

Brake less but brake harder. Instead of dragging brakes through long sections, let the bike run then brake harder when it counts. I know this, but I needed the reminder. We played games like, coast in from here and don't brake until you reach this rock. After some stressful reps, we moved the rock farther down the trail.


Trail braking. Myles didn't call it trail braking, but this is what he was doing. In the spirit of condensing braking, and working with great gobs of energy in focused moments, he encouraged me to 1) start braking late, 2) brake very hard into the corner, 3) lay heavily on the front wheel (and the brakes) in the beginning of the turn then, 4) at the moment of special juiciness, to let go of the brakes and start pumping the turn. Braaap!

Spend more time falling. Not falling as in falling off your bike. Falling as in freefalling down the trail. Enjoying the sweet nothingness of floating light over some rocks, of accelerating downhill without braking. That's when your bike works best, and that's when you have no tension. Learn to trust and enjoy that feeling. I, for one, hated the feeling of acceleration when skydiving, but I loved the beautiful violence of riding bulls. Go figure.

8.2pumptrailYANN (1).jpg

Focus the energy. This is the opposite side of the freefalling wave. When it's time to brake or turn, do it very heavy. Read the terrain. Look for natural heavy spots (the landing off a rock drop, say). Use them with great intention. I know this! But it's impossible to do when you're nervous.

Look way ahead. We all know this, but we forget when we're stressed. More specifically, look as far ahead as you can. Pick the most distant reference point you can see. Decide where you're going to brake and turn. As needed, check the closer reference points as they scroll at you, but keep picking distant ones. "Don't brake until I get ... right ... there."


Open it up. Let the bike run. The more control you give up in a moment by letting go of the brakes, the more control you gain overall. Good life lesson.

Be willing to make mistakes. Push a bit harder. Don't insist on everything being perfect. Believe that I can make a mistake and not get hurt. But, at the same time, make a decision about how much risk I want to take on. (My answer is zero).

Gain 15-20%. I told Myles that I feel I can gain some speed/flow without taking any more risk. As a matter of fact, if I ride more emphatically, riding will be both more fun and safer. He agreed and said I can gain 15-20% without increasing risk.

That'll suffice.

How about you? What do you need to focus on?

Lee McCormack is the author of 9 books on mountain biking, an active coach, and the inventor of the RipRow, a mountain biking strength and conditioning tool, to name just some of his production. You can track him down using the links below.




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+1 Pete Roggeman
Scott Jamieson  - July 22, 2020, 4:51 a.m.

I feel like I used to ride a lot faster, or at least more time closer to my limit, about 4 years ago. For me, being in my office on Monday morning without 50 "what happened? Fight with a tree?" comments is important. I have glimpses of the old speed, but then finger goes to lever and I'm kinda just coasting. @Lee, what do you think about confidence vs. skill vs. consistency?


+5 Pete Roggeman twk Scott Jamieson AJ Barlas lewis collins
leelikesbikes  - July 22, 2020, 12:32 p.m.


Skill leads to confidence, which leads to consistency. Then you get a feedback loop that increases all of those things. 

I think that seems pretty simple, but very few riders invest the time/attention to improve skill -- yet they expect to be confident and consistent.



+1 Kerry Williams
James Vasilyev  - July 26, 2020, 2:58 p.m.

what, your office doesn't agree with your Fight Club lifestyle? not that you want to talk about it...


+3 Pnwpedal Pete Roggeman fartymarty
danimaniac  - July 22, 2020, 6:24 a.m.

did never wanna quote a disney princess but: LET IT GO

yeah..that's what I'm focussing on. Letting go. Too afraid of jumps as soon as they are built somehow. wrong braking, too, I guess


+2 Pete Roggeman Jonas Dodd
Cr4w  - July 22, 2020, 7:37 a.m.

I was told once upon a time that you shouldn't brake through the apex of the turn, that braking into the turn is poor form, forces you to ride slow and causes braking bumps. That you should enter the the turn as fast as you dare the carry that speed all the way through. Once you get up the nerve to try that at your limit and survive you realize how much faster you could be going. 

So now I bring that approach to everything. See how far I can make It through certain sections brakeless, or as fast as possible. I try to surprise myself a few times a ride .


+4 Pete Roggeman Cam McRae lewis collins Kerry Williams
Greg Anderson  - July 22, 2020, 7:53 a.m.

Good article by Lee... It's heartening to hear that the struggle is real even for top notch riders/coaches.

So much I need to work on. Mitigating risk needs to be a thing for me at 51, but at the same time I got started late in the sport so I'm still getting better skill wise, if not endurance wise, so I try to push myself as much as I can.

It seems once you have a certain base skill set, it really does become a mental game. Knowing what to do and trusting in yourself, your equipment, your setup... etc are 2 different things. Sometimes I'll flow through things without thinking, looking ahead like a champ... occasionally a little rock will catch my attention and an involuntary series of mental messages (..your front tire is about to clip that rock and wash out..) will basically take over and lock me up, essentially fulfilling the prophecy right off the trail. I make plenty of technical mistakes, especially with climbing, but its the mental ones that really bother me.


Pete Roggeman  - July 22, 2020, 9:36 a.m.

Totally agree - hearing about what elite riders and coaches struggle with, or are working on, is really helpful and encouraging. Especially when it's a lot of the same stuff I have issues with!

Mental side is a big thing and I don't really know how to overcome mental blocks except by riding through it, trying new trails, riding with other people, or on the hardtail from time to time. One or a combo of those things usually works.

However, we've been talking about coaching and technique a lot lately (watch for more articles about it) and realizing that amongst our wide group of very experienced and capable riding buddies, none of us has had much coaching - at all - in 20 years. We did a cornering drill several weeks ago and I'm still feeling the benefits on rides now. After one practice session of about 45 minutes. So...I'll be doing that more in the future.


+2 Pete Roggeman Cam McRae
Pnwpedal  - July 22, 2020, 8:40 a.m.

Great points, and I'm also learning to do the same especially into turns. I had the biggest problem of dragging my brakes through berms because I couldn't seem to get my body far enough forward on the bike. Some setup changes later, I'm turning faster and when I can manage to rail a berm the feeling is AMAZING.

Also, brake selection is huge here. So many riders on hard metal pads with brakes that don't have a ton of power will end up riding the brakes as they can't really rely on them at the last minute. I recently switched to MTX red ceramic pads on my XT brakes and the power on hand is immense.


+3 fartymarty Pete Roggeman lewis collins
Morgan Heater  - July 22, 2020, 1:27 p.m.

I need to work on actually practicing vs. going for a ride. I've been rock climbing for over 20 years, and it's pretty amazing how much more time I spend training and practicing vs just going climbing. Intentional practice vs. performing. During quarantine, I spend a lot of time working on manuals, bunnyhopping, etc, and it paid pretty huge benefits when the trails opened back up. I need to get back on the plan and keep practicing.


+2 Pete Roggeman danimaniac
kain0m  - July 22, 2020, 11:01 p.m.

I think one of the main misconceptions is that "fast=flow". No, riding bikes is not about being fastest, unless you're racing. It id about having fun, feeling the flow. Going fast is where you get hurt, and hurt badly.

Letting off the brakes is great advice. It greatly increases the stability of your bike, frees up the suspension and your body. And when you find a natural braking spot, HAMMER on the brakes (without locking them up).

By going 5-10% below your limit, you'll get rid of 95% of crashes. And if you're doing it right, you'll get just as much enjoyment. You'll miss the "holy sh*t, I almost just died" moments, but you'll get to ride more since you're not broken half of the time.

Trouble with most trails and especially bike parks I know is that they are too steep. A good bike trail should have less than 5% gradient, yet most are closer to 10%... This encourages either going WAY too fast, or constantly dragging the brakes.

One final tip: stop riding trails when you're tired. If you did six laps of the park, and towards the end of the last one you're hanging on for dear life, just let it be. If your buddies wanna go for another lap, fine, let it be. The last one will not be fun, you're simply trying to survive. And then you get hurt and you can't for a month - it's simply not worth it.


+1 danimaniac
Pete Roggeman  - July 23, 2020, 9:21 p.m.

This may be a comment with regional bias: I love trails with 5 or 10 degree slopes, however I also love trails with significantly more and they also have flow (and we don't ride them all that fast, relatively). But I guess as a rule of thumb for flow-based riding across a wide array of skill levels, that makes sense.


danimaniac  - July 24, 2020, midnight

yes, to both of you. I think both have their advantages... a up to 5° trail I'll ride a LOT faster than a 10° and more trail. Just yesterday I rode one of my favorites that is below or max 5° in the upper part and I didn't brake much. It's just pedal in, and than pump, jump roots, pump some more, hit that corner right and than big smiles and highfives at the end. Later on there's some steeper stuff without proper runouts and you start to drag the brakes a lot more to stay in control and generally ride a lot slower. But it's still flowy. And fun. Big smiles and highfives again.

For entry level riders and beginners though it's perfect when it's around 5°.... with little scares in between :D (and nice runouts, so you can actually try to deathgrip down a bit of steep)


Kerry Williams  - July 27, 2020, 11:39 a.m.

Fully agree with your post.  The more I focus on "fast", the slower and rougher I ride.  In fact, this time last year, I rode with that mentality on a night where I should have listened to my mental state better because I was definitely not "feeling it".  The end result was a badly broken leg that I'm just now getting back to using properly. Those of us that aren't racers really don't need more articles on how to be faster, and more articles about flow and how to get more fun out of a trail.  That is why we're here right? Been riding for 30 years now and fun has always been the number 1 reason I ride. Love the article Lee as it really addresses the thing that slows our progression once our base skill levels have been acheived.


Vik Banerjee  - July 23, 2020, 9:16 a.m.

Riding a hardtail a lot this winter has really made me appreciate less is more with braking. The whole bike works better when I am off the brakes and I get punished for braking poorly so that bike really rewards less braking. Although I am not necessarily going any faster overall. I'm just riding differently.


JT  - July 28, 2020, 10:01 a.m.

Me? Jumps. In the last four years or so I have just gotten so worry warted about jumps, especially the new school variety that are popping up all around, the big, long tranny table tops. Coming from a BMX background, having learned 360's on on a 97 Kona Chute with a 130mm Z1 and Tioga 66's over a proper box jump,  and learned suicides on an old Bontrager Race, it just maddens and bums me out that I'm breaking before the tranny that my friends are banging over. Mentally I KNOW I can clear it, but there's a gut reaction to slow the f down and not do so. Currently trying to peg down a weekend day where i can drive the hour to the closest jumps and just session the line most of the day, to work like Stella and get my groove back. The screwy bit: drops? Yeah, pretty much not an issue. Just a total one dimensional mental wall.


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