Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Like Riding a Bike, but Better: Gene Hamilton's BetterRide Clinic

I learned to ski when I was 12. Most of my friends were already cruising the intermediate slopes while I struggled to stand up long enough to get pulled to my doom by the bunny hill tow rope. Nonetheless, some saint of an instructor with endless patience managed to mold me into an eventual powder-junkie.

Not taking ski lessons was not an option. There is really no way to decipher the endless amount of subtleties that add up to a safe and proficient skier. Of course, there are examples of people picking up skiing as if they’re riding a bike, but those intuitive folks are few and far between. But when it comes to actually riding a bike, taking lessons is still a new and strange concept. Perhaps because we learn enough skills as kids on cruisers to get us through the initial stages of singletrack mastery, we assume that the way to get better at riding bikes is to keep riding bikes.

That’s what I thought, anyway. If I spend more time on my bike, I’ll get so comfortable that I’ll naturally be able to tackle even the tech-iest of terrain. As my yearly emergency room visits can attest, my method is flawed. So, when Gene Hamilton agreed to hold his first-ever all-women’s downhill clinic at the end of February, I was excited to see what I’d been missing out on for the past 12 years of my riding career.

It turns out that I’ve been missing a lot. I’m actually amazed that I have even made it this far with my riding the way it was. We met Gene in the parking lot at Bootleg Canyon, NV on a Friday morning, the first of three full days of riding and learning. There were 10 of us girls, ranging from pro racers to intermediate riders, and we were all making the same mistakes.
We began the clinic a bike check, to make sure all of our rides were set up properly. Most of us needed to make a few tweaks, like moving our brake levers closer to our bars for easier grip and less arm pump. While assessing suspension on one rig, Gene’s assistant Andy Winohradsky discovered a completely blown fork. Luckily, a quick switch-out with the rider’s (who will remain anonymous to protect the innocent) boyfriend’s bike allowed her to ride successfully for the entirety of the clinic.From there, we worked on mind-blowing exercises like looking ahead, learning to manual, cornering properly, pumping terrain, and braking correctly. You may think I’m being sarcastic, but the truth is that each exercise opened up new doors to confidence and speed on the trail. For instance, actually looking ahead like I’m supposed to proved to be the most challenging task of the weekend. Apparently I like to look about 10 feet ahead when it’s clear, and follow tricky sections with my eyes until my wheel’s made positive contact with the offending part of the trail. I had to try, work, and think non-stop about keeping my peepers on track. But when we combined the importance of really, truly looking ahead with riding some tight, rocky, exposed switchbacks on Sunday, it all came together. Each of us made the intimidating turns with ease when we kept our sights focused.Riding with Gene was great. When we rode singletrack, we rotated through following right behind him, so everyone—even the shyest riders—got a chance to follow someone with proper form and technique. In addition, Gene and Andy gave feedback to every rider as we worked on tasks in the parking lot and on the trail. Even better was the incredible camaraderie that developed between everyone taking the clinic. It was great to see riders improve while practicing each task, and gain confidence throughout the weekend. And, it was inspiring to hear everyone cheering as we each rode down a steep, loose, twisty section of singletrack while applying just the front brake.I wish that a lot of these good habits had been ingrained in my brain from my first day on a bike, like proper ski form and technique were drilled in my head on the bunny hill. However, I’m so glad that I was able to make my downhilling discoveries with such a fun and supportive coaching staff and group of riders. I can’t wait for it to stop snowing in Salt Lake so I can put my new skills to practice on the trail.

For more information about Gene Hamilton's BetterRide Clinics, and to sign up for upcoming events, visit BetterRide.net.

Captions from top to bottom: The crew minus yours truly; Allie asks a question; Learning to corner (aka leaning to corner); Christine cornering the cones.

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