Editor's Note: Sarah Dorminy, aka Van Girl, is an aspiring rider who has surrounded herself with bikes more in a year than most people do in a lifetime. Being an engineer by trade, she's a natural bike geek who equates fun with progression. Her longest day of riding involved over 6,000' of climbing in the Himalaya of Nepal.
I woke up bright and early, tuned my bike, packed my lunch, and daydreamed of all the wheelies I'd do on the way back home from my first mountain bike skills clinic. I had high expectations for the day.
My mountain biking career started less than 18 months ago when my first MTB arrived in the mail on my 28th birthday. It was beautiful, a Kona Hei Hei Trail DL with 29er wheels and geometry that made riding trails comfortable and easy. It was essentially my first real bike.
Growing up, I was more of a book reader than a bike rider. I was the kid who would leave her bike at the base of a tree, get lost in a book, and climb down hours later to find the bike had been stolen. After the second stolen bike, my parents weren't willing to throw their money away on another guaranteed loss. So I grew up traveling the neighborhood on foot, which gave me a really good feel for walking. At least I had that going for me.
Flash forward two mountain bikes, countless miles of singletrack, bikepacking in Nepal, a Strava account, and a Northstar bike park pass later. I was pushing my limits and looking for new ways to get better and faster. Up until that point, the extent of my learning had been watching YouTube videos and listening to my boyfriend (who's been riding two-wheeled machines since the day he could walk) explain how to do something that he does as naturally as breathing.
Sometimes it worked really well; I'm convinced he can teach line choice better than anyone else on the planet. Sometimes it would end in frustration and tense words, with him throwing his hands up and saying, "I don't know. Just ride your bike more and that's how you learn." I'm an impatient person. I'm also approaching 30 and have no more childhood left to dedicate to building the muscle memory and confidence that come from growing up on a bicycle. So I enrolled in a skills clinic. Dylan Renn, owner of A Singletrack Mind, happened to be holding a women's-specific fundamentals clinic just down the road from my house. Perfect!
I found the class meeting spot, mounted my new Liv Hail, joined the small circle of women, and waited for Dylan to wave the magic wheelie wand over my head. The day began with a review of gear and bike setup, with some personalized suggestions on how to improve them. Dylan suggested that I push my cleats farther back on my shoes for more stability and better power transfer.
Then the real work began. The full seven hours of lessons flew by. Each lesson began with a detailed explanation, followed by one-on-one practice with Dylan. Then we solidified what we'd learned with drills, while Dylan critiqued our execution and recorded video of each of us so that we could critique ourselves.
Dylan is a likeable and genuine person. His attitude and ability to level with every rider created an atmosphere comfortable enough for messing up and asking questions. He's obviously a very skilled rider and had a way of demonstrating skills precisely, without being showy or intimidating. He walked us through body position, climbing/descending balance points, body-bike separation, slow and high-speed cornering, track stands and ratcheting, and how to correctly look ahead on the trail. It was a full day and we still had enough energy for a fun post-clinic group ride.
As the day came to an end, I was only a little bummed that I wouldn't be showing off my wheelie skills when I got home that evening... In all seriousness, I knew the clinic wasn't going to be about wheelies or magic wands that turn you into Brandon Semenuk. Real progress takes dedication, commitment, and a lot of practice, of course. All the things many of us don't have the time or patience for, except when it comes to what we love most. So since I can't end this story with a tale of me riding all the way home on my back wheel, I'll tell you what I did learn.
No. 1, a fundamentals class should make you hyper aware of your body's posture and position in relation to your bike. You might (will) feel awkward on the first few rides, as you force yourself to break bad habits and ride how you now know is correct. I honestly felt as though I'd digressed after the clinic. I overanalyzed every movement, forgot to breathe, and came dangerously close to eating dirt a few times. But if you practice and stick it out through a handful of sketchy rides, it will pay off. Some of the techniques that felt so forced right after the clinic are already starting to become more natural movements, and my confidence and speed are undoubtedly benefiting from it.
Second, If you are new to riding and/or taking lessons, I suggest reading a book or watching instructional videos before you attend a skills clinic. This will help you get an idea of what you will be learning. You will want to practice and be able to execute these skills to some degree, before showing up to the class. The most valuable part of the class will be the coach's observation and critique of your execution, so you should show up prepared and not have the clinic be the first time you try everything.
On the flip side, if you're a seasoned rider, don't think you can't benefit from reviewing the fundamentals and getting some constructive criticism from a coach. No one's perfect, and old habits are much harder to break than new ones.
Even if you don't leave the class with an impressive new skill to show off with, a whole day of focused attention on your body's abilities will teach you a lot. I learned that my lack of flexibility is really hindering my riding. Too much sitting at a desk and not enough stretching has left my hips too tight for me to get in a proper low attack position. Even though trading trail time for yoga and foam rolling is the last thing I want to do, I may not progress as quickly without it.
Also know that every coach's style and philosophies are different from the next. When I compared notes with friends who had participated in other clinics, I was surprised to find that our coaches' instructions were conflicting. Turns out, there's more than one way to approach just about any skill, and most people believe very strongly that their way is the right way. Don't accept what any one coach teaches you as the end-all be-all. Try different approaches, and find what works best for you.
The Singletrack Mind clinic was only one part of the last year and a half that has seen me go from a girl who wouldn't ride off a sidewalk curb to one who hops and sails through Tahoe's rock gardens. Maybe my boyfriend is right. Simply riding your bike more will make you a better rider. Maybe the coaches are right, too. You need to learn to walk before you run. Maybe the secret is daily driveway sessions perfecting track stands and bunny hops. I'm pretty sure it takes a mixture of all of it, which sounds to me like a great excuse to spend more time on my bike. And you won't hear me complaining about that!
To learn more about A Singletrack Mind, visit www.asingletrackmind.com. Dylan hosts riding clinics across the country, for riders of all skill levels, including women, beginners, and advanced riders.