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Bespoken Word: Groundhog day

Bespoken Word
(Image credit: Courtesy)

Stay home, stay safe. Ride local. Ride solo - or with one other person. Don’t travel to ride. Limiting our pedaling is a very small ask to control a lethal pandemic and we’re damn lucky to be able to get out and enjoy our sport at all, but Covid restrictions are definitely a drag. So how can you turn local laps into a positive so you come out of lockdown a significantly better rider, and not just stuck in an ever-deepening rut?

First up let’s amp up that positivity. We're not expecting you to pretend your local dog muck booby-trapped woods are Morzine. We understand you might have to drag your MaxxGrip DDs miles to find a downhill longer than a minute. However low you get your knee on the mini roundabout outside Sainsburys it’s not sweeping round the hairpins of Sa Calobra. Fitting all the bags in the world to your bike won’t create the illusion of endless escape for long if the ‘advisory distance’ choke chain pulls tight around your dangle mug 10km from home either.

Locked down, not locked in

On the positive side though, minute-long downhills don’t take long to push back up. That means more runs to dial in both those corners, get your foot placement just right to slalom the plastic bagged dog bombs and maybe start making shapes on the sketchy jump the local kids have built. If you get used to how your bike feels cranked right over going dizzy on wet, cold, diesel-dripped roundabouts then you’ll be a Moto GP god on bone dry roads with warm rubber. Even bikepackers can refine what rattles or rubs and try and answer the endless ‘what tire’ question on short, local rides too.

Let’s look at how short these rides actually are. In theory, if you include the ride out and back to the start point and then pedal around the circumference of a 10km circle from home you’ll be clocking over 80km. Flip back round and reverse it and you’re well on the way to a full imperial century if we are talking old money. Thanks to our congested country there’s generally a vast web of different route options within that circle to create days of riding without having to repeat sections and, with our geography being what it is, a variety of surfaces and gradients to create challenges from. OK, so local loops are unlikely to be the same quality fun and flow as 80km of Bike Park Wales or make you feel as legendary as straining round the 21st hairpin of the Alpe D’Huez. You’d have to live somewhere pretty grim for it to be worse than a lot of the Ride London route though and even Suffolk and Norfolk have sandy jump spots to get your dirt fix. Plus it’s an infinitely better prospect than sobbing into your Speedos, looking forlornly at empty football pitches or practising your serve over the washing line in your back yard.

Hopefully, you’ve pumped the brakes on the pity train at least slightly now, but how can you turn better than nothing into better than what you normally do? Simple, by doing what anyone serious about improving does - getting specific, doing something measurable and experimenting to see what works best.

Bespoken Word

Whether a jump, drop or corner sequence, repetition and refinement drill in better bike skills (Image credit: Courtesy)

In fitness terms that’s interval training. Not meandering along ‘sort of having a go’ at hills until you're tired, or just burying yourself up local Strava segments and wondering why you don’t improve much month on month. I’m not going to try and tell you what to do as there’s a world of information out there on Tabata, Fartlek, ATP, V02+, HIIT - whatever you want to call them - sessions. I will tell you that they definitely work though, not just for boosting your physiological performance, but also your self-belief and confidence in that performance. If you do the whole black and white, measured max and proper rest routine right they do it far faster than you’d believe possible if you mostly ride tired, grey ‘junk’ rides.

Missing the competitive edge or want a yardstick for your gains? Set up a time trial lap or list of segments on Strava and get a friendly fight going with your mates. Worried about riding off-road alone? Buddy up with a pal for a ‘pursuit lap’ of the local trails. Add extra spice by getting another pair of riders to set off in the opposite direction and see where you crossover (socially distanced of course). Reverse the direction next week, swap partners for the fortnight after that and then start again with a different lap. That’s two months of ‘racing’ right there and from experience it gets every bit as competitive and emotional as the real thing can.

For skills or bike setup the interval equivalent is sessioning. Riding the same section up, down, along, off, round, through and over. Not just once as part of a longer ride where ‘you never get that bit right’ but as a merry go round of ride, think, adjust, repeat. And don’t underestimate just how important those two middle words are either. Whether you’re trying to get your suspension dialed or it’s your body position that you’re fighting with, really think what you’re doing and experiment.

How fast is the fork bouncing back and what effect is that having on how your wheel tracks the ground? What happens if you add a click of rebound? And then another? Now take that click off. Better? Worse? Add two clicks or take 2wo off. Is the fork too soft? Does it need a spacer to stop it blowing through the travel? Keep going until that front end is really feeling great. Now start dialing in the back end, see how that affects the front and then try and get both synced together.

What are your heels doing? Are they dropped or lifting up as you get spooked and bucked? Are your arms rigid or relaxed? Is your outside elbow up? Is your outside knee in the top tube as you enter a turn? Are you breathing easy or holding your breath in terror? Where are you looking? At imminent disaster right under your front wheel, or the exit point of a perfectly slotted glory line five seconds down the trail?

It's all about repetition

And it really is just five or ten seconds of trail that matters. You don’t need a whole mountain or minutes of trail to work with, as long as you’re totally concentrated, engaged and aware. In fact, in many ways it’s much easier to reset bad habits, then refine and hardwire new skills meter by meter, feature by feature somewhere you’re totally focused on the trail, not distracted by mountain vistas or mind-mashed five minutes into an Alpine run. After all, getting tires growling, sending gaps and perfectly pumping back slopes against a backdrop of fly-tipped garbage on town edge trails has created generations of UK DH World Champions from Peaty to Reece Wilson.

And if we’re talking about learning skills, do you think kids can wheelie so well because of all the time they’ve spent on gondola-accessed trails? No, it’s because there’s bugger all else to do than wave your front wheel in the air. In other words whenever, wherever you are on your bike, make the most of the opportunity to add some enjoyment, education, progression and entertainment, because whatever you learn now is totally transferrable when we get to play out further afield again.

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Local experimentation in line choice and body position now will be rewarded when we can ride our favorite trails again (Image credit: Courtesy)

Don’t get embarrassed, angry or impatient either, because whatever level you ride at, sticking the 'L' plates back on and re-assessing your riding is the most valuable thing you can do with your lockdown time. I listened to a brilliantpodcast with YouTube and Enduro racing legend Yoann Barelli where he explained that setting up his own coaching business and teaching others has made him realize that experimenting and changing his riding rather than just banging his head against bad habits has given him serious gains and totally recharged his enthusiasm.

So if there’s nothing else to create a difference between the days right now, make today the day you manual five seconds, tomorrow the day you manage seven and maybe by Sunday you’ll be steezing for ten. Start with 5x30 second sprints this week and by Easter you could be doing two sets of 10 x 30 seconds sprints and smashing the climbs you used to struggle on. Dig out a map and become the Minotaur of your own local loop labyrinth or do what I’ll be doing this weekend and going for socially distanced bucket turn lessons with a local schralper half my age.

Whatever you do, make the most of the fact we can still ride in lockdown and get yourself ready to properly launch into freedom whenever that’s safe.