NICA Leadership Summit Pt.1

There he was. Lee McCormack was sitting on the floor getting ready to teach us how to ride a mountain bike. My nemesis. I sat down on the floor next to him.

“Hi Lee, I’m Doug. I ready your book on how to ride a mtb.”


With a giant grin on my face: “You are responsible for my one and only bike related trip to the ER.”

“Really me what happened.”

And strangely he was actually interested in what had happened (instead of laughing like I was). So I told him the story. He smiled and said in a serious voice “We are not telling people to preload the front shock anymore, its not needed.” Sigh…..

The NICA Leadership Summit was an amazing experience. I’m going to talk about it in a couple of parts. Today a little bit on what happened at the summit. Later what I am planning on doing here in Potsdam.

The core of the Leadership summit was a skills lesson by Lee McCormack. Lee wrote THE book on mountain bike skills and is the NICA skills coach. I’ll say first that Lee was incredibly cool to meet. You meet all kinds people in this world. Many of them are not authentic for some reason. They may just be trying to sell you something, or they may not be doing what they are supposed to be doing (and so are unhappy and cannot be authentic). Lee is authentic. If you look at his web site or read his books they can come across as hyper excited (maybe too hyper excited to be believed), but THATS Lee. If you ever get a chance to meet with him, you will understand right away. Lee is passionate. Lee is also like you and me. He was the chubby, unathletic kid who wasn’t good at sports, He found himself through biking. He’s not blessed with great physical skills but he worked with what he has and has become a truely awesome technical rider. He knows his sh!t. Sound familiar? (Yeah, except you don’t know your sh!t Doug. Shut up Yeti, I am a work in progress!)

The coaches were there to learn how to coach kids in basic skills that will make mountain biking a) safer and b) funner. The best way to do that? Well learn these skills yourself.

So we spent Saturday learning how to ride. It’s embarrassing to admit but learned I am a crappy bike rider. For example I cannot turn my bike. Oh yeah, I can crank on the handlebars, but that’s not how you turn a bike (you need to lean the bike to turn it, in case you didn’t know that little tid bit). I take solace in the fact that none of us really knew how to turn our bikes. Even the guy who had been coaching a California team for many years (our other workshop facilitator). We spent 2 hours in the classroom talking bike handling theory and then 4 hours in a paved parking lot learning how to ride our bikes.

Lee is a proponent of 3 fundamental skills.

First is balance. The mantra is “heavy feet, light hands”. You need to be on your bike without weight on your hands. You weight should be directed through your feet into your cranks (which are in the middle of the bike, but you know that right????). And so we spent the first part of our practicum riding past each other trying to find our balance. (BTW its highly embarrassing to ride and have people watching you and critiquing you. Especially when all you are doing is coasting in a parking lot.) It’s not as easy as it sounds, and if that’s trues on a flat paved parking lot, holy heck on a trail how out of balance can we be? Here try this. Stand…..I’ll wait. Now bend your knees so that your knees are over the balls of your feet. Now lean forward till your back is straight and horizontal. What did your tail do? To keep balanced it went up and back. That’s your neutral attack position. Everything that happens on your bike happens from the waist down. The key is the bike rotates under you. Upper body quiet, lower body “violent”. Try that on your bike on a flat smooth surface. Can you get that position and have no pressure on your hands? Along with that your feet. Well keep them rotated back just a little bit (flat is is best position, but a little back gives you some margin for safety when all heck breaks loose and so is more useful). I will bet that your feet are rotated forward (ALL of us were).

The second is braking. Again kind of embarrassing but do you really know how to brake? How quickly can you stop from an all out sprint? Can you do it without skidding your tires? The key here is rotating back on your bike so the force vector is directed down not forward. Engineer geek moment: you need to consider your weight and the force due to deceleration and want that directed down, not forward or up. Depending on how hard you are braking you will be back behind your seat. (BTW. Most XC bikes are set with high seats for max pedaling power. That makes maneuvering really exciting. I dropped my seat about 4″ for the skills clinic. Get it the heck out of the way. This weekend cemented the idea that I am getting a dropper seat post. Something I was considering, something I am going to be doing now. I will take the weight hit.)

The third thing is turning. You turn a bike by leaning it, not by turning the handlebars. Another engineering geek moment: When you lean a bike you change the circumference of the tire. What you are actually doing by leaning is creating a tire with variable circumference which causes the bike to turn. The more you lean the bike, the tighter it turns. The key here is you lean the bike, but not your body. You still want your weight to be driving the tires down. If you lean your body with the bike you de-weight the tires (and they wash out, one of us demonstrated that). So the bike needs to rotate under you (forward/backward for up/down and left/right for turns). Quiet upper body, violent lower body. Try this. With your feet parallel (3 and 9 o’clock) lean the bike to initiate a turn, keep your body upright in attack position, lean the bike, rotate your feet so the inner foot is up and outer foot is down, weight the outside pedal. You are turning! Chances are when you do that you will naturally go left. Most people have a dominant leg (which leg is naturally forward when your pedals are horizontal? Try coasting with your other foot forward. I bet that feels strange, really strange. I lead with my left leg.). Now try to do a turn in the other direction (so change the up and down foot and the direction of lean). How was that for you? Yeah its hard. We have a dominant leg (or as Lee calls it a smart leg and a dumb leg). I can turn left but not right. As I said, no one could turn properly when we started and we have a lot of work to do to actually learn how to turn a bike!

Those three skills are the core of everything we do on a bike. That’s what Lee calls Kung Fu. That’s what we have to teach and coach (and learn).

After we did the skills clinic (which included some other things in the parking lot, like riding off a curb) we went for a ride on some single track. The trail had some technical parts. Big boulders up and down, small (18″) drops, etc. It was hard to incorporate what we did in the parking lot. Years of riding make for a lot of muscle memory that needs to be re-learned. I did some moves that I would have probably walked before and it was a lot of fun. Well until the light got poor and the trail was hard to see. Hum. Do I go right, straight or left after I go over that boulder? Umm. Nope, not right, crash. I started to get tense. I started to look at the front of my tire. It got hard. A really valuable lesson. When you are uncomfortable, you tense, then you are at risk for going over your handlebars. Good coaching lesson to remember. Confident kids, who aren’t scared and are properly challenged are going to be safer (that was the point after all!).

Picture of the Day


“MTB Grasshopper”

(Rocking a SMALL jersey BTW.)


7 thoughts on “NICA Leadership Summit Pt.1

  1. Doug, great post. For all the riding I do, I know remarkably little about the person-bike dynamics. Your “balance/breaking/turning” starter course is excellent–I need to learn more.

  2. Pingback: Monday Morning Slider: The Return of Luge | A Year of Living...humm...dangerous?

  3. Pingback: NICA Leadership Summit Pt.2 | A Year of Living...humm...dangerous?

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