I’m not a skier or snow boarder, but if I ever decided to take up either sport, I would take lessons before hurtling myself down a mountain. Most people would. So, why I ever thought I could just buy a mountain bike and immediately become an expert in off road cycling I will never know.
For over ten years I have suffered both mentally and physically as fellow off road cycling friends have teased me about my abilities and from parting from the bike at the most inappropriate moments.
The tipping point came when I gave my daughter, Katherine, a mountain bike for her 18th birthday and the only advice I could give was, ‘Hang on and hope for the best’.
A professional coaching session was needed and I knew just the man who could help.
I had discovered Mike Hawtin last year on a road bike trip to the North Yorkshire Moors. Mike and his wife Amanda run a lovely cycle friendly B&B at Eleven Westgate, Pickering, where Mike also bases his ‘Gone Mountain Biking’ business.
Mike offers guided rides, (on and off road), cycle maintenance courses, and most importantly for Katherine and me; Mountain bike skills coaching. He is a fully qualified ‘we are cycling UK’ (CTC), and B1KE skills instructor.
Another advantage of Mike and Amanda’s set up, is that non cycling partners can enjoy the vast array of attractions in the area, from discovering the beautiful town of Pickering to the greater area of the North York Moors whilst the cyclists do their thing.
So, one Saturday in March, my wife Linda, Katherine and I enjoyed a hearty Yorkshire breakfast served by Amanda, before going our separate ways. Linda setting off to uncover the delights of Pickering and Katherine and I setting off, rather nervously to Dalby Forest for our first Mountain Bike lesson.
Although Mike gives coaching sessions on a one to one basis and also to groups, Katherine and I had booked a coaching session for just the two of us. We chatted to our very affable instructor as we drove to the beautiful Dalby Forest., Mike informed us that it is preferable to have a one to one or small group such as our ‘Dad and daughter session’. The reason being, there is less peer pressure in front of friends and family, and thus less chance of a participant feeling ‘forced’ to attempt something they are not comfortable with, which could result in unfortunate occurrences.
The aim of the day was not only to master the physical aspect of riding a mountain bike but also to master the psychological elements, namely the four ‘C s’; Control, Confidence, Concentration and Commitment.
Mike asked about our experience and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was not alone in seeking help after years of riding. Additionally, others had attended a course thinking they would just support a friend or partner only to discover that they learnt just as much!
Dalby Forest hosted rounds of the UCI World Cup Cross Country Championships for two consecutive years in 2010 and 2011, and has grown in popularity ever since. We pulled into the busy car park at the visitor centre, and off loaded our bikes. The first lesson was bike safety and set up. Mike immediately noticed I had a bar end missing. I should have known better as an open handle bar end can do awful damage to the human body, acting as some kind of ‘human apple corer’. Mike magically pulled a spare end out of his kit bag and the risk of a hospital visit was averted.
The condition of our bikes passed the test, however Mike pointed out the position and reach of Katherine’s brake levers needed adjustment. The reach for female riders often has to be changed due to their smaller hand span. Additionally, the levers should be in line with the natural grip position of the rider, i.e. forearms, wrists, fingers used for braking and brake levers all in a natural straight line. Mike adeptly adjusted Katherine’s levers to the perfect position.
Although Katherine and I were keen to start pedalling, the next lesson was how to stop!
Mike first talked to us about our understanding of braking and gently informed us of the reasoning behind the recommended method. He then demonstrated how to brake effectively before we each took it turns, putting in turning theory into practice.
This set the format for the day, Mike would talk through the activity and skill, ensuring we understood the reasons behind the techniques,. he would demonstrate the skill and then we took turns in trying to replicate the proficiency.
We covered; riding position, turning in tight circles, cornering and, riding over steps and bumpy bits (as Katherine referred to them). All of which had the common theme of ‘look where you want to go’ and not just the area in front of the bike.
Mike’s instructions and coaching skills were excellent, having great patience and ability in teaching us each skill set. It was obvious Mike had a deep understanding and experience of mountain biking as well as a superb demeanour, very well suited to teaching the subject. We never felt rushed and each lesson was filled with laughter, especially from Katherine who had enormous pleasure in seeing her Dad struggle with almost every session.
It should also be noted that Mike’s comments were always positive, never once did we hear Mike say that we had done it wrong or made mistakes. “So what?” I hear you ask, but that positive approach made a huge difference to our confidence and to the enjoyment of the day.
Indeed, Mike must be doing something right as we discovered this year Mike is celebrating ten years of skills coaching in the Dalby Forest. No doubt Mike will celebrate by enjoying a ride in the forest before raising a glass to the hundreds of cyclists he has helped over the last decade.
Mike also employed a great training tool. He would film us on his phone, then play back the footage in slow motion. Mike also had the ability to freeze a frame and draw lines on the image showing us how we should be positioned or the line we should take. We both found this very useful if not essential to our development. It was remarkable to see where we could improve just by looking at the images.
Once we were comfortable with our new level of skills, we set off through the forest, putting all we had learnt into practice.
More laughs each time I or Katherine got it wrong. Sarcastic comments of “Weren’t you listening Dad” or “Have you learnt nothing today Katherine!” could often be heard above the bird song throughout the afternoon. Not sure our remarks to each other fitted in with Mike’s positive coaching methods, but it made us both analyse our riding. And if we couldn’t work out where it all went wrong, Mike was on hand to explain and show us how we could do better.
We stopped to refuel at an area used to practise jumps. Even though Katherine and I had already made great progress in our off road skills, we both agreed big jumps were probably not for us, ever! Luckily our visit corresponded with Mike and Amanda’s children’s school charity project. Homemade flapjacks had been made to raise money. We had taken full advantage and loaded our jersey pockets with the large treacle infused treats. Delicious and just what we needed.
However, it was just as well we didn’t know what lay ahead or we would have probably been too nervous to eat them! Around the corner Mike introduced us to the ‘Hill of Doom’. As we stopped near the top of the steep embankment, it looked at first like a sheer drop. We walked to the top and listened to Mike intently on how to safely ride safely down the severe gradient.
Mike demonstrated; pushing the bike through, positioning himself off and behind the saddle. Katherine and I looked at each other as only two people who know each other very well can, and said;
“Oh my word what have we let ourselves in for”, “Dad what are you doing to me”,
“Sorry Katherine, please forgive me”.
I volunteered to go first and recalling Mike’s words of not only of how to physically carry out the manoeuvre, but also to remember to breathe! In particular, taking a big exhalation fools the mind and body that everything is okay. I mastered the downhill challenge first time and even enjoyed it! My confidence had certainly grown.
Katherine suffered a first refusal before also successfully accomplishing the test, after gentle but firm encouragement from Mike. Katherine’s face was a picture, one of total pride in overcoming her initial fear. By following and trusting in Mike’s instructions and understanding the reasoning behind why we had to push the bike through we had both conquered our fears.
We enjoyed the ‘Hill of Doom’ so much that we both had another go before riding off again through the forest. Our confidence and skills had increased so much, that the task of following the blue trail which included a raised single track was taken in our stride. There was no way at the start of the day we would have even entered the thought of riding this part of the trail.
A high point of the day for me, came when part of the trail ended and joined the forest track via a steep short rocky descent. I found it natural to push the bike through and look where I wanted to go without a second thought or instruction from Mike.
Our last lesson was how to ride a ‘bomb hole’ and of course the reasons behind the technique. In the past I would have watched friends ride this kind of feature but never have the nerve to ride down and up the sharp indentation. Mastering the bomb hole almost like a pro was great fun, as Mike could tell from the wide smiles on our faces and the giggles from Katherine. The penny was finally dropping why people enjoy mountain biking so much.
All too soon the day’s coaching and riding was over, leaving us wanting more, which has got to be a good sign.
Back at the B&B and over a cup of tea and home made banana cake, we thanked Mike for a great day and discussed what we had learnt. Certainly we could tick off all the four ‘C s’. We all agreed that both Katherine and I had made massive progress in our off road skills and confidence.
The day was wonderfully rounded off in the Black Swan, (HQ of the regional CTC back in the day), over a lovely meal and on site – brewed beer, swapping stories with Linda about our day’s activities. It had been a great weekend enjoyed by all.
I wish I had been coached years ago, but then as Mike has proven, it is never too late……