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MTB skills day with Nigel Page    By Ben Freeman

The MTB Britain crew decide they're rubbish riders on a day of skills and spills with a downhill demi-god. Read on to find out just how badly they fared and what they think they learnt.

A few months ago I came across a news article in MBR about a chap called Nigel Page, pro-DH racer, who was offering bespoke skills sessions. The article appealed to me as I thought of myself as a competent cross country rider who didn't really know how to jump the bike properly, so I contacted Nigel and arranged a days training for a group of  four riders of varying ability. Myself and Paul race each other neck and neck cross country as fast as we can go (with frequent high speed crashes); Dave has only been mountain biking for nine months and has always preferred to walk technical sections rather than try and ride them; Colin has been riding mountain bikes infrequently for two years but is quite a cautious rider. So how did we all get on?

Firstly I'll say a few words about Nigel. I'd never met him before our training day, nor even heard of him before seeing the article in MBR, so had no idea what to expect or how good he'd be as a teacher, but we were all pleasantly surprised. Nigel is a really down to earth, unpretentious guy who is very good at explaining technique. In fact the one thing you'll definitely discover, if you go on his course, is how much technique there is that you never knew about!

Having explained we were a mixed group and chatted about our requirements we set off into Delamere Forest on some easy single track. Not twenty yards from the cars, Nigel stopped and started the lesson by demonstrating riding a short section of single track (20m) with a tight chicane around some trees. Nothing special I thought, easy single track - why are we bothering? This is the start of my realisation that I really had no skill whatsoever and basically had been relying on suspension, good brakes and guts for all my technical riding (along with 95% of mountain bikers in general).

Nigel demonstrated the technique of pumping the bends and turns to gain speed and momentum and it was incredible how much speed he could pick up just coasting into the bends and not pedaling - far faster than I could ever ride the section. 

We spent about an hour practicing this section, trying to gain momentum by pumping the turns. If we'd spent our youths riding BMXs, this would all be basic stuff, but going straight to XC MTB riding, we'd missed out on all these basic skills, which when turned to cross country riding make an enormous difference.

The next skills session was steep descending, which was something that Dave and Colin wanted to cover. So we went off to a steep, loose slope to practice. Again this is where I discovered that I have no technique, yes I hurtle off full pelt down the slope without braking, but then I have to brake too much before turning so I loose all my speed. More haste ' less speed is a good summary from my report card, go into the bends slower in control and come out faster in control. Normally I go into bends skidding out of control and arrive at the far end with no idea how I made it!

The next skill was drop offs and the importance of lifting the front wheel and hopping the bike over the drop, to land in control, either rear wheel first or both wheels together. Nigel demonstrated this perfectly including bunny-hopping this gap from a standing start!

After lunch we went off to practice jumping in another area of the forest. This was probably where we learnt the most and also where we (I) realised how low in skill our riding actually was. When Nigel jumps his hard tail he picks up the front and the rear wheel exactly where he wants, controls their height perfectly in the air and lands both wheels separately with total control at exactly the right spot. He demonstrated the basic technique (American bunny-hop) and then explained why he uses it. When a low skilled rider comes down the jumps course you can see him jump then land with a 'clang' from the suspension. Then a high skill rider comes down the same course on a down hill bike but there's no 'clang', and if you watch closely you'll notice that the rear suspension never moves because the rider uses his legs to land the rear wheel perfectly smoothly on the back slope of the jump. 

Then Nigel comes down the course at about 3 times the speed of everyone else, only his jump height is almost nothing ' a few inches. Why? Well to go fast, you need to be on the ground gaining momentum by pumping each jump (riding down the back of each jump), you don't gain any speed by flying through the air. But to stay low and still go fast you can't take off on the lip of each jump as you'll jump too high and stay off the ground for too long. So you lift the front wheel before each jump and drop it over the crest of the rise to reduce the effective height of the launch ' this way you go faster by staying lower and in contact with the ground. It's really weird to watch ' Nigel flies down the jumps course, over each jump but hardly leaves the ground. Instead, his wheels are bobbing up and down at mach 6, but under his control ' he's lifting the bike over the jumps.

Now this is all very impressive, but can we do it? No. Our skill level is way too low and unless you can do a decent bunny hop to order, you can't really start learning to jump properly. For a decent bunny hop, lift the front wheel (at low speed) whilst riding along and then lift the rear wheel whilst the front is in the air. E.g. clearing a 4' log at five miles per hour in total control. If you can do this (none of us could) then you can progress to the next level. In our defence, XC suspension bikes make it very hard to lift the front wheel as the balance point is too far back and the stems make the reach very long, so its harder to lean back and lift the front wheel easily. If you can do it on the flat ' try it on a downhill section at low speed ' I couldn't lift my Attack Trail at all on a slope ' which proved to be my undoing on the jumps course.

Not only could I not lift the front wheel high enough, but for some reason (probably panic) I pushed it down the minute I took off, so 90% of my jumps where through the air with all the weight on the front wheel. This is the most unstable and dangerous way to jump, as if the front wheel lands off line or hits anything, you'll face plant instantly. On a few occasions I did manage a proper jump technique ' but it was never caught on film, so you'll have to take my word for it! 

Nigel recommended that we go away and swap our stems for a cheap shorter version and practice bunny hops and wheelies with platform pedals (rather than SPDs).

In conclusion what did we learn? Well personally what most amazed me was how little skill I actually had and how much real technique Nigel had ' think down hill is all about guts and a lobotomy? Think again -  it's a very skilful discipline! Without the BMX background and bunny hopping technique we couldn't really maximise our time with Nigel as we didn't have the basic skills (and you can't gain them instantly) so what we really learned was that we needed to master the basics before attempting any more jumps otherwise we weren't going to improve.

I suppose this was worth knowing as at least I now know how I should ride jumps and a DH course, even if I am no better at actually riding it than I was before the course.

Is Nigel a good teacher? Yes.

Would I recommend him? Yes ' but a one on one session is probably more beneficial than a group session (but will cost you more than going in a group).

Where can I find out more:

Print Text! the whole feature in text only form.

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For even more pictures of this ride see The Gallery a part of MTB Britain's Forum.

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