It has been over two years since I took Gene Hamilton’s Better Ride camp, and over time, it has proven to be one of the most valuable upgrades I have ever purchased. (KS dropper post comes close).
Success at this camp, or any learning experience, is a matter of staying humble, and keeping an open mind; as well as understanding that the primary benefit comes after the camp, from practicing the drills. There isn’t any secret trick, like wiggling your left eyebrow to clear 40’ doubles, or wiggling your pinkie finger to clean techy climbs.
After taking several other skills camps for biking, and skiing, I have come to appreciate the structure, and progression of Better Ride camps. While going back to very fundamental elements of bike control I thought I had long since mastered was frustrating at first, it gave me a more complete understanding of how my bike works, and how my input affects it, that other camps have not matched.
While the health benefits of mountain biking are well known, there is also a risk of certain side effects developing which may need treatment. Most of us are familiar with the wide array of grips, gels, avant garde saddles, and underwear designed to combat various of these maladies.
Rarely discussed openly, Upgradeitis, or UGI is an almost unavoidably endemic condition of cycling. UGI can be most succinctly described as an uncontrollable craving for new bike parts The technological innovations that come out every year (or sooner) certainly are a driving factor in the silent proliferation of UGI. In advanced cases, it can result in individuals changing out entire bike builds to match a newly released part. Its onset can be sudden or gradual, but research shows that individuals with frequent access to high speed internet connections and predisposed weakness for shiny, gadgety technology are at the highest risk.
UGI can be an especially crippling condition when a rider has reached a plateau in skill level and bike parts are in disrepair. Frustrated with an ill-performing bike, and lackluster skills, the tendency is to blame disappointment with riding on worn out bike parts rather than a worn-out rider.
Early this spring, I found myself at such a crossroads. I hadn’t ridden for several months, and didn’t look forward to the embarrassing learning curve I knew was coming. On the other hand, nearly everything on my bike was haggard and worn out: The fork needed new seals and oil, the drivetrain had been flogged far beyond any normal call of duty, and the mish mash of recycled brake components decelerated the bike in only the vaguest and most finicky of fashions.
The price of the Better Ride Camp would have gone a long ways towards refreshing my bike and giving me that instant “better rider” rider feel we all crave. But I had been through the cycle of Upgradeitis several times already and knew the new bike parts I craved would break down over time, and contribute little to making me a genuinely better rider. I decided it was time break the cycle of UGI and invest in myself rather than my bike.
I am not gonna lie, at first I was disappointed. Practicing drills in an empty parking lot was not quite as exciting as opening a fresh-from- shipping smelling new box of the latest two wheeled technological wonderment. The repetition of basic principles I had picked up on my own seemed a bit underwhelming: Look ahead, keep low, look where you want to go. Very basic stuff, going back to when I was first learning to balance on two wheels. But the drills paired with Gene’s explanations gave me a new focus and understanding of how these skills work together. Once I began to understand this, my riding improved dramatically. Seeing my wheelies improve immediately was almost enough by itself to justify the cost of the camp; wheelies are something that has been on my “I need to get better at this list” since my first black and gold Huffy BMX bike at five years old.
By the second day, we got out onto the trail and began to implement some of the skills we had learned by sessioning a set of sweeping corners. For a moment, I thought we had gone off the deep end of bogusness when Gene wrapped up the session by having us take a run through while singing our favorite happy song at the top of our lungs. The surreal thing is that it worked. I took off singing “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” at full late-night karaoke volume, ripping corners with a grin, unconsciously implementing the skills we had been practicing.
Day three we saw even more trail time and got to play around on some ledges and sandstone features. I hadn’t noticed a say, Danny Macaskill level of improvement in my riding, but I found myself riding more composed and in control; in a more pro-active manner than simply hanging on and seeing what happens. At the end of the camp, Gene reminded us the real benefit doesn’t come from the first three days of learning, but in continuing to practice the drills on a regular basis.
I found a parking lot to practice my figure 8 drills in, weaving up and down the empty parking spaces. It is a Zen practice of sort, emptying your mind and focusing on the bike beneath you, feeling for feedback through the tires, handlebars, pedals; asphalt surfing, carving turns to perfection between the yellow lines. Even if my bike is out of sorts, it only needs to perform the most rudimentary of rolling and stopping functions to be able to practice the drills and improve my riding. These drills have also been great for spicing up boring sections of trail into learning opportunities, practicing vision exercises, honing my wheelies and manuals, concentrating on my cornering form.
Progression in my mind had largely been defined by catching bigger air, but the cornering skills I learned in Gene Hamilton’s camp have opened up a whole new world of progression by maximizing one’s cornering speed through proper technique. Being able to corner faster and with more control sets me up better for those jumps I love so much.
A few weeks after camp, our crew was building the new PBR trail at 18 Rd. Taking evening laps on the iconic trails in the area, I was astonished at the speed I was able to carry through the myraid corner combinations of Prime Cut (downhill flow is sweet!), and remain in calm and in control on the steep descents of Joe’s Ridge. In all other respects, my bike was the same as before: puking oil out the fork seals, jamming up on shifting, brakes questionable as ever. I was the difference, the factor driving my bike down the trail with more speed and control than I had ever experienced. Channeling my urge to upgrade my bike into upgrading my own skill levels, I had become a genuinely better rider.
Now I understand UGI from a new perspective. Having experienced a significant increase in my riding ability while rocking the same worn out componentry, “upgrading” has taken on a new meaning.
The skills & drills I learned in the Better Ride camp has been the upgrade that keeps upgrading. After seven years of riding in the Grand Valley, I finally was able to clean the drop in to the Horsethief Bench trail. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of riding the trails off the Loma exit, the Horsetheif Bench drop in is a chunk-gnar-tastic ledgy bit of technical riding that sees hundreds of riders a year walk down it. Being able to clean this rite-of-passage section on my bike, worth less than the wheelsets of many bikes carried down it, makes me grateful to have broken the cycle of UGI.
Knowing how to fix your ride is akin to knowing how to fix your bike. Instead of just throwing money at the problem, you are able to diagnose it. Now when I find my riding getting sloppy and out of focus, I have a checklist I can run through to bring my riding back under control. My bike still has its fair share of parts that need replaced, but now that I have the knowledge, drills, and experience from Gene’s camp, I can continue to upgrade my riding level, which is the ultimate upgrade.