GMTBlog#8 “Slaying the demon” ?

First off. This isn’t a short blog so if you’ve only got a minute, come back later or if you have some time, grab a brew.

I’ll start off by saying I think I’m a half decent skills coach and for over a decade (nearly 12 years if you do detail) I’ve helped all clients to improve their riding in some way, big and/or small. That’s not as boastful as it might sound though as I’m the first to admit that I’m not the fastest downhiller in my peer group, I don’t ride 20ft gap jumps and I’m not a park rat. I’m reasonably handy on a bike though, I like to play and can hold my own in most situations. One thing I can’t handle though is failure. I hate not being able to do something I know I can do. It eats away at me bit by bit until I have to do something about it.

I guess there’s no such thing as the perfect rider. Everybody has something to learn and even the most experienced riders can have their demon, their achilles heel, their bogey section, the feature that they’d love to ride but they can’t get past what could go wrong, each time deciding the risk is too great.

Even the best of the best can one day decide that the risk is too great for the reward. It must have been one of the toughest decisions ever for an amazing rider like Manon Carpenter to decide that competing at the top level with the ever increasing risks on bigger and more technical downhill courses, wasn’t worth the potential for serious injury. For me that makes her a better rider and a better role model as it takes strength and conviction to make such a big decision.

Back to the real world of every day riders though, it’s still one of the hardest things, to admit your limits or to decide you have to do something about it.

On a recent 1:1 skills coaching day, I had the usual chat with the client about what features he wanted to be able to ride and if I had a pound for every time I heard ‘Worry Gill’ as a response, I’d be able to buy myself a new bike*

*probably a pub bike, but still..

At the end of the session he’d ridden Worry Gill, but not all riders do. I can equip riders with all the physical and psychological techniques needed so at the end of the day they feel more empowered to decide whether they’re ready and sometimes they let the new techniques bed in then come back for another session to nail it.

As a skills coach, it’s really tough to admit to having a demon when everybody thinks, surely you must be able to ride anything. Well, until recently, my demon was what locals call ‘the waterfall’ descent into Fryup Dale. The demon wasn’t a physical one, it was a mental one based on a specific experience.

A good few years ago I went out with a couple of riding buddies, Mark and Sam, and we ended up at the top of the descent on a damp day. I’d only ridden it once before, at night and the result was a dab filled, inelegant display so I thought it would be a good idea to take it in turns to ride it and take some cool photos of each other. Turns out this decision probably saved my life or at least saved me from a long stay at an NHS hotel, drinking my food through a straw (a paper one though, I’m an eco warrior).

So we took it in turns taking photos of each other looking like MTB Gods (in our own minds). When it came to my run, I cleaned the first corner where the others had dabbed so I was feeling good as I’d seen them clean the next section. Maybe feeling a little over confident and with maybe a bit too much speed, backside over the back wheel on a big step down, my front wheel caught the wrong side of a rock and threw me to the right. I should point out at this stage, that the right, is absolutely, categorically, the last place you want be heading on this section!

The right is where there’s a sheer drop of 20 to 30 feet, onto a steep bank with car sized rocks another 20 feet away at the bottom. If I headed that way, things were going to get pretty emotional very very quickly. Unfortunately for me, that’s where I was headed and although I wasn’t going that fast, on the damp rocks the brakes were doing bugger all. Things went into slow motion then. What the sodding hell am I doing to do?? Still clipped in, I sat on the back wheel hoping I could jam my shorts or part of me (I’d have risked some jewel damage over the alternative any day) between the wheel and the frame. It slowed me down a bit but not enough as my front wheel rolled over the edge.

‘This is it then’ I thought. This is where I find out what it feels like to drop a long way, onto big and very hard looking rocks. Thoughts of wife, kids, family (I’m not exaggerating) flashed through my head.


The tongue of concentration. Just before I nearly met my end.


Then I suddenly felt myself being dragged back. My saviour? Hand of God? It might as well have been. One of my buddies (I forget if it was Mark or Sam) who was taking photos had grabbed my backpack as I slid past him and dragged me away from the edge. “Holy mother of…”, that was close, and the adrenaline spike (is that a polite term for sh*tting yourself?) was more intense than anything I had ever felt.

So we carried on with the ride, with my head not really in the right place, in fact I don’t think it was even in the right universe and thinking about what went wrong, what should I have done and would I ever have the bottle to go back there again.

I never really had that many opportunities to go back there, as, if I’m guiding on the Moors, I wouldn’t take a group there anyway. In fact I probably told the story to a few groups and rather surprisingly none of them said can we have a go!? Maybe, in truth, I avoided it on social rides too, not wanting to admit my apprehension to my peers.

So, on a recent magazine shoot for a classic ride article for Singletrack mag, we (to be fair Phil from Yorkshire Cycle Hub did most of the planning) decided on the descent as one of two finish options. Olly who, I’ve known since our days as tutors for CTC (now Cycling UK) was in charge of words and pictures for the Singletrack article, looked over the edge and said ‘bloody hell’ (I may have changed the words a little in case somebody reads this who thinks I’m too polite to use proper swear words).

What was ‘I’ thinking though as I stood at the top? I was thinking the same as hundreds of my clients have thought when I’ve told them they’re ready to face their demon, to ride ‘that drop or jump ‘that jump’. With every expletive I know, running through my head as well as the memory of that moment, I felt that adrenaline spike (polite term again) and I was too focussed on what might go wrong with head in totally the wrong place.

Olly wanted some drone drone footage so I said it would be best for Phil to ride it which he did, with the style of somebody who’s ridden it dozens of times and knows how it’s done. I looked at him as a tiny speck at the bottom which just exaggerated the scale of how far down it descends in such a short distance.

I was trying to decide what to do, how to save face, how to teleport to somewhere, anywhere, else. I started thinking, hundreds of people have trusted me, have relied on my advice, that if they do what I’ve told them to do, to think what I’ve told them to think, they’ll be safe and they’ll succeed.

So I had a strong word* with myself (I don’t do failure well at all) and in true downhill racer style (which I’m not) I walked the route, looking at it section by section, looking for the golden thread, that line that I needed to take not just to succeed but to make it feel  good, to put every one of the Four C’s into practice.

*I can’t type what I said/thought.

So, section by section I made a plan, Can you ride a steep rutted super tight corner? Yes. Can you ride a steep stepped rock section? Yes. What about the edge and those rocks? What edge? I’m going nowhere near it as I’m going to be focussed on the next section. Another rutted gully, with a huge step down then more tight steep rutted corners as I make my way to the bottom. No problem.

Ok, I thought, I can do this. So as I walked back up to the top checking my line in the reverse direction, I was getting my head into the right place. Sat on the bike at the top, I was mentally picturing that perfect run, that golden thread, and I set off. At the first corner, a left hander, I dabbed (damn!!) but I didn’t let it put me off, I kept going and cleaned the next section (‘that’ section where it was nearly ‘goodnight viewers’) and it felt good but I had a couple more dabs on the odd corner before I got to the bottom.

Sat looking back up I should have felt elated, I’d ridden it. It wan’t pretty but I was alive. I don’t do dabs though, so there was only one option. Pushing back up I was still bit apprehensive, was it just luck? My inner voice said “of course it wasn’t you muppet”, it was planning, it was control, it was technique, it was thinking, that got you down”.

Sat at the top again, still an adrenaline spike but this time channeling it into positive energy, alert, aware of every physical movement and every positive thought I could muster, I set off and cleaned the whole thing top to bottom. It wasn’t the fastest (but when I coach, that always comes later) but it was controlled and I felt confident. Over the stream crossing at the bottom, I paused for a moment then screamed “GET IN!!!’. If you were in Yorkshire at the time, you might have heard it.

So, for me, there were two levels of success. First, I’d slayed my demon. I’d coached myself using techniques I’ve used with others, hundreds if not thousands of times. Second, I’d experienced first hand what clients experience, the fear, the apprehension, that fight or flight feeling and I’d succeeded just like they do. It was the biggest single learning experience (there are small ones every day of course) since doing my skills instructor course over a decade ago.

Heres some Go Pro footage of my run.

So, now I feel like I’ve improved as a rider and a coach. Thanks for reading.

Have a look at my other blogs or if you have a question or a comment get in touch or post it below. 

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