Let’s just say, after 17 years of racing professionally, I’ve learned a few lessons the hard way. My “light bulb” moments were quickly followed up by questions such as, "Dang, wish I knew _______ when I started riding mountain bikes..” Could I have saved myself years of frustration, broken bones, and embarrassment if I knew ________? As I've grown older, I’ve come to realize that making mistakes are an inevitable part of life, and we learn our most valuable lessons from defeat, not successes. Although I am grateful for my failures, I wouldn't have minded a little advice along the way from someone who's put their time in as a professional. So I came up with my top 10 pieces of advice for those riders looking to take racing a little more seriously, or just improve their riding generally.
1. Learn What Works For You
I remember calling my team in a panic to change all my bike sizes for the following season. A coach at the time mentioned that my current frame size was too big for me and that I needed a smaller size. This person was a respected coach, and I trusted his opinion almost more than my own. Luckily, my team suggested I test the frame sizes with back to back runs before making any changes. Once I finished testing, I realized I was way more comfortable and faster on my current size bike. Luckily, my manager held off changing my bike order, or I would have spent the season struggling with a smaller frame. New ideas and techniques on how we should set up our bike, what we should do for training, or what new skill we should use are constantly around us, but I’ve learned not to jump on the bandwagon so fast and test out new ideas before making drastic changes. We all want to be faster riders and what might work for one top pro might not be what works for you.
2. Coaches Don’t Know Everything
I am a cycling coach, and I'll be the first to admit I don't know the best training for all of my athletes all of the time. Every athlete is different and while one athlete responds to one kind of training plan, another may not. I regularly talk with my athletes for feedback to see how they are feeling, not just physically, but mentally as well. Some of my worst seasons were when I stopped listening to my body and did every workout suggested by my coach, no questions asked. Training should be flexible, and if I was having an "off" day, maybe I needed to go home and rest.
3. Don’t Try Anything New on a Big Race Day
Trust me. Don’t do it! I found myself in a heaping pile at the feed zone in the Leadville 100 race because I decided to use a musette (bag with a long strap used to carry food and drinks, typically used in road racing) for the first time. As I grabbed the musette at a blistering pace, the bag swung in the air and slammed me to the ground violently. I was left with a broken handlebar, unable to finish the race. This crash happened 12 years into my career—I knew better, but I let my teammate convince me otherwise. Stick with your routine and equipment you know works!
4. Spend the Extra Cash on a Nice Bike
I’m cheap and hate spending money, but having a proper bike can completely change your riding experience. Besides, you deserve it! Having a nice bike will motivate to ride on those days when maybe you aren't feeling up to the challenge.
4. Learn How to Tune Your Suspension
I rode bikes for years without ever turning a knob on my suspension. I didn't even consider how much it was affecting my riding. I attributed my poor riding to "off days" and my lack of skills. It wasn't till a boyfriend told me what to look for and how to make the proper adjustments that I realized that properly tuned suspension can make the toughest conditions more manageable. A few rules I like to follow when adjusting my suspension:
5. Take A Skills Clinic
I bombed down descents hanging on for dear life and completely unskilled for the majority of my career. I considered it a good ride when I crashed only a few times. But, as my pace increased so did the broken bones. After my 5th visit to the ER, I realized that I should consider taking a skills lesson and learning the proper technique for descending. There are so many skills clinics offered—save yourself the trouble of breaking bad habits and pay an instructor to show you the correct form.
6. Ride with other women who are better than you
Don’t be intimidated. Take advantage of riding with the local pros in your community. Every time I hit the trails with female companions who are better riders than me, my riding progresses. I'm inspired to hit jumps and ride technical sections that I never thought were possible. Watching other women shred gives me the confidence that I can do the same.
7. Learn to Ride on Flat Pedals
If you’ve never ridden on flat pedals, I suggest a few months trying it out. You’ll learn the correct way to “weight the pedals” and learn how that increases traction and stability on steep descents. For the first few rides you'll feel like a beginner, so start out on your easiest trails before dropping down your favorite gnarly descent with a bunch of guys.
8. Let the Bike Move Underneath You
“Get your butt back behind the seat” was the one piece of advice that I vividly remember hearing over and over again when I started riding. Granted, that wasn’t the worst piece of advice anyone could have given me, but it wasn't necessarily correct either. The proper technique for descending is having your body centered over the bike with your knees, and elbows bent, letting the bike move underneath you.
9. Don't be So Hard on Yourself
Pounding out intervals and never being satisfied with race results caused me a lot of unnecessary stress. After disastrous races, I'd sequester myself in my room, avoiding teammates and friends who tried to cheer me up. The bad races outweighed the ones when everything seemed to go perfectly. The best advice a friend said to me was "if you tried your hardest, made the best decisions you could at that time, then that is all you can ask from yourself." I had to believe I was doing the best to my ability and beating myself up was only causing me to lose friends.
10. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Some of the greatest memories from my career were traveling alone to other countries, not knowing anyone and navigating races. I was open to spending time with locals and letting them show me their favorite trails in the area. I created life-long friendships and realized some of life's greatest moments are not planned.