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Trek ‘Dirt Series’ Camp: 5 Mountain Bike Skill Revelations

Mountain bike jumpPhotos by Sean St. Denis
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Looking to up your mountain biking skills? Stuck trying to get past that same feature on the same old run? There’s a solution: the Trek Dirt Series.

Trek Dirt Series started in 2001 with three local women-only mountain bike camps in Whistler, British Columbia. The goal then was simple — get more women on bikes. But over the past 18 years, it has expanded to offer 28 camps per year throughout North America, including co-ed weekends.

After 300-plus camps with 15,000 students, the Trek Dirt Series is a well-polished, professional program.

I attended the final Trek Dirt Series camp of the year in Whistler last month. I received professional instruction on a mountain bike while riding the epic terrain Whistler Mountain Bike Park has to offer — both firsts for me.

All of the Dirt Series instructors are top-level riders. And they tailor their classes to the individual needs of the small groups they lead. Additionally, you get a new instructor each day, so you have the best chance of absorbing all the new skills and techniques on offer.

It’s hard to explain how much my riding improved, in all areas, in just 2 days of cold, wet riding during the Dirt Series. But here are five key takeaways that can vastly improve anyone’s mountain biking skills.

5 Tips for Better Mountain Biking

The Trek Dirt Series provides skills, confidence, and a truly world-class experience. Camps cost between $200 and $425 depending on location. But that includes instruction, demo equipment, lunches, snacks (like energy bars), drinks, evening maintenance clinics, and sponsor prizes.

While you’ll have to go check it out yourself to gain the confidence and enjoy the experience, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I learned that will shape my mountain bike riding for the rest of my life. They’ll hopefully improve yours too.

More Front Brake

I’ve always used a ton of rear brake when mountain biking on steep terrain. My thought is that I don’t want to go over the handlebars by locking up the front brake. While that’s true in a few circumstances, you will generally want to use more front brake than rear.

This is especially the case on steep, wet terrain. If you use more front brake, with good modulation control, it’s much easier to slow down and stay in directional control of the bike. This revelation instantly changed my riding style and elevated my abilities on steep technical terrain.

Elbows Up!

Mountain bike ready position Trek Dirt Series

An aggressive, ready-for-anything stance is the key to control at all times. The instructors called this the “ready position.” The main elements of this position are a good bend at the waist, flat pedals, slight knee bend, chin over the stem, and elbows up.

The more a rider can get down into this position, the more ready the body is to maximize its range of motion to absorb anything on the trail and stay in control of the bike. If you can see your elbows in your peripheral vision, at about eye level, you’re ready to get some!

Stay Forward

I have a bad self-taught habit of leaning way back on the bike when going over and off steep terrain. The reality is that you lose traction and steering control over the front tire when positioning yourself back on the bike.

That also makes it exceptionally hard to get back in the ready position over the bike. It’s always easier to throw weight back than to try to get it forward again, so start with your weight forward and keep it there unless absolutely necessary.

This concept is really important on big drops that you can roll down. By staying forward, you keep braking traction on the front wheel longer and retain steering control throughout the drop.

Plus, staying forward is vitally important when going off jumps. Staying forward on the bike while going up a jump retains control throughout the jump. Getting back while coming up the transition on a jump will cause the front wheel to come up high, and you’ll lose control or land rear-wheel heavy.

This technique, combined with front-wheel braking and the ready position, elevated my riding instantly.

Trek Dirt Series mountain bike skills

Jump Higher

I’m horrible at jumping. It’s probably because I rarely do it and have never been taught how. Luckily, my class did a bunch of jumping, including a few laps down Whistler’s famous A-Line to finish off the weekend. I even managed to clear a handful of jumps!

The key to jumping is to be in the ready position while approaching the jump, staying in complete control of the bike. Then, stay forward on the bike and press it into the jump. This loads the bike up so that you can get a good, controlled “pop” on the takeoff.

Release that press just before the lip of the jump. If you don’t release before the lip, you’ll get bucked forward over the handlebars and land on your front wheel (or worse).

To style it out and have even more success with landings, you can pull the bike up to you while in the air. This allows you to get into the ready position before landing and absorb the landing in more control.

Corner Faster

Cornering fast is hard! I’ve been guessing at technique and throwing my bike into corners for years, with little success at getting better. Luckily, the expert instructors at the Dirt Series know what’s up.

To corner fast on flat terrain, lean the bike under you, keeping weight over the tire contact patch. One way to allow the bike to lean over more dramatically is to open your inside leg, with knees bent and out to the sides. The instructors referred to this as using “cowboy legs” to help make more room for the bike.

To corner faster in berms, especially the perfectly shaped beauties at Whistler, stay vertical on the bike in the ready position, leaning with the bike while going through the corner.

A few more solid tips for all types of cornering: Look where you want to go, and the bike will follow. Also, imagine a laser beam coming from your belly button pointed at the exit of the corner. These two things will help rotate the torso and hips through the corner. Also, enter wide and slow for a fast and on-course exit.

Bonus Revelations

Ignore What Your Bike Doesn’t Touch

When scouting out a new drop on your mountain bike, walk to a place on the takeoff where you can see the landing. Anything past that point shouldn’t factor into the drop execution.

The terrain you clear in the air could look like nothing or be super scary, but none of that matters. Only the takeoff terrain and the landing terrain matter to you successfully negotiating the drop.

Wet Rocks

Mountain bike rain wet rock

The steep rocks in Whistler actually gain traction in harder rain than light mist, but maybe not as much as completely dry terrain. Hard rain cleans dirt off the riding line on the rocks, which greatly increases traction.

If you’re about to tackle a hard rock obstacle at Whistler when it’s raining hard, go before all your friends track mud onto the riding line for optimum traction.

The Bike Matters

I’ve ridden a wide range of mountain bikes and generally like 27.5 all-mountain bikes. Trek set me up with a Slash 9.7 29er for this camp. The bike had the perfect geometry and suspension travel for the wide range of diverse terrain at Whistler.

The big brake ruts and roots at Whistler were no match for the formidable 29-inch tires.

Go Back to Camp!

Whether you’re a complete beginner or a hardcore rider that shreds the brown pow, the Trek Dirt Series has something for you. My stoke for mountain biking went to an all-time high after this camp!

Not only do I want to go back to Whistler for the camp again, but I also want to check out all the other amazing places the Dirt Series visits throughout the year.

And I’d love to go with my wife to one of the camps, as she’s only been mountain biking a handful of times. As a beginner, she’d not only benefit from the step-by-step instruction, but she’d love the amazing camaraderie between participants.

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