When a technical feature forces you off your bike, don’t skip it! Challenging sections of trail provide an opportunity for you to develop your bike handling skills, build confidence in your abilities and identify potential areas for improvement. You can safely and confidently approach challenging terrain with these six steps.

How to Approach Challenging Features

On trail rides, you might come across some features that force you off your bike. While it’s never a bad idea to skip sections of the trail that exceed your capabilities, features that are just slightly outside of your skillset or comfort zone can be highly productive to spend time on. Working through tough features can help you identify limiters, expand your skillset, and overcome mental blocks. At the least, taking a moment to analyze what forced you to stop gives you an opportunity to identify potential areas for improvement.

With that being said, it’s inherent to your safety and the productivity of your skills training that you approach challenging features confidently and with the appropriate set of skills. To mitigate risk and make the most of your time spent on the trail, try approaching technical terrain with these six steps. 

1. Stop and Evaluate

Before you “session” a section of trail, it’s important to evaluate the risk associated with the feature and the skillset required to ride it. Recognizing your skills in proportion to the level of risk can help you decide whether or not this is a feature you can safely work on.

When you evaluate a feature, try asking yourself a few key questions. First, do the surrounding features and trail traffic permit safe practice? And am I equipped with the appropriate skills to work on this feature? If not, is this a reasonable skill to try to progress in this setting? When considering skills, an easy comparison is step ups vs. gap jumps. Step-ups are a relatively low-risk skill to work on, as long as the trail’s traffic and surrounding terrain permit safe practice. Typically an athlete who wants to take on a more challenging step up is in a position to try it out on the trail. On the other hand, an athlete who’s not confident in their ability to clear jumps probably shouldn’t hit a gap jump they see on a trail ride. Gap jumps are accompanied with some significant risk, making them an inappropriate skill to challenge on the trail. Remember, it’s better to start small and work your way up!

2. Check Your Headspace 

When you feel confident that you’re in a safe setting and that you have the appropriate skills to work on the feature, it’s time to check in with your headspace. Ideally, you should be feeling calm, confident, and composed when working on any skill. If you have the appropriate skills but also have nerves, fear, or doubt, then you might be dealing with a mental block.

Mental blocks are notable because they can significantly enhance the challenge of a feature. Athletes experience a mental block for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’ve crashed on a similar feature in the past or haven’t ridden something quite as challenging. Perhaps the feature is particularly intimidating looking. With a mental block, you’re prepared to ride a feature, but your mind is standing in the way.

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If you’re experiencing a mental block, that doesn’t mean you should just ride the feature without a second guess. Progress happens when you step outside of your comfort zone and try something challenging. It doesn’t happen if you’re afraid or discouraged, though. Riding something when you’re particularly nervous or afraid can be just as dangerous as riding something without the appropriate skills. If you’re struggling with a mental block, gauge your level of fear and acknowledge whether or not you can get into the right headspace to work on this feature. If you can get in the zone, you can probably ride this feature! If, however, you’re too in your head, then it’s best to work on this another time.

3. Analyze the Feature and Visualize Your Technique

Once you are confident you can safely and productively practice this feature, it’s time to take a more analytical look at the trail. What’s the grade? Is the terrain loose or tacky? What gear will you need to be in to get through the feature? Will you be able to complete a full pedal stroke? What speed do you need to hit it safely? Do you see your line? Take a moment to analyze the aspects of the feature so that you can begin to understand what it takes to navigate the section safely.

Once you have an understanding of the feature, envision how you’re going to get over it. What body position do you need to be in? Do you need easy gear and a high cadence to get up and over this rock? Or a higher speed, steadier rhythm to get enough momentum going over this drop? Create a plan and envision your success. 

How much time you spend analyzing or visualizing will depend on your personal preference. Some athletes find it helpful to look at a feature for a long time to understand it fully. Other athletes find that lingering in this phase will only psych them out. Everyone’s different, so do what you prefer. As long as you know that you can ride the feature safely, you can spend as little or as much time as you want to check it out. 

4. Session the Section!

Now that you have a plan, it’s time to start sessioning the feature! Repeating the same section of trail over and over again is typically referred to as sessioning. Attempting something a handful of times gives you a chance to work through the feature, find sticking points, and once you nail it—build confidence. 

When you session a feature, commit to trying it three times. If you don’t ride the section after three attempts, you can move on with the rest of your ride. If you successfully ride the section, don’t stop there. Go back and repeat it a few more times. Repeating a section of trail, even after you’ve successfully ridden it, can help you solidify your confidence in your ability to ride that feature or execute on that skill. 

If you have the option, some athletes find it beneficial to try following someone else’s line. Trust and skill are essential here, though. Following someone who cannot ride the section of the trail or that you don’t trust to lead you can be equally unproductive. On the other hand, if you don’t feel comfortable following someone into technical terrain, it can be similarly beneficial to watch someone else ride the line, have someone spot you, or give you tips from the sidelines of the feature. 

5. Limit Your Attempts

It can take a few tries to tackle something difficult. With that understood, it’s a good idea to put a cap on how many times you’re going to try something. There comes a point where repeating something without progressing is going to feel more discouraging than helpful. Similarly, repeating a feature with a little bit of risk can become unsafe as you cope with fatigue or feelings of frustration. 

Prevent frustration, injuries, and discouragement by putting a cap on the number of attempts you can take. If you reach your limit and still haven’t accomplished your goal, commend yourself for the efforts and move on. It takes focus and determination to try something challenging repeatedly, and you’ve achieved something by identifying a limiter. Take a quick note of what you need to work on for the future, and then ride on. The trail will still be there waiting for you!

6. Reinforce the Fundamentals

As beneficial as working on challenging terrain is, it’s not the only place where you can develop your confidence and your skills. In fact, most of the progress you’ll make as a technical rider will happen between the tricky sections when you focus on reinforcing the fundamentals. When you ride away from challenging features, continue to focus on reinforcing good technique. When you frequently touch on the fundamentals, you’ll find that those tricky sections are less challenging. 

Looking to brush up on your fundamental mechanics? Check out How To Become a Faster Mountain Biker for more information on technical riding.