Every Tom, Dick and Harry doesn’t make a good instructor
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking podcast where we talk all matters mountain biking. There’s plenty to keep us busy with, isn’t there, as this great sport evolves in South Africa and we get to know more and more about it. I suppose where we’re going today, in today’s edition, we’re talking to David Gagnon from the Professional Mountain Bikers Instructors Association in Whistler in Canada. He’s recently spent a couple of weeks in South Africa, his second visit here, training and coaching both intermediate, novice and advanced riders and coaches.
Bringing his knowledge and experience to South Africa at the PWC Bike Park and out at Hakahana as well. Today I’m going to talk to David about how you coach. I suppose we all jump on a bike and somehow learn to ride a bike. Quite a few of us, very early on in our lives. But there’s quite a big difference between riding a bike around your garden or around the roads at home and becoming a mountain biker. David, thanks for joining us, how do you go about that?
David Gagnon: All right, so let’s put things in perspective first, let’s take it from the beginning, like you explained. What happens, boyfriend, girlfriend; boyfriend, he rides really confidently, manuals, wheelies and jumps and stuff like that. Wants to get the girlfriend on the bike and what happens next?
Most of the time, this is where I think we come in. Is we get people that are, I say it could be girlfriend, but it could be men and kids as well. Where they get someone teaching them, maybe the wrong things, on inappropriate terrain. Which ends up quite generally into crashes and injuries.
Instructing is about safety, confidence and having fun
Then after that they put the bike away and they almost never touch it. Or, if they learn about instructing, that they can learn with someone who knows how to teach. They can come to take a lesson and this is where we come in. At this point, the way that we build the programme is built on being safe, building confidence and making sure people are having fun.
Those are the three main messages that we want to make sure people get at the end of the lesson. In order to progress in the lesson and to get better at mountain biking and building that confidence and fun aspect of the sport; we go through different steps.
They go with, we start with the fundamentals which for us, the fundamentals is actually being balanced. If you’re not balanced on a bike, you’re on the ground, right? Being balanced is fundamental, it’s essential in order to be able to bike. By being balanced, I mean being able to stay upright on the bike and also allow the bike and the body to move.
Most people are very tense and they’re very rigid and it’s a natural thing for the human to move backward on a bike and lose the centre where we find the best grip. Finding the ability to move and all the different range of movement that the human can do on a bike, that’s what we’re trying to develop at that stage. Also, it’s finding the positions that will work efficiently for climbing or descending or cornering.
GDK: There’s a lot of focus on bike setup and getting the right bike. That person arrives with the wrong bike, it’s difficult for you. You can’t send them off and say, go spend another 50K on another new bike, do you work with what you’ve got in that sense?
DG: We do, we do also try to open the door a bit, you know. It depends on the money. It depends on what people can afford as well. We do allow us to teach to whoever and whatever equipment they’ve got. We also use some tolerance. If someone can’t really perform because of the equipment, we’ll agree that that’s probably the maximum level that they can reach. The equipment has a huge part and we train our instructors as well to learn about bike fitting. What works and what doesn’t work for certain types of people and what they want to do with their bikes as well.
The facts don’t lie when it comes to what is possible
GDK: I’ve always wondered how you get the message across to someone who is looking down at a drop off of a rock garden for a first time and thinking, I’m never going to be able to go down there. An hour later he or she is bombing down there like they’ve been doing it all their life.
DG: This is where the teaching side of things comes into play. The way that we brought the whole programme up is mostly based on facts, physic facts. The owner of the whole programme, who developed it, he’s an engineer. So everything relates to physics, he knows everything about it. He’s really keen to that. On my side of things, it’s more about the teaching aspect, the pedagogies. So teaching what works with some people and what wouldn’t work with others, how to convey what words to use.
GDK: You’re reading that person a bit as you’re going along and saying, I can use this language and it’s going to hit home?
DG: That’s it and obviously the more you’re experienced in teaching, the easier it gets to read people. But we do train our instructors this way with certain principles in teaching. So that we can cater the message to anyone. Whether they’re a kid or whether they’re someone older.
For a kid, for instance, you know the way you talk to a kid. You can’t really explain in detail all the physics behind stuff. So we mostly use a terrain. There’s a terrain-based tactic and exercises that without even saying a word, you can guide the kid in order to achieve different movements on the bike, by using the proper terrain. The environment has a huge role in the way that we learn overall.
A kid is a very clear example. Once we get to someone who is more knowledgeable, has more experience in life. We get this more cognitive side of things that comes into play where the person wants to know why? Okay why is this working in this way, why should I move that way, why should I do this and why should I do that?
This is where we try to explain the reasons. It’s not just because it’s, I’ve seen so many people say, well, the why is because it feels right. This is why, without any real explanations. This is where we try to differentiate ourselves from others, is explaining the reasons in simple terms. You don’t have to explain the physics and really technical details. But some easy ways to explain things on how to get traction, how to find balance. We use often really easy analogies that relates to other sides of life.
Are basic mountain biking needs the same?
GDK: In terms of the needs, in Canada you’re coaching certain people and out in SA, how different are the needs in terms of what your rider in SA is going to need? What level would you be looking at starting at and what level are the riders you’re teaching and coaching in Canada?
DG: Based on my short experience, I’m talking the window of time that I had in the country, it’s very short. Based on what I’ve seen, there seems to be more road bikers that are moving into the mountain biking world. Nothing negative to say about road biking because I was a road biker and I did lots of road biking and I still love it.
But the technical side of things is definitely not there. Because you’re on the pavement, you’ve got lots of traction, it’s a different environment. Once the road bikers go to mountain biking, the marathon seems to be more suited for them because it’s long. A bit deeper road, forest road or double track, a little less on the single track side of things.
I think this is where the skills learning can really help them. By learning how to handle the bike properly. How to be ready and anticipate and look ahead and plan. Use that strategy in your mind so that you can choose a proper line according to your skill level.
This is where we come in, I think. This is where we can help a lot, anyone, to learn how to handle their bike better and to be confident and have fun. Like I said, that’s a huge part of what we try to teach, we want to make sure people are having fun.
Why do people lose sight of the fun aspect?
GDK: Do you think that people sometimes lose that in the pursuit of speed and winning and performance?
DG: Totally and I’m a good example, that’s where I come from. I was so, you know, I raced to the national level, I did one World Cup in Canada as well. Not that I good, but it was such an amazing experience. But I was so stuck into the training mentality of training the different aspects of my, how do you say, the physiological ability. So my Power output, my capacity, my endurance, my speed, defining what cadence I should be in and all and certainly.
It’s only today really that a few years ago I really kind of noticed that man, it’s so not just that. This is where, in my experience, I lost the fun of it. I actually, I stopped mountain biking for two years. I didn’t touch the mountain bike for two years.
Because I was in a race and I stopped and I was looking at myself, like what the heck am I doing here? I’m not having fun, I wasn’t enjoying this at all and that was the moment that I stopped biking. I’m telling you, I didn’t sit in the saddle for two years.
Then I moved out West because I lived in the East at the time. I suddenly rediscovered biking with the mountains, with single track riding. I learnt about the fact that I wasn’t really skilled. If I was joining friends that would be from that area where I am right now, they were taking their time on the way up, no rush, it was just, let’s just enjoy the way up, no suffering.
But I was always ahead, but on the descent, I was freaking out! Especially, my bike wasn’t suited at the time, it was a hard tail and they were all on dual suspension, with longer travel. Then on the descents I was like oh my God, I’m missing out here. I learnt how to train myself.
Suddenly I found out about the PMBIA, the Professional Mountain Bike Instructing Association, I took the courses. Then I re-discovered mountain biking and suddenly my horizons went wider and longer and I became a course conductor.
This is my own kind of progression through, my journey through the whole thing. I see a lot of people still where I was at the time. This is where I’m trying to, I’m trying to teach people, I’m trying them that side of things.
GDK: You come back to South Africa and bring us more and we’ll show you more of the country.
DG: I wish, there’s so much to see here. I want to go back to Pietermaritzburg, I want to go to Cape Town, I’ve heard so much about Cape Town as well. The more I’m into this, the more I hear people that are actually pushing the boundaries, developing more technical trails, offering guiding tours. I heard about a trip in the Pietermaritzburg area, this is amazing, this is where mountain biking is heading, here.
GDK: David Gagnon from Whistler in Canada and a man who has brought his skills and his knowledge to SA to impart it to, at the moment, a small number of keen mountain bikers. But I’m sure in the future there’ll be many, many more. Thanks for chatting to us and thank you for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking, until next time, cheers.