Lon Cullen was riding a trail at Georgia’s Mulberry Gap when a group of riders zoomed by.
"My competitiveness got the better of me, and I decided I wasn’t going to let them win," says Cullen.
As he sped downhill to catch them, he lost control and crashed, fracturing the vertebrae in his neck and blowing out his knee.
"This opened my eyes to the need to improve safety and control in my riding," he says.
Following the crash in 2011, Cullen hired a guide from Colorado to help him sharpen his riding skills. When Cullen realized the value of the lessons, he went on to become a certified mountain biking instructor. From Oregon to the Adirondacks, Cullen travels the country offering his Singletrack Skills camps, and he is scheduled to hold classes at Alabama’s Oak Mountain Park this winter and spring.
We talked with Cullen to get details on his camps and learn how they benefit riders of different ability levels. If you’re wondering whether a class would serve you well, here are several reasons you might want to sign up.
When people learn to ski or snowboard, it’s pretty much expected that they’ll take lessons. But, for years, the mountain biking community generally shunned formal instruction. According to Cullen, that’s changing.
"It’s becoming a lot more acceptable now," he says, noting that, through word of mouth, people have realized that private lessons and group instruction have real value. “People have come back from classes and told their friends, ‘Hey, I did learn something.’ ”
Classes also more acceptable because the mountain biking community has matured, and Cullen’s classes primarily draw people in their 30s and 40s who don’t mind reaching out for help to improve.
Many instructors offer private lessons as well as group training. If you’re going to join a group lesson, you should already be fairly comfortable on a bike, says Cullen. If you’ve hardly ridden and you want training, he advises that you first take a private lesson.
When you’re learning any activity, whether it’s snowboarding or climbing, it’s difficult to comprehend how your body is positioned and how you might be moving inefficiently or incorrectly. That’s where an instructor can really help.
During his 7-hour Ground Control 1 class, riders work on all the things you do when your bike wheels are on the ground. In the morning, the group starts in a field, where students first work on basic body positioning. As they practice things like cornering, Cullen watches carefully to see if people are leaning too much or making other incorrect movements.
There’s a common misconception that advanced riders don’t need to work on basic skills like body positioning. "It’s easy to think this is just for beginners, but I see experienced riders making mistakes," says Cullen. “If an advanced rider isn’t doing it right, that person is really in danger of getting hurt.”
In the Ground Control 1 class, riders of all ability levels begin by working on the basics. Then, after a lunch break, Cullen moves the riders to actual trails, where beginners as well as advanced riders work on tactical climbing, braking and terrain awareness. Usually, Cullen splits the class into two groups, so advanced riders can spend the afternoon working on skills on more difficult terrain, while less experienced riders can practice on easier trails.
Once experiences riders have worked on the fundamentals, they can further benefit by taking Cullen’s Ground Control 2 course, where you work on drops and other skills where your wheels leave the ground. In addition, Cullen teaches an advanced "launches" class where intermediate and advanced riders work on techniques for jumps.
If you’re competing in bike races and you want to improve, you’ll probably benefit from a skills course, says Cullen, who has done cross-country races and reached the podium in Downhill, BMX, Super D, Air Downhill, and Enduro races.
"As cross-country and Enduro races have gotten more difficult, I find that I’m helping people more with their basics," says Cullen. When riders face harder courses, they find that they’re able to push through primarily because of their good fundamentals skills.
If you’ve been riding for years, there’s a good chance you’ve developed some bad habits that a class can help correct. When advanced riders begin Cullen’s class, they often bend their knees too much, while beginner and intermediate riders don’t bend their knees enough. While some of these riders simply never learned proper technique, others actually learned techniques that are now considered outdated and incorrect.
"Like any sport, things in mountain biking have progressed," says Cullen. “There was an old-school thought that you should bend your knees all the time. But, now we teach that there are times to bend your knees, and times not to do it.” After a day in Ground Control 1 class, you’ll know how and when to position your knees as well as the rest of your body.
As is the case with any outdoor activity, you’ll gain confidence as you become more proficient with various skills. When you combine confidence with skills, you’ll move more efficiently and waste less energy. As a result, you’ll have the ability to conquer tougher terrain, and simply enjoy the trails more. Just as important, your confidence and skills will allow you to ride more safely. Unlike Cullen, you won’t have to learn the hard way what happens when our enthusiasm and competitiveness exceeds our skill level.
Even if you’re already a confident and accomplished rider, don’t shrug off the idea of taking a skills class. As Cullen says, "No matter how gifted you are, you can always get better."
Written by Marcus Woolf for RootsRated in partnership with BCBS of AL.