Rattling the Stoke Bone — Getting Skilled at Ninja Mountain Bike Performance

We all have our strengths and weaknesses as riders. The longer we ride, the more those are reinforced. Especially riding with a group, where we tend to pay more attention to keeping up with the pack than making micro-adjustments to our weight distribution or foot angle. Even riding alone, sometimes it feels like we’re doing something right and can’t figure out why we just can’t seem to lift our rear wheel over that one super big rock, or why turning left is always so much more awkward than turning right. But can just a morning, a Saturday, or even a whole weekend solve those problems? Kinda. What about all the other obstacles and awkward turns in life that can make mountain biking ever more challenging? Well, kinda yes for those as well.

Recently, I headed down to Virginia to participate in a weekend skills clinic with Ninja Mountain Bike Performance. They offer a number of clinics: fundamentals, women’s only fundamentals, intermediate/advanced skills, and jumping. The weekend program, like the one I took, cover everything. The women’s only fundamentals class was its own separate group, and some people signed up only for one clinic or another, but for the most part we were all in it together for the whole program.

We started the fundamentals section with a game of follow-the-leader to give Gordon a sense of where we all fell in line skills-wise. From there we progressed smoothly through the fundamentals, finishing the class with bunny hops and bump jumps. There was supposed to be another instructor with our all-genders fundamentals group to keep up a balance of 6 participants per instructor, but even without her (she was unable to make it), Gordon kept his eye on each of us, learned our names quickly offered feedback and clear instruction.

After lunch, we were joined by Hillary, who had been teaching the women’s only fundamentals class, for our jumping clinic. This went back over some of the fundamentals of wheel lifts, flat jumps, bunny hops and bump jumps, then added in some ramps and mild “sending it.”

photo by Hillary/Ninja Performance

It was incredible to see the rapid progression from start to finish in just one day. By the end of the first session, I was mentally drained and ready to eat something. But the skills I was starting to lose came right back at the start of the jump session By the end of the second session, I was again drained and ready for food and a nap. But the next morning, all the information had sunk in; my weary, puny brain had told my body what to do and I was well prepared for the advanced class.

photo by Gordon/Ninja Performance

It was in this first session that so many of life’s nuggets came into focus. Gordon had mentioned rattling the stoke bone — the floating bone in our inner ear — the first morning, but we put that to the test once all our skills came together. As Hillary said, mountain biking is like Mexican food: there are five ingredients and they’re all delicious, and how you put them together will determine what kind of dish you make or maneuver you pull.

I’d been taught to always look ahead while riding, and have long felt like a failure for not doing so. While that’s certainly important, and looking down is absolutely a problem I have (I like to think of it as living in the moment), Gordon described the ideal eye positioning as Now and Next. He talked about hiding gummy bears in the woods and scanning the trail to find them. This is a focus on multiple levels, but a blurry focus, an active meditation. “See the obstacle, acknowledge it and let it pass,” he said. I will be spending the rest of the summer in his dojo.

We also talked about toe positions and body weight when jumping or going over an obstacle. “Stomp!” Hillary shouted at me as I rode past her, apparently only thinking I was stomping. “Thow a tantrum!” The stomping helps gain some traction, she tells us. Is this good life advice? I’m not sure, but it definitely has helped me with my bump jumps.

photo by Gordon/Ninja Performance

Just before lunch, we headed into the woods for a little trail time. It had been raining hard in the evenings, and sprinkling sporadically throughout the second day, but these trails were purpose-built and drained incredibly well. We all ride mountain bikes because we want to ride in the woods, or whatever landscape we have available, but the coaches were completely right when they said practicing drills does way more to help build skills than just going on group rides where bad habits are formed and nurtured. After a day and a half of repeating the same movements with two people watching, offering feedback, and taking photos to show what they mean (all of us thought we were doing what they were telling us to do, it just takes that additional set of eyes and photographic evidence to show us how to improve), the trails were full of obstacles we aimed for, rather than avoided or quickly hopped over. We tried not to ride at Mach Damnit, but we all certainly could have handled these trails with mega speed.

photo by Gordon/Ninja Performance

After lunch, we sessioned a little drop to get used to how it felt, now that we were more aware of how our bodies should be centered on the bike. We played around on a little jump section on the double track, practiced climbing up a slick rock that immediately followed a big muddy pit (spoiler, I still need to practice that) and had a blast on the twisty, rooty trails around the appropriately-named Stokesville. We also took an important lesson on falling. Yesterday, we posted a story I wrote last year about riding on the Colorado Trail. I got vertigo, panicked, and put my automatic foot down — on the open side of the cliff. Had I taken this skills clinic and practiced what I learned, I would have been more automatic in putting my other full down, rather than making the effort after it was too late, and I wouldn’t have fallen off the cliff. Hey, at least I got a cool story out of it. But it would have been a lot cooler if I just hadn’t fallen down the cliff at all.

photo by Gordon/Ninja Performance

Finally, at the end of the weekend, we had some tender final moments as a group. We each stated what was our most important take-aways from the two days of skills building. I thought it was most helpful to have someone watching me ride, because every time I thought I had my weight forward or backward, or was turning with my belly button, or keeping my eyes up and scanning, it was pointed out that I was not. Once I made the adjustment, it was like I had a new body with new sudden abilities. Wow! All weekend, Gordon was making jokes about what we were doing that was extraordinary and saying we were going to get a Twinkie for all the great achievements we were breaking through. I thought I was going to get one for learning to turn left or sending off a little platform, but what I was awarded Twinkies for was much, much more important to me: Most Stoke and Best Attitude.