This post started in the pub with Caroline and Matt talking about how much better the riding in France is when compared to the UK but then turned into me wondering, if that’s the case, how come there’s so many elite level UK downhill riders?
If you glance through the 2016 UCI downhill competitor lists, what is instantly noticeable is the number of UK athletes competing. This might not be so strange until you consider that the UK is hardly a ‘Mecca’ for mountain bikers. The three tallest peaks in the UK are Ben Nevis 1344m (4409ft), Snowden 1085m (3560ft) and Scafell Pike 978m (3209ft). When you put these up against the tallest peaks in the Alps, California, Colorado and British Columbia (all over 4000m / 13123ft) there’s really no comparison. So if the UK was the best represented nation (occupying many of the top places) in a competition to see who can ride down a mountain side fastest, yet out of all the nations represented the UK has the smallest mountains, how are those riders getting to be so good?
The first thing to notice about the level of UK UCI downhill representation is that it wasn’t replicated across other mountain bike disciplines eg slopestyle, enduro world series, UCI XC. This would suggest that the number of UK riders entering the UCI downhill series related to something specific that is going on within the UK. So what is it?
If we consider the areas of origin of the UK riders we find representation from all across the UK with no real high densities of development, for example, if a large percentage of those riders were concentrated around Wharncliffe woods, home of Steve Peat, this may have provided an explanation for why lots of them were good at downhill racing. An explanation offered up by Rachel Atherton, one time during an interview, was that the lack of uplifts in the UK meant riders tended to compete in order to access uplifts. Now while it’s true that nothing prepares you for the stresses and pressures of competition like competing, competitions don’t run every day and so the opportunity to practice and develop skills would be restricted to a very small number of runs per year so this can’t provide the answer either.
In previous posts I’ve spoken about the need for purposeful practice in elite level performance and it’s here that I believe we can find the secret to the UK’s downhill competition success. If we look at other examples of elite level practice, that has been shown to promote success, we see trends in the types of practice athletes engage in. The success of Venus and Serena Williams has, in part, been linked to their use of multi-ball training where their dad Richard is known to have played balls one after another at them varying the power, angle of shot, spin etc with each ball. This type of training has also been highlighted within the hugely successful Chinese table tennis training programmes of the past, along with techniques such as extending the table width by half on the side of the training athlete. In the NBA the practice of using ‘walk ons’ during training is well known where, when a star players side go on the attack, a 6th player joins the defensive team so the star player is being marked by 2 players while the rest of their team mates are also being man marked. The closest example of elite level training that I feel may provide an answer to UK downhill success is found in the success of the Brazilian football team however. When we think of Brazil and football we think of the sublime skills of players on the world stage and those players practicing on sun soaked beaches. The truth is quite different though. Brazil’s most successful players don’t grow up playing football on beaches, they grow up in inner city areas playing a different game – Futsal. Futsal is a 5-a-side game played on pitches that provide players with 4 times less space (when compared to an 11-a-side game), with goals that are 3 times smaller than 11-a-side, using a size 4 ball (as opposed to size 5) that has 30% less bounce – less space = less margin for error = more intensity (want to learn more about Futsal click here). When the size of the pitch and the ball are scaled up for an 11-a-side game, the players feel like they have all the space and time in the world.
So what does this mean for mountain bikers? When you talk to people who’ve ridden the trails of Europe, America, Canada and the UK a major theme that can be drawn from their words are that UK trails are significantly shorter. A consequence of this is that, with the shorter trail lengths, trail features come closer together and the riders get to practice those features more often. In addition, the restricted choice of features means that UK riders have no option but to repeatedly hit the same jumps, turns etc squeezing every last bit of potential out of them. If you want a new challenge in the UK, you can’t just go a bit further down the trail to find one, you have to use the same jump and jump higher or same berm and hit it faster etc. If you look at UK filmed, elite level mountain bike videos and compare them to the rest of the world, whether it’s the Dudes of Hazard, This is Peaty, A Slice of British Pie, or any number of others, they’re all based around repeatedly jumping the same jumps or hitting turns as fast as possible or racing each other on short dual slalom courses. Elite level athlete videos from the rest of the world don’t show this but instead show long flowing single track and groomed bike park trails with massive man made jumps. When you compare UK films to films from outside the UK what you see is how, outside the UK, a particular type of purposeful practice is diluted by the environment.
I have no solid scientific evidence for this conclusion but when you consider our understanding of purposeful practice in skill acquisition, you look at the disproportionate number of UK riders in this years UCI downhill competition and you see the type of practice those elite level riders are engaging in in their UK based film clips, in my opinion, there’s something to be learned. The type of practice UK riders are engaging in puts them at an advantage when it comes to downhill racing. A 10 watt bulb can barely light a room yet a 10 watt laser can split steel – same power, the difference is focus. How are you going to focus your practice?
If you’re going to take the time to practice, practice like the elite