Dirt Rag Magazine

Riders hone skills at the Michaux Mountain Bike School

The author, lugging the ever-present load of camera gear, with Adam Craig looking on.

By Adam Newman. Photos by Adam Newman A. E. Landes Photography.

Being able to ride a bike is certainly a prerequisite to working at Dirt Rag, but not everyone here is on the same level, and let’s just say that on the staff rides, I’m not the one setting the pace. After a handful of years on the dirt, I’m pretty comfortable with the local trails, but I’ve been searching for something to take my riding to the next level.

Well, son, if you want to get smart, you better go to school. So off I went to the Michaux Mountain Bike School, held each spring in Michaux State Forest in central Pennsylvania. Fast Forward Racing Productions, specifically head honcho Zach Adams, invites some of the best talent on the East Coast and beyond for both beginner and experienced riders to get the season started right with fundamentals and some new skills. Among the big names showing us a thing or two this year were Adam Craig, Harlan Price and Matt Miller, and leading the ladies, Sue Haywood and Cheryl Sorenson.

Adams took a risk this year, revamping what was originally a camp aimed at juniors that covered everything from bike mechanics to physiology.

“The opportunity came up this year to change it up,” Adams said. “I rebranded it, totally stripped down the curriculum, and brought in the current group of all-star coaches. It was a big risk, but everything lined up and it was successful.”

Zach Adams, at right, welcomes campers and introduces some of the instructors.

Now in its sixth year, the camp begins Friday evening as riders arrive at the Camp Thompson YMCA site, settle in to their bunkhouse cabins and get the campfire started. Bring a warm sleeping bag, because late March is still not quite spring in the mountains of Pennsylvania!

The YMCA camp has bunkhouse cabins and hot showers in the bath house. 

Saturday morning breakfast is provided and riders had time to stash some of their extra clothes back in their cabins as a surprisingly beautiful day warmed quickly. The 75 assembled riders divided into four groups: three groups of men and a group of about a dozen ladies.

Riders break up into groups of about a dozen.

I joined my cabin-mates with Matt Miller’s group and we got started. I was surprised by the number of riders who had been to the camp multiple times before and return year after year to dust off the cobwebs of winter and ride some of the best trails around.

Central PA—Michaux especially—is known for its unforgiving, boulder-strewn trails. Seriously, it’s like someone took a truckload of washing machines and just dumped them in the woods. In many spots there is no “trail,” just a preferred line through metavolcanic and quartzite rocks at the northern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Luckily the day starts in an open field with some simple, man-made obstacles to gauge your skill level and practice the basics. A handful of skinnies, teeter-totters, and a two-foot drop were constructed for newer riders to practice keeping their mass centered, their elbows out, and their eyes up.

Like all skills, the fundamentals are what’s most important. It’s much easier to practice here than on the trail.

After an hour of basics we hit the trail, stopping occasionally to session a particular feature or corner that Miller felt aptly utilized the skills we had focused on that morning. In particular I concentrated on leaning my bike further in corners while keeping my mass centered over the bottom bracket. 

Instructor Matt Miller coaches a rider over a log…

…and demonstratesthe preferred line through a rocky section.

After about two and half hours, we stopped for a much-needed lunch out on the trail, then each group of about 20 men rotated to a new instructor. Next up was Adam Craig, who is best known for contributing stories to Dirt Rag, but I guess races his bike a lot or something, too? (I kid, I kid.)

Whenever an interesting obstacle presented itself, the group would stop and discuss the best line.

Craig took a similar approach, though I couldn’t help but feel like no amount of practice could get me even close to his skill at riding certain sections so effortlessly. To see the gap between us normal people and the pros, up close and in person, was worth the price of admission.

Adam Craig showed us how to be light on the bike over rough terrain and heavy during cornering and braking.

In the afternoon we rolled back into camp a little behind schedule and missed the yoga session, but we still had plenty of time to grab dinner (salmon!) and enjoy a presentation by Miller on his sports physiology research and a Q&A session with the instructors. After a few libations around the campfire, I had no trouble falling straight to sleep.

All the instructors were friendly and approachable, and even sat down for a Q&A session after dinner.

Sunday greeted us with cloudy skies but we gathered again, this time to select from optional rides ranging from the 5-hour “pro” ride to an additional round of skills practice with Harlan Price. I chose the latter. While getting out on the trail certainly seemed more fun, I knew this was an opportunity to learn that I didn’t want to pass up. We practiced clearing obstacles, first by lifting our front wheel, then the rear, then putting the two together in one (sort of) seamless motion. Once our group felt like we had it down, we hit the trail again for one more blast up and down the ridge before the rain set in.

By the end of the weekend I was exhausted and sore—surely the sign of a good time.

“We all know what it’s like to get back into the technical terrain after being away from it for awhile,” Adams said. “It takes a little bit for the skills and muscle memory to kick back in again. It’s a great way to build a foundation for a strong season of racing or hard riding.”

Haywood echoed the sentiment that a skills camp isn’t just for beginner riders. “Drop the attitude that you are an expert because there is always an opportunity to improve,” she said. “Don’t be stubborn and say that because you are a racer you don’t need to know how to do a drop. And especially don’t settle for where your skills are—imagine where they could be.”

Attendee Brian Ruane is one rider who keeps coming back. This was his fifth visit to the camp and he has learned something new every year, he said. He uses the experience to fine-tune his skills for the summer mountain bike race season, and the highlight from this year was working with Adam Craig.

“Adam was talking to us about what he thinks about when he is coming up on this on his bike, and how he positions his body and center of gravity, what line he is thinking about taking, etc. He also talked about the physics (force, weight, gravity, speed) behind extra braking power you can experience right when your tires hit the ground after floating over these small rocks and your shock is still compressed.”

While it’s tempting to spend your tax refund each spring on another shiny piece of bike bling, there’s really no better investment than improving your own skills on the bike you already have. For $250 you get a great weekend with incredible riding, some new friends, and some skills to last you a lifetime. 

Hurry to register for the 2014 camp before 5 p.m. Wednesday to get the early-bird rate!

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