Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Mountain biking with Jenny Copnall

Jenny proving high saddles don't necessarily mean you're a loser. Photo: Tom Humpage

Just before I'm due to meet up with Jenny Copnall, five time national cross country mountain bike champion and my coach for the next two hours, I inhale a bacon sandwich and a strong coffee. Then I warm up by donning a full-face helmet and taking my downhill bike out for a quick descent in the mud. By the time Jenny pedals into the car park of Aston Hill bike park in the Chilterns she has already been cycling for 90 minutes in a strong headwind. She looks fresh as a daisy. I look like early man.

'I think we need to work on finesse,' says Jenny diplomatically.

Jenny retired from professional racing in January 2010 after a career which saw her ride with both the Gary Fisher-Subaru and Motorex-Bianchi teams. She now has her own coaching academy offering race consultancy, skills and fitness coaching. I was keen to see whether she could she turn me – an enthusiastic downhiller who rarely arrives at the top of a climb with a smile on her face – into a cross country whippet. Or at the very least give me some skills which would help me avoid trees.

'I'd say one of the most important things in cross country is to look up the trail,' says Jenny. In mountain biking you go where you are looking and the further ahead you can see, the more time you have to react to obstacles.' Rarely have I employed this technique on technical climbs, tending to focus on that small piece of trail in front of my wheel and consequently flailing over any root or rock in my way. A quick shoulder check on tight corners however, and my body is already off in the right direction; forcing myself to look up the trail on a climb, allows me to anticipate a rooty section so I'm powering over it before I have a chance to put a foot down. So far so good. Who knew it could be so simple?

Jenny's expertise lies in endurance and marathon racing, winning the national marathon championship title in 2006. In other words, she knows a thing or two about pacing. 'It's so important to have an objective assessment of your own abilities,' she says. 'So many people go off cross country because they get this wrong, throw everything they have at a route in the first half hour and it hurts.' One of the easiest ways to pace yourself is your line choice. I'm confident I have this in the bag – shoulder checking like crazy - until Jenny points out I picked what is known as 'the lemming line.' 'It's the one everyone takes, because they see the tyre tracks and just follow it. But actually it would have been a lot less work for you – and a lot less steep - to have gone wide on that corner and come in off the top. Be a bit imaginative and conserve your energy.' Downhill riding forces an explosion of energy over a very short time period – a five minute track is considered pretty epic. So it's interesting to learn tactically when to hold back and when to go quick in cross country in order to last the course. Needless to say Jenny leaves me for dust. Or mud. Must try harder.

One thing you notice within five minutes of riding with Jenny is how good she is at manhandling her bike. Despite her feminine sizing, she is in complete control. 'A lot of people I start coaching, just sit on the bike and get carried along. But your mountain bike needs to become an extension of you and you need to really throw your weight around,' she says. If you look at downhillers like Steve Peat, you'll see how much he changes his weight distribution over the course of the run. I found this quite tricky at certain points on the cross country route due to my saddle height. In downhill this would be very low; in XC it sits pretty much hip height meaning you have to move that much more to get your weight back or to weight a particular side of the bike. In the mud of Aston Hill it was pretty crucial to get to grips with this sharpish. The back end of my bike did wash out on one corner but as I was going uphill (how is that possible?) and Jenny didn't see I don't think it counts.

There's no doubt my riding benefited from Jenny's coaching – a few tweaks here and there have made it slicker and more efficient. On top of that her enthusiasm for XC – honed over 17 years of racing – is pretty infectious. 'I love being outdoors on my bike, it's my main driving force,' she enthuses. 'It's a way of proving you can achieve stuff if you put your mind to it, which has a lot of benefits off the bike too.' Now that's something XC and DH riders can all agree on. On that note, flats or clip-ins … ?

This piece also appeared on the Guardian's bike blog. But the subbing was a bit weird.

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