There are just a select few instructors that specialise in teaching mountain bike skills, and Gene Hamilton is one of those few. He has the uncommon ability of not just being fast (he won silver and bronze in the World Downhill Championships), but also understanding why and how to educate others to be fast.

The previous year, I had the wonderful opportunity to have a private session with him on an individual basis. My eyes were opened to a new way of viewing mountain biking during the session, and my time spent with Gene is directly responsible for the tremendous improvement in my cross-country abilities that I’ve experienced over the last several months.

The questions (and answers)

Give us some history on your mountain biking background and the history of Better Ride Coaching?

Gene: BetterRide is one word that I invented, not two. I am so smart I can invent words. 😉

In 1988, I moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where I got my start in mountain riding, if you want to call it that. We used to ride on an old garbage dump that was located behind one of the residence halls at Old Dominion University. I was there when it happened. I estimated that the “huge hill” had a vertical drop of between 30 and 40 feet, and I felt it was enormous! I never imagined that I would be able to get to the summit of the mountain without having to take a break to collect my breath. What an amazing experience it was the first time I made it to the summit; I’ll never forget it.

I had the want to get a new mountain bike in the spring of 1993. I tried to get a good bargain on a new bike despite the fact that I am a professional snowboarder and believe that I should never pay full price for anything. After meeting a KHS sales representative, he advised me to locate a KHS dealer and sign up for the Farm Team. If I did so, I would be able to purchase a bike at a discount of ten percent off the wholesale price and get an additional ten percent back if I participated in five races.

After I relocated to San Diego, I went to the nearest KHS dealer and asked to be added to the Farm Team. The dealer instructed me to return in a few days to meet another member of the team, a lady who was also a member of the KHS Farm Team. After that, a couple of days later, I met this tall lady called Marla who was coated in dried mud, and we made arrangements to go horseback riding together. I can very vividly recall thinking to myself, “Walt mentioned this girl is a “expert,” which means she believes she’s quite quick.” I am a really fit professional snowboarder, but go easy on the female since I don’t want to destroy her self-esteem. I recently came here from a high altitude (Aspen, Colorado), and I just got here.

I was hungry on the way to the trail (which was located somewhere in East San Diego), so much to the delight of this Marla lady, I stopped at Taco Bell on the way there. She questioned whether or not it was wise to have that food so soon after getting on the horse. When we arrived to the path, she began to kick my butt all over the place as soon as we started walking. She would be riding circles while waiting for me at the top of each hill, and she would tell me things like, “you’re doing better than most of the guys I ride with.” To this day, I have no idea if she was being sincere or simply being kind when she made her statement. After getting my but end kicked by Marla, I have a lot more respect for female athletics.

A few weeks later, she contacted me and asked if I would be interested in accompanying her to a race in Temecula. I responded by saying, “Sure, because I used to race BMX, I should certainly try my hand at expert.” She tried very hard not to chuckle when she persuaded me to attempt the novice level first since she knew I could always advance. Now I had a lot of reason to be thrilled; I was going to come in first place in the race! (at this point, I have never seen a cross country race, but I imagine that everyone works quite hard on the hills, and then coasts down the descents while having fun and catching a little air).

Therefore, we go to Temecula in Marla’s polka-dotted Volkswagen camper named Vidalia, where we pre-ride the course before retiring for the night. The following day, when we were signing up for the race, my excitement and nerves caused me to shake uncontrollably. I am one of only two cyclists in my beginning class who do not have their legs shaved, and I am the only one who does not use clipless pedals. As my class lines up for the start, I glance around. Is this the class for first-timers?! Some of the men have calf muscles that are as big as grapefruits, and it’s impressive to see.

The shot rings out, and I’ve been through a lot in my life, but nothing like this before! This race is a 12 mile sprint, so you can forget about coasting down the downhills. I start off at the back of the pack, and as I make my way through the pack, I pick up a little bit of momentum every time I pass a competitor who has shaved legs. After pushing myself to my physical and mental limits for an hour and a half, by the time I cross the finish line, I don’t give a damn about where I came in the competition. The mile and a half run that was part of the Presidential Fitness Test that I took while I was in high school was the longest sports competition I had ever participated in before this event.

I finished 13th out of 26, and to this day, I consider it to be the highlight of my athletic career. Despite that, I wasn’t able to rejoice for very long. It turned out that Marla was having a wonderful race as well, and she had moved into second position behind the rider for Factory KHS, Mia Stockdale. Unfortunately, Mia wouldn’t let Marla pass, so an irritated Marla tried to pass her off the route, but she ended up falling and breaking her collarbone.

After completing this event, despite the fact that I had never before participated in an endurance sport, I was hooked. I came back to Aspen in the autumn of that year and continued instructing and participating in snowboarding contests, but the endorphin high of aerobic sports was something I missed. I “retired” from snowboard competition the next spring and focused all of my concentration on competing in mountain bike races instead.

In 1995, in response to Marla and Toby Henderson’s encouragement that “you aren’t going to go anywhere racing expert,” I advanced to the pro level of competition. The 1995 Vail NORBA National was the first big event I had competed in. Over 150 professional downhill racers from across the globe were registered to compete in the event. When I was training with all of the people who I had read about in publications, I was really unsure of whether or not I belonged in the professional category. Because there were so many competitors back then, they had a qualifying round, and only the top fifty racers from that round advanced to the finals. I finished in the 48th place! I advanced to the last round. This was a significant boost to my confidence, and I made the decision to stop working and devote all of my time to racing.

I had no idea that this would turn out to be an obsession that would put me between $6,000 and $7,000 in the red at the end of every single summer for the following eight years;)

My coaching career started at Wisp Resort in Western Maryland where I was one of the snowboard directors in 1990. I coached myself and a few teammates who competed in the mid-Atlantic region.

In 1991 I moved to Colorado to train with team Breckenridge. The coaches were really good technique coaches but actually hurt many of their athletes’ mental game and self-esteem. The coaches would say things like, “are you sure you are a pro, that run really didn’t look good”. Having these lousy coaches was frustrating and made me realize I could do a better job.

The next season I trained with Nick Colavito in Aspen who was a much more positive coach. I was fortunate in that I learned both how to and how not to coach from these coaches. In late summer 1995 I was hired as the head snowboard coach of the Steamboat Springs Winters Sports Club. The winter Sports Club’s mission was to use sport as a metaphor for life and to help create happier/healthier human beings. With this mission in mind they defined success as doing your personal best (ie. not winning). This really fit my philosophy and I really enjoyed coaching the team.

I was in for quite a surprise when I found out how serious this job was. This was demanding full-time job (with a part-time salary) with a lot of pressure and late night phone calls from parents. It was also an extremely rewarding experience. Seeing kids grow more confident and having their parents’ thank you for helping them grow felt really great. During my three years there I learned a lot about coaching took a lot of coaching courses from USA Skiing and Snowboarding eventually become a Level II coach.

During this time I was racing downhill mountain bikes in the summers and coaching in the winters. My passion for snowboarding was declining as my passion for mountain biking was growing. At the end of my third season I decided to move to Boulder where I could train all winter and start coaching mountain bike racers. That was in 1998 and unfortunately I found very little market for my coaching skills. I kept plugging away at coaching while racing and working as a bartender for the next six years until I was able to coach full time in the fall of 2004.

Why does it seem there is resistance to mountain biking skills coaching? People don’t think twice about golf lessons?

Gene: I think there are a few reasons for this. There is a big difference between men and women in this area. If a woman can’t do something as well as she would like to she seeks out a teacher. If a man can’t do something as well as he wants to he simply tries harder.

I have read a lot of books that cover this subject (why men don’t ask for directions) and it goes back millions of years. Men feel like failures when they can’t grasp a task well in front of others, especially loved ones. To ask for help is a sign of weakness. This is why men often rib each other about taking lessons and why a guy who won’t ask for directions with his wife will ask for directions when he is alone.

Secondly, almost anyone can “ride” a bike so they don’t often realize how much skill is involved in riding a bike off road. Riding over roots and rocks is quite a bit different from riding your bike down the sidewalk to school.

Thirdly, many riders think the only difference between themselves and the best riders in the world is fitness and / or fearlessness. These riders don’t realize how much skill is involved and how much time and energy they could save with better skills.

Plenty of people are fast riders. What makes someone a good teacher?

Gene: There are many aspects to being a good teacher. A good teacher must be able to break down what they are teaching into to digestible parts, he must have the ability to articulate what he does and why.

Experience and coaching education are two of big factors that help an athlete become a good teacher. In the 17 years that I have been coaching I am constantly learning how to do it better. I learn from my clients, from taking coaching courses, and from reading. A good coach realizes he doesn’t know it all and is constantly trying to improve his methods.

Why can’t someone just read about skills in a book?

Gene: Well you certainly can read about skills in a book. There is nothing wrong with that. Why go to a camp? Getting coached by a good coach is a much faster and more effective way to learn any sport. That is why top athletes in all sports have coaches. Learning from a book is limited by how well it is written, how well the reader understands the book, how internally motivated the reader is and how often the reader returns to the book.

Reading about something gives some people an understanding of a skill while coaching gives a 3d example of the skill and allows the student to realize how it feels. A good coach explains the technique, why the technique works, how to do it, how it should feel and what it should look like. Then the coach makes sure the student understands it on all of those levels.

In addition coaches can answer questions, explain things in different ways, physically adjust your position (many athletes are kinesthetic learners, i.e. they learn best through manipulating their bodies) and evaluate the rider and tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Often you think / feel like you are doing something correctly but are actually doing it wrong. Top coaches also inspire an athlete to perform / practice at their best.

How important is the mental aspect of skills training and how do you teach that?

Gene: The mental aspect of skills training is equally important as the physical skills. What good is skill if you can’t access it when you need it? At the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club I learned that sport is a metaphor for life, confidence gained in sport makes the athlete a more confident person. This is a circular pattern, as you get more confident in sport you get more confident in life as you get more confident in life you get more confident in sport.

I teach mental skills throughout my camps as a situation arises where a certain mental skill will help a rider. The mind is very powerful, Henry Ford said, “those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right”. As both an athlete and coach I have found Mr. Ford’s statement is true.

Your philosophy stresses fundamentals in a way that’s similar to the way other coaches talk about free throws and basketball. In a nutshell, what are the fundamentals for mountain biking?


Vision. Where and how to focus.

Balance and body position. How to stay smooth and balanced in all riding situations and conditions.

Braking. When and how to brake effectively, economically and stay in control.

Lifting the bike, (wheelies/manuals, rear wheel lifts, bunny hops, etc.) how to get over obstacles the fastest and most economical way.

Cornering, the purpose of cornering and how to accomplish it through vision, body position, braking.

Slow speed riding and switchbacks, this includes more balance, body position and vision techniques.

Bike set up, a bike set up correctly is much easier to ride. 😉

Ashwin: A majority of your drills are performed in a controlled environment like a parking lot. Why?

Gene: People learn best in a non-threatening environment. When people are concerned about their safety their instincts take over and they revert to old habits.

This often happens on trail where there are all kinds of penalty points for mistakes. It is much easier to learn in a safe, controlled environment then apply what you learned on trail. In all sports most of the progress comes through drills (which is why over 70% of most athletes time is spent on drills) not actually racing/competing. As an example; golfers, ski racers, football players and basketball players spend 60 to 90% of their training time working on skills and only 10 to 40% of their training time simulating competition.

What is the biggest mistake you see beginner mountain bikers making?

Gene: Not looking ahead correctly and looking down at the times when it is most important to look ahead.

What is the biggest mistake you see advanced riders making?

Gene: Confusing fitness with skill, many advanced riders muscle through trails instead of using skill. This approach is inconsistent and wastes energy.

What’s the best way to introduce beginners to mountain biking?

Gene: It really depends on their aggressiveness. Take an aggressive skier / snowboarder/kayaker to some fun, easy singletrack (such as Rustlers Loop in Fruita). Take less aggressive people to a dirt road. The goal is to get them having fun and gradually increase the skill level and fitness level.

There’s more than one way to approach a skill, right? How does someone approach two ways of performing a skill that may be conflicting with each other?

Gene: In most cases there is a best way, I teach techniques that work 100% of the time, not techniques that work well in some situations but not others. Such as bunny hopping, simply yanking up like many people do works over small obstacles with the right speed but bunny hopping correctly (what some people call the J hop) works better and in more situations (going slower or over taller obstacles).

They say you win XC races on the climbs. If that is true why should an XC racer devote significant time to skills?

Gene: Time wise, climbs are probably 70% of a race so climbing ability is very important. A racer should devote time to skills because there is a much bigger pay off per hour of training. Most XC racers are close to their peak fitness level but are far from their potential skill wise.

Improving skill (both climbing and descending) makes a rider more confident, more efficient, and quite a bit faster. Just this weekend at the Sugar, NC national a non-mountain biking friend of mine asked, “why are those guys walking their bikes, I thought they were pros”. We saw a lot of racers walking while skilled racers like Adam Craig, Ross Schnell, Mike West, and Ariel Lindsey were riding and increasing their lead (while using less energy) on the riders walking the tough sections.

What’s the right way to ‘practice’ skills?

Gene: To practice skills you must first understand the skill you want to practice. Simply practicing “cornering” without knowing how to corner correctly will get you really good at your bad habits.

So rule # 1 is: Perfect practice make perfect.

With this in mind quality is much more important than quantity. Coaches in many sports have found that your quality starts to decline after the third attempt at any skill/movement. These coaches have come up with the rule of threes, do something three times then move on to another skill. In doing something 10 times your last 5 times may do more harm to your technique than the first three attempts did good for your technique.

Rule # 2 is: Have a purpose.

Many riders simply go out and ride, some even with a plan to work on skills. But what skills? To improve you must have an exact purpose, i.e. “Today I am going to focus on braking before corners and exiting with speed” or “for the first 10 minutes of my ride I am going to focus on being relaxed with a light rip on the bars then focus on pumping and contouring the trail”.

Thanks Gene!

We thank Gene for his time in answering our questions and encourage you to visit BetterRide for more info about his skills coaching.