Q: How do I train myself to look further ahead down the trail? I have this annoying habit of looking too close in front and I can't hit ruts or maneovure round obstacles properly – Steve James
A: Many riders get into the habit of looking down at their front wheel, or the trail close by, as they ride. It can be the most constant cause for either crashes or slow progress down the trails. Breaking the habit can be challenging, but if you have someone to ride with and work with on this it’ll make your life easier.
You need to find a section of trail to work on – something relatively straight so your friend can stand at the far end and see you approach. It should be easy enough for you to ride it at moderate speed without too much stress. The challenge is to ride the whole section without looking at it, or at least not directly. You need to stay focused on your friend the whole way down. The aim is to start using your ambient vision more – seeing the trail as it approaches without looking directly at it.
Initially your eyes may drift back down to the trail, and this is where your friend's feedback is useful, because you may not even know you’re doing it. It'll also help you to identify which trail elements make you break your focus away from the horizon and look down.
Now try this again on a harder section of trail. What you’re trying to do is build up faith in your ambient vision and let your focal vision stretch ahead to identify trail risks long before they reach you. You may still want to quickly glance down and spot something, like the landing from a drop or the shape of a steep roll-in or rocky section that was hidden from view. But it’s a glance – don’t let it hold your focus.
If you haven’t got someone to work with, the best thing to do is either choose something to focus on as you ride a section or take some bright markers or tape with you. If you have a bright object in your sights, rather than a specific tree, it’s more likely to hold your attention.
Once you’ve built up some confidence in your ability to ride at moderate speed with ambient vision doing the work, get it working on a more flowing ride. Assuming you and your friend can cover ground at about the same speed, set them off in front of you and try riding for several minutes without focusing on the trail, just on the back of their rucksack. They'll need to be five to 10 bike lengths in front of you, depending on terrain, so you can still see the trail between you with your ambient vision and react accordingly.
Control at speed is your next challenge. You need to have good body position to allow yourself to flow smoothly over rough terrain – not just because it feels good but because the less you shake your head, the better your vision control. Make sure you have your heels down when you’re going fast, so bumps are absorbed through the lower body to keep steering light and controlled, and vision clear.
If you find you’ve ridden a section of trail badly, go straight back to the top and do it again. First try it a little slower and get your vision and footwork right and see if that helps. Now ride it faster and faster but still aiming to feel in control – don’t just let off the brakes and pray. By re-riding with good technique every time (ie. never so fast that you resort to bad old habits) you should be building your confidence in the effectiveness of good vision and reprogramming yourself to move your focus further ahead, all the time. Within a few rides your eyes will begin to intuitively behave as you want them to.
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