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I Thought I Knew How to Mountain Bike — Then I Went To Mountain Bike Camp

Thoughts, tips and tools from a trip to the Trek Dirt Series at Whistler, the sport’s North American Mecca.

Sean St. Denis and Trek Dirt Series Mountain Bike Camps

When I got the chance to mountain bike at Whistler earlier this year, I was equal parts ecstatic and terrified. It’s known by many as one of North America’s biggest, baddest ski resorts, but when the snow melts, Whistler transforms into a mountain biking Mecca. Being the birthplace of the Crankworx festival, seemingly endless valley trails, a sprawling village and 5,000 vertical feet of descent from the top of the lift-accessed singletrack to the base will earn you that designation.

But Whistler’s got something else going for it, too: it’s the flagship location of the Trek Dirt Series, an ever-growing circuit of mountain bike camps covering some 11 states and provinces on the western half of the continent. Now offering nearly 30 individual camps, the Dirt Series started as a small seed in the brain of mountain bike rock star Candace Shadley, who simply wanted to encourage more women to share her trail-crushing passion.

Indeed, the majority of the camps are women-specific. The one I was invited to attend a couple months ago was one of seven co-ed programs, and I was torn. Though I’d been mountain biking maybe 10 times to that point, I’d never had much instruction, and I had a sneaking suspicion I was actually clueless. But I couldn’t say no to such an awesome opportunity, so I joined some 70 other campers for a rather rainy weekend in September.

Looking back, it’s hard to adequately express how fantastic a job Shadley and her fellow coaches do, except to say that a. I quickly learned that my sneaking suspicion was correct, and b. I almost as quickly learned a ton of fantastic tips to significantly reverse that reality. Some of them made tons of sense (look where you’re going!); some went against every instinct (the front brake is my friend?); all enabled me to rise from a mountain biking boy to, at the very least, a mountain biking man-child.

It’s a testament to the rapid progression that the very first descent we tackled on Day 2 (when we transitioned from trails to the park for full-on downhilling) was markedly gnarlier than the scariest thing we’d done on Day 1, and yet everyone in my formerly ragtag little riding group aced it without much hesitation. We moved on to even steeper features later in the day, and though my heart was often pounding out of my chest, my feet stayed securely on the pedals. And the excitement really carried back to the east coast, as I’ve now mountain biked in New Jersey and Queens (yes, Queens!) another half-dozen times, and I get more amped about the sport every time out.

So, I highly recommend checking out the Dirt Series. Even if you can’t make it to a camp, though, anyone can improve their riding skills and overall enjoyment by following a few simple tips… tips I procured from Shadley herself. She is simultaneously one of the sweetest and most badass people alive, as I learned as one of her pupils on Day 1. Scroll down for her top five mountain biking pointers, followed by seven products that’ll give you another kind of edge on the trails…

The Tips

1. Scan Ahead


“Most often we end up going where we’re looking, so it definitely helps to look where we want to go. Scan from what’s happening now to what’s happening next, realizing that the faster you’re riding the further ahead you’ll need to look.”

2. Get Forward


“Put enough weight on the front of the bike to maintain traction and control. When climbing, shift towards your stem to keep the front wheel from lifting up or moving side to side. At the top of a steep roll down, hinge at your hips and bend your limbs to get over the front, giving yourself enough range to extend your arms and legs as you descend.”

3. Push your Bike


“We used to think about moving our weight back when facing challenging sections or obstacles that could block our momentum. Instead, focus on pushing your bike ahead, maintaining movement, and directing your energy to where you want to be.”

4. Brake Strategically


“The front brake is your friend, especially on consistent pitches, and offers the majority of your stopping power. Treat it like a dimmer instead of an on-off light switch, and enjoy way more control and a lot less propensity to skid. Drop speed where it’ll help you most – before corners, on the tackiest dirt on the wettest days, when a sharp transition is coming up that you’d rather just roll through.”

5. Recognize your Success

“We often focus on our mistakes or what’s still on our list, but in almost every ride we accomplish something, even if that’s just riding through the same section more smoothly than we have before. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success. Mountain biking is incredible. Think happy thoughts.” 


The Tools

1. Trek Slash 9.9

I could go on and on about the Slash’s bomber 7-inch-travel shocks, its ready-for-anything carbon 29er wheels, its user-friendly 1×12 drivetrain and playfully light weight of 30 pounds. But the photos above really tell the story of this hard-charging beast. I tackled two full days on some of Whistler’s snakiest trails — including a downhill day — and unlike every other time I’ve been mountain biking, I didn’t endo once! That’s a tribute to the awesome Dirt Series coaches, of course, but having the world’s nimblest, most versatile enduro bike under my butt sure didn’t hurt.

BUY NOW: $6,800

2. Bontrager Blaze WaveCel Mountain Bike Helmet

This helmet doesn’t just look badass. Having worn it several times over the past couple months, I’ve found it’s also quite comfortable, thanks to a BOA dial in back and a Fidlock magnetic chinstrap buckle. But I’m burying the lead: this helmet boasts WaveCel, a revolutionary collapsible cellular lining that crumples to absorb impact before it hits your noggin. In third party testing, WaveCel helmets receive the highest possible protection rating — and far be it from me to argue with science.

BUY NOW: $300

3. 100% SpeedCraft Sunglasses

For lightweight, reliable eye protection on the trail, you can’t do better than these technical specs. My favorite qualities are the secure and comfortable fit, the exceptionally wide field of vision and the ability to swap in a clear lens when the clouds come out. The fierce, futuristic look is just a bonus.

BUY NOW: $175

4. Dakine Syncline Bike Hydration Backpack

This pack’s features are as handy as its styling is eye-catching. I’m particularly enamored of the rear storage section with multiple entry points, the light MOLLE webbing for toting extra gear and the low-slung hydration reservoir, which resides in its own separate area in the lumbar area for minimal jostling, even when your bike’s bouncing all over the trail.

BUY NOW: $125

5. RaceFace Indy Elbow and Knee Guards


Thankfully, my downhill day at Whistler was crash-free, but these guards would have been up to the test. Silicone grippers and Velcro keep them in place, while high-performance foam padding featuring D30 — a.k.a. polyborodimethylsiloxane, which locks up on impact to absorb and distribute shock — keeps their protective nature relatively low profile.

ELBOW: $35+KNEE: $58+

6. Destroyer Equipment Raspberry Glove

A relatively new brand out of Utah, Destroyer Equipment is quickly making a name for itself in the mountain bike world thanks to killer gear, attitude and pricing. These tough gloves are a perfect example, boasting one-of-a-kind styling and padding just where you need it to absorb the jolts and shocks of uneven descents.

BUY NOW: $25

7. Specialized EMT Road Tool

Yes, it has “road” in the name, but this durable, wallet-friendly gadget slips easily into a pocket for quick deployment anywhere you ride. It’s perfect for adjusting seats and handlebars and other minor trailside jobs, and that big fat 8 mm hex wrench can come in handy if you suddenly need to, say, swap pedals.

BUY NOW: $15

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