On Skill and Technique

If you listen to today’s Paceline you’ll hear about my current project, learning to handle my new mountain bike with flat pedals rather than clipless. It’s a new bike, so there’s actually quite a lot to learn, but that’s ok. I have time.

Out yesterday with some friends, I did my best to keep up, hit the obstacles I felt comfortable taking on, and not worry too much about the ones I wasn’t ready for yet, although this is, I think, the big challenge, to stay the course, learning (or re-learning) skills you’ve already got, albeit with different equipment.

This reminded me of a coaching seminar I went to once back when I was involved in youth soccer. The instructor outlined a distinction between skill and technique. A skill, he proposed, was something you could do under no pressure, whereas a technique was something you could utilize in a game situation. As a word guy, I’m not sure I buy into his narrow parsing of the terms, but actually it’s a pretty good way to understand where you are on a learning curve.

TCI is supported in part by Shimano North America.

For example, I could bunny hop my new bike in the parking lot. With a smooth roll and a moment to think, I can get that bike reasonably high off the ground (for an older guy). On the trail and in the heat of each moment, I’m not quite there yet. My initial attempts weren’t tragic. I rolled away uninjured. But none of them was very pretty either. The few jumps I dared weren’t very jumpy, a bit like a turtle trying to ollie a skateboard.

What I used to tell my soccer kids who struggled with the basics was that there is no substitute for repetition. No one gets better just by wanting to be better. You have to try and fail and try and fail and try and fail. That’s how you take the skill in isolation to the technique in practice.

Even as I type the words, I wonder if I’ll have the patience to take my clipless skills to the flat pedals. And look, I know how it works in theory. I know where to place my feet, how to create the pressure, how to lift the rear of the bike, etc. But knowing and executing are two different things. I’m not even sure they’ve met.

To make this work, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time doing what I call ‘noodling,’ which is also the term for catching large, freshwater catfish with your hand by getting them to swallow your fist and then pulling them up out of the murky depths where they lurk. But I digress. My version of ‘noodling’ is what some people would call ‘sessioning’ except it’s more disorganized and looks a lot more like ‘loitering’ in the local park. Wish me luck.


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  1. albanybenn says

    At this point in my riding career, I ride platforms for everything. If I can’t ride it on platforms, I probably shouldn’t be riding it at all. 50+ years of sports damage to feet and ankles. Platforms just work better for me now.

  2. dr sweets says

    Congrats on moving to flat pedals. I’ve been on and off them since the early 00’s (not including toe clips back in the day prior) with the last time being about ten years ago. I went back to flats pedals almost two years ago after spending week up at Snowshoe bike park and following my friends down the gnarliest stuff outside of the park on my Honzo and having the crap scared outta me. It’s been a fantastic learning experience. It’s pushed my abilities and increased my confidence level way up. As a 50-something I’ve had to relearn/retool my climbing efforts which has been the biggest challenge. However, I’ve been able begin dirt jumping something I’ve never done and that’s improved my bike handling all around. I highly recommend trying different pedal and shoe combinations to find what will suit you best. It took me a few tries to nail it. Heels down and ride on.

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      @Dr – Yeah. I’m feeling the handling changes happening. It’s cool. I want to stick with it. Definitely also thinking about pedal/shoe combos. That might be the stuff of posts later as I figure it out. Recommendations welcome!

  3. cramissor says

    I’m another 50+ convert back to flat pedals. I made the switch several years ago and have very little desire to go back. Given my stormy relationship with bike handling, it saves me from a lot of low to mid speed crashes that clips would have doomed me to. Falling down isn’t as funny as it once was.

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