Natural Descender, a skills day in t’ Dales.

In May I was lucky enough to win a skills day with new skills training/guiding start up Roots Riding. I was really chuffed at this, while I’ve never booked on a skills day before I’ve often considered it but just never quite got round to it. I suspect that’s a common story.


Their Natural Descender skills day would turn out to be pretty much tailor made for me, the riding I like, and the things I found/find challenging and love doing/want to do better. So with my trusty On-One in the car I got myself to Embsay Cragg one sunny morning, with a mild sense of trepidation, and only a small skills shopping list in my head to see what would happen.

Confession time. I can rock it pretty well down stuff, I have a reasonable amount of confidence over big[ish] rocky gnar, so in the back of my mind I was partly thinking I might not learn too much. This was countered by the fact that while I’m good at what I’m good at, I have definite holes in my skill-set. I’ve been happy with drops for some time but Manuals (proper ones) have long alluded me, and the few times I get the front wheel up I almost panic at the feeling of no control. Similarly while small jumps are ok, on big jumps I find myself in the air and then just waiting with no sense of control until the ground comes back, at which point I’m back in control of the bike. But for that in between period I’m just a guy, in the air, attached to a bike, going fast. And I’ll be honest, a big part of me doesn’t like that.  So I never really huck it, cos that bit of time I’m not comfortable with will then be longer, and probably not end so well.


So, I was a skills day novice with some things to learn…


James Day (the man that IS Roots riding) starts us off going up and down the car park like bunch of noobs trying to lift the front wheel from the ground. This was good, as it stripped us of any sense of any pride or dignity, as we all performed utterly poor manuals. Pride has no place on a skills day at all (or, I would argue, on a bike – but that’s another issue).

Everyone got a bike? Yes? Good, we’re all set…


He then went through manual technique, and we did it again. And slowly we found things began to make sense. Wheels stayed off the ground for longer, and our efforts appeared to onlookers more professional manouvre and less like a day outing from the local mental hospital, yanking on the bars like frustrated apes.  James spotted I tended to move forwards, so the bars were just by my chin, once he told me to straighten my arms I suddenly found I was rolling along on my back wheel for a fair few meters. It was unnerving, as I’d not done it before, but also strangely comfortable unlike the feeling from just pulling on the bars when I felt like I might go over the back and so would never commit.


Then we set off up Embsay Crag and the nitty gritty of the day, all pulling happy little manuals as we rode along the bridleway.


Alot of skills days work on rigid technique on trail centre like features, berms, table tops, jumps etc. As someone who likes a trail centre but would ditch them in a moment if confronted by some good old natural Yorkshire gnar this again is possibly why I’ve never bothered going on one.


So here’s another confession. I actually find berms boring and table tops nothing much worth getting excited about. Seen one – you’ve seen them all. Yes they can allow you to carry speed from one bit to the next where the two line up, but as far as I’m concerned that’s pretty much all they’re good for, a means to an end. Long descents with nothing more than Berms and tabletops I can happily leave to others. They’re fun enough if you haven’t had to climb to get to them but used a ski-lift say in Morzine, but if I’ve dragged my weighty off road steed, and my even weightier self up several hundred metres of climb then I want more than just a big roller coaster in return for my effort. I want something where I have to think, I want something that makes the very most of the altitude, I want something that is worth the effort of getting up there in the first place. I want 100% organic natural fair-trade taste-the-difference free-range tech.  Which as luck would have it is what I got.


“looking ahead looking ahead looking ahead – Christ this is fast! – looking ahead looking ahead”

A day on the Cragg with James is much more about finding thrills in what nature has provided than railing ‘that berm’, or ‘hitting that gap’. We worked our way up the hill, stopping every twenty yards or so to first analyse the trail, and then session it.


The first corner offered a nice natural berm through the use of the bank, and some rocks, and then a choice of exits.  This was a berm created by line choice. I’m nuts for line choice, I think it fascinating how different people can see a different thing in a trail in the split second the takes to analyse it as they come round the corner.  James asked what we thought were the choices in the section, everyone said something different, one going over a little rock and hitting the corner hard, me going wider on the entrance to get an easier transition, another going straight across it to then hop out and make his turn when he landed.  I had looked and seen one line, not three.  So had everyone else, just a different line for each of us.


It was at this point I became very glad I had come along. This was clearly going be my kind of day.


There were two major things James focuses on, looking and line choice. His philosophy seems to be that the first informs the second, but shouldn’t dictate it. Sometimes things go wrong and you miss your line. James would rather you can then adapt fluidly and find a new line in that moment, rather than stop and go back.  After those two factors, what you do is up to you, though he genuinley loves it when people do something new for the first time.


“And you should end up over there. Not behind me, but over there. Behind me would mean its gone wrong”

That was how we worked our way up the hill.  We would stop at a section and James would explain a little about why he thought this section was interesting, and we’d spend a little while brainstorming the possible choices and how we might, standing there looking at it, like to ride it.


Then we would session the lines we had spotted, and then sometimes intentionally and sometimes not so much, try some new ones. After the first easy corners James had us eyeing up a trickier slightly blind off camber right-left which then led out over some rocks. Once again the most obvious line wasn’t where most of us were riding by our second or third runs, finding instead the trail pulled us in different directions. I was finding ways to cut across the rocks into the middle of the exit corner and hit the apex, while other were enjoying the speed of carrying it right round the edge and being shot out into the following straight.  Natural riding offers something for everyone.


One small drop for man, but still a giant leap the first time you do it.

There was a mixture of skill levels on the day, and while another rider and I were trying to get the fastest possible line into a tricky 18” drop preceded only by rocks, it was also great to see the other two mastering the drop technique on something a little more friendly. I was reminded how when someone had taught that to me several years ago it had changed my riding and begun my love affair with tech. Once it’s learned it becomes instinct. I’m pretty sure that they learned in that day what took me years to figure out and piece together. I admit freely that on that front, I was jealous.


As time passed we moved further up the hill. And I found my balding tires were causing me problems, the front had no real edge to the tread and making the tight loose corners on the line James was challenging me to, took incredible focus and commitment. Then he moved us on to multi-choice lines from a technical entry as opposed to baffling us with technical exits. Here we all enjoyed watching each other negotiate the rocks that littered the entrance and everyone failed to make their intended line a couple of times, but we learned to adapt, to spot a new line and commit to it. And, we were grinning…


After a few attempts to get round the fiddly rocks I decided I’d had enough and just popped right over the top. But again knackered tyres meant the extra speed gave me real problems transitioning to my desired line. James’ attentive eye was always on you though, even if chatting with one of the other riders to nudge you in a certain direction, or just to tell you what actually happened there (how often have we all had a near off with no idea of what almost caused it?).


Being a natural hillside there were no big huckable jumps, but not the less James had somewhere in mind to go through jump technique a little with us.  With his help, I went from the disjointed and uncomfortable feeling I had arrived with of Jump – Spend time in air not really doing anything – land, to a fluid motion on the jump that felt like one action from beginning to end.  I also begin to go a lot further, and exit faster as a result.  I’ll never be a bit jumper, but with a bit more practice I may welcome an upcoming table top, rather than just scrubbing speed so I can safely squash it and then get on with riding.


More a case of looking where you’re going to end up however this plays out.

One of the last challenges was the steepest section on the hill, where line choice, control, commitment, and final exit all played into one another more than they had done at any point so far. Then a few more runs of a tight line through the bilberry bushes and finally a sit atop the hill we had conquered and a chat about bikes, gardening, hills and Yorkshire.


By the end of the day while I was potentially smoother, but mentally I was exhausted.  You here people say this of skills days and I’d always been a bit snooty when hearing it, but it’s true.  So much time thinking about the line and the transition from one feature to another had left me almost incapable of thinking any more, and while I made it down the hill back to the car park it was in a daze and I missed many of my much practised lines.


James’ goal isn’t for you to be technically perfect, or for you to be jumping and doubling things with the precision of a pro. His main primary aim is for you to be having a fun time on your bike, riding things you want to, within your limits, with the confidence that you can ride them.  Roots riding are the very embodiment of ‘ride within your limits’, they just aim to broaden those limits.




 Roots Riding offer skills days and uplift days around the Yorkshire dales, you can also catch James in the recent film Make the Move.  He can also frequently be found giving a little something back at SingletrAction Volunteer Trailbuilding Days, if you want to chat about a skills day before you book.  SingletrAction members enjoy a 10% Discount as well!


James demonstrates how the ground can be optional.

 Some Skills Day Advice – Going to your first skills day? Consider the following:


Go with a list.


Spend a couple of rides challenging yourself a very little bit and see, honestly, where you have gaps, so you know what you want to address. You tutor may be able to spot things, and almost certainly will, but you’re paying for the time, so go with a list so he can start on teaching things from the word go.


Leave your pride at home.


Pride has no place on a skils day, the more the you let yourself look silly now and then, the more your skills tutor will be able to identify what to work on.  If you’re not prepared to show your weaknesses then there’s no point.


Tyres and Brakes


Don’t go with worn parts – the tyres I was running were fine for my normal riding, but Embsay was looser and sandier and steeper, and they were not up to the task. I opted on the side of going with a set up on my bike I was comfortable with (which is also a thing to bear in mind) but in retrospect I should have thought ahead a little more.



With thanks to Roots Riding for an excellent day and the use of pictures.