Off-road 101 |

Off-road 101

Photo by Renee Shadforth/Sierra SunDirt camp instructor Lel Tone (center, holding bike) shows Dirt Camp students a line near Watson Lake on Aug. 15.

Allison Bryant feared switchbacks her first day of Dirt Camp mountain biking school at Northstar.

The 33-year-old San Francisco resident would pick up her mountain bike, turn the acute angle with bike in hand, remount and continue on the trail.

“I wanted to feel more comfortable on my bike, so I could have more fun and just enjoy being outside,” Bryant said of her reasons for seeking instruction on her mountain bike.

On Aug. 14 and 15, Bryant was one of seven students at Dirt Camp’s two-day program at Northstar.

After the two-day clinic, Bryant remained on her bike through switchbacks and was riding black diamond trails at Northstar’s bike park. Overall, she said she became a more confident rider.

And that is the aim of Dirt Camp, a mountain biking school that has been around since 1990 with various programs all over the country. The philosophy of Dirt Camp is to provide a curriculum for students of all abilities to make them feel more stable on their bike through a series of drills, and then applying those skills on the trail.

“We want to give you the specific bike technique you need, so it can be a reflex rather than thought,” said Director J.J. Jameson in a telephone interview from the Dirt Camp headquarters in Connecticut.

The technique entails going through the motions slowly at first. On day one of Dirt Camp at Northstar, the very first thing the students did was compete in a “slow race,” that is the last person across the finish line wins.

“We want you to be fluid on the bike. Anyone can ride a bike fast,” Jameson said. “To be smooth, you have to be able to do it slowly.”

On Saturday, students at the Northstar camp met their instructors ” Kelly Stevens, who is a a semi-pro all-mountain rider and high school teacher, and Dan Robichaud, a former BMXer who rides the entire mountain on a rigid frame, single-speed bike.

On day one, students are taken through drills designed to challenge all riders, regardless of skill level. Last weekend’s Dirt Camp brought a variety of people with diverse backgrounds. There was Nick, a teenager from Chicago with a road bike racing history; Alex, who picked up mountain biking after college and could go faster uphill than downhill; Laurie, an avid horsewoman who was trying to get used to her clipless pedals on her mountain bike.

At mid-mountain, Stevens and Robichaud took the class of seven campers through drills for balance, wheelies, climbing and other skills ” basically, “building cooperation between you and the bike,” Stevens said.

If one of them saw a camper struggling through a drill, they would pull the student off to the side for one-on-one instruction. Even the more experienced riders needed help at some point.

The group’s diversity was typical of a weekend at Dirt Camp, said Lel Tone, Dirt Camp’s Tahoe regional director, who is also a ski patroller at Squaw Valley in the winter, a helicopter skiing guide in Alaska in the spring and a former professional mountain biker.

“We always have such a mixed, diverse bag,” Tone said. “Regardless of how good your students are, [the drills provide] something challenging for everyone.”

On day two, Tone and Robichaud took Dirt Campers to Northstar’s trail system to implement their new-found skills.

“I think it’s really fun to actually put to work the skills you used the first day in a real-life mountain biking situation,” Tone said.

Through the day, instructors take students along cross-country trails with varying difficulty. Each time there’s an educational opportunity ” for example, a step up, fast corner or a long rocky section ” the instructors would stop and talk campers through the segment.

During the trail ride, Tone asked campers to push themselves and try things they wouldn’t normally do on a solo ride.

“I think that it’s a safe environment at Dirt Camp,” said Tone, who is a trained EMT, along with the other Dirt Camp instructors. “We really encourage people to try the stuff ” that while you’re there, it’s a safe environment.”

All Dirt Camps are taught with the same philosophy. Each instructor at Dirt Camps all over the country is trained to teach the same drills and curriculum with a maximum one-to-six instructor-student ratio.

Though Jameson looks for world-class riders to teach his camps, skill level is not the most important qualification for instructors, he said.

“There are a lot of people who can ride the snot out of a mountain bike,” he said. “But, would I want them to teach my novice friend how to ride? No way.”

Dirt Camp’s three instructors at Northstar use positive re-enforcement and visual, verbal and kinetic teaching styles to connect with students. However, it’s not always easy to find instructors in Tahoe, even with the area’s innumerable athletes, Tone said.

“Good mountain bikers are a dime a dozen up here, but to find staff that can educate and have good skills with people ” that’s really hard,” she said. “The three of us are really passionate about what we do. We really want to see people do well, genuinely.”

Anyone with fat tires is welcome in the program. The instructors have taught cross-country riders, free riders and downhillers at their camps.

“You don’t have to be an expert rider, and you don’t have to be a beginner to get something out of the camp,” Jameson said.

Bryant, the student who showed up to Dirt Camp with a fear of switchbacks, agreed.

“I thought it would be so over my head. I was really impressed with their ability to teach people of all ability levels and still keep us together as a group,” Bryant said. “My goal is accomplished in that I feel comfortable on my bike.”

– Keep your eyes up and look beyond your front tire when you’re on the trail;

– Have your bike set up for the terrain: Know which tire pressure and seat position to use and have a properly tuned bike;

– Keep your hands ready on your brakes;

– When encountering obstacles on the trail at speed, use the “moto position,” which means pedals are level with the ground, arms and legs are bent, ready for impact.

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