Why Mountain Bike Lessons Are For Every Rider

Mountain Bike Lessons and Skill Clinics with the Sedona Mountain Bike Academy

You’ve probably heard the old 10,000-hour rule, which says it takes that amount of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills like playing the violin or computer programming. I’ve got news for Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the idea: the rule must not apply to mountain biking because, after well more hours than that over 30 years of riding and racing, I’m no Danny MacAskill or Ned Overend.

Or maybe I just haven’t been focused enough.

So when Evan Puglia, an old industry acquaintance and co-owner of Sedona Mountain Bike Academy, wrote and suggested I come out for a private clinic to see what the company is all about, I jumped at the opportunity. Perhaps a few hours and solid pointers from a coach could push my 10,000+ hours of riding into the mastery zone.

It might seem odd for someone who has been riding and racing and reviewing mountain bikes since their inception to take a lesson. I’ve won some of the biggest endurance races out there, have been on MTB expeditions around the globe, have tested as many mountain bikes as pretty much anyone, and feel that I can generally ride most anything I want or need. Would a lesson even help me?

Puglia was undaunted. “No matter what level you are at, a quality mountain bike lesson will help improve confidence, add style to your ride, and most importantly lead to having more fun on your bike,” he tells me.

His partner and co-owner of SMBA, Amaryth Gass, agreed but said that lessons aren’t for everyone.

sedona mountain bike academy on trail coaching

“The people who can benefit most from the experience are the ones who are receptive,” she says. “You have to be interested in improving your riding. And it helps if you have a clear sense of what you are hoping to improve.”

Both encouraged me to home in on the specifics of what I hoped to learn and gain from the clinic.

“Just offering a ‘mountain bike’ lesson is painting with a broad brush,” says Puglia. “We prefer to focus on the details. It’s important for riders to decide what specifically they want to learn.”

I delete, “Become a master,” from my pre-clinic questionnaire.

But what can most people expect to learn? What are some of the most common requests, I wondered.

“Drops and jumps top the list,” says Puglia. “These are probably two of the most intimidating skills for people to learn because they require commitment. But we have a great curriculum that breaks these things down into small pieces and allows people to learn and progress.”

Cornering more confidently is another frequent request, as is technical climbing. And there are other more situational requests, such as one partner in a relationship wanting to improve to keep up with another, or a rider who has gone through a bad crash or injury wanting to come back and gain confidence.

A session with SMBA doesn’t have to be a completely regimented lesson either.

sedona mountain bike academy women coaches ride

“You can also just hire us to go out with a local instructor on-trail,” says Gass. “We can show you some of the best pieces and places in Sedona. And you have an experienced partner to show you the alternate lines and how to do them.”

Gass and Puglia say they can easily accommodate almost any request in large part because of Sedona’s dense and varied trail network. “The terrain itself is conducive to growth,” says Gass. 

There are ledges, rock gardens, step ups and step downs, exposure—pretty much the gamut of technical challenges, all in close proximity. “On one section of trail, you can find a move or a stretch that’s appropriate to challenge multiple levels or riders.”

Sedona also has a central bike park with a huge pump track and several jump and flow lines that are perfect skills lessons. 

sedona mountain bike academy skill clinic meetup at bike park

SMBA’s deep roster of coaches also allows them to cater lessons to a broad audience. Puglia’s extensive cross-country racing background makes him an ideal choice for fitness- and clipless pedal-oriented riders, while another coach, Mason Bond, is a pro enduro racer who is excellent at delivering guidance on jumping and downhilling. SMBA has as many female coaches as male to cater to women’s specific programming. And several of their coaches also work with the local kids MTB club, Wheel Fun, an Arizona based Youth MTB Non-Profit specializing in youth instruction.

For my lesson, I decide to focus on two disparate but complementary skills: flat pedal skills and bike maneuvers such as bunny hops, wheelies, and nose pivots. Having spent most of my riding career clipped in and racing cross country, I’ve begun transitioning to flats in recent years but figure some pointed instruction will make me better on them. And since I’ll be riding flats (OneUp Composites, to be exact), it’s an ideal chance to practice slinging the bike around.

sedona mountain bike academy manual practice at sedona bike park

Though SMBA often splits lesson time between bike park and trails, my three-hour clinic is spent exclusively at the bike park. It’s a controlled environment for really focusing on small details, and Puglia, my coach, is expert at watching me pedal bits of trail and pump track and picking apart my form.

He immediately offers detailed and practical pointers—for instance how and when to use the "Foot Wedge" by creating a V with your pedals—front heel dropped, rear raised—for more dynamic maneuvering. He says I already do this at times, but the fact that he puts words to it allows me to focus on that footwork and be even more confident on the flats. He also shows me how to properly load my bike’s suspension aggressively and use it to initiate wheel lifts, making them bigger and easier to accomplish.

By lesson’s end, I’m not yet riding full wheelies, but my nose pivots are coming along. More importantly, I feel like I better understand the mechanics of what I need to do.

A few days after the clinic, Puglia sends a follow-up email that details my strengths and weaknesses, what we learned and practiced, and how I can best move forward. All SMBA guests receive this comprehensive feedback, as well as video footage that captures the finer points. Being able to watch yourself in slow motion is an excellent learning tool for really processing how to improve.

Every past client of SMBA I speak with is just as fired up about the experience. One recent client, a local named Kimball Forest, says that on a ride the day after his lesson, his riding partner of many years was so impressed with his improvements that he signed up for a lesson of his own.

“It was unbelievably worthwhile,” Forest says. “Evan’s ability to really give you simple, tactile feedback and instruction and focus on a few important changes made so much difference in my riding.”

That idea of focus is what I took away from the experience, too. I can make big improvements through simple tweaks. But if I really want to become a master at something, I’ll need to pick a precise skill and invest the time in perfecting it.

All to say, after my three-hour lesson, I’m just 9,997 hours away from becoming the master of nose pivots.

Photos throughout this article provided by, Hanna Schmidtman.


by Aaron Gulley

Aaron has been writing about cycling, travel, and the outdoors and reviewing gear for the likes of Outside, Bicycling, Velonews, and others for over two decades.