IMBA’s Level 1 Instructor Certification Program: intense, fun, valuable

If I could only use one word to describe my experience as a student in IMBA’s Level 1  Instructor Certification Program (ICP) course over the weekend, it would be ‘intense.’

The feeling of intensity began building several days prior when a packet arrived in the mail with the 80-page Level 1 Ride Guide. It included the instructions:

ICP Level 1 course materialsEnclosed is your ICP course manual along with a pre-test for your upcoming certification event. Please complete this open book test and bring the completed pages with you to the course along with your manual.

Pre-test? I was a little bit annoyed. WTF is this, high school? But as I did my homework, I noticed a degree of seriousness kick in as I realized that I wanted to not only perform well and get whatever passing grade was needed but that I really wanted to learn this stuff.  Time to put on your big boy pants, I told myself.

Jake Carsten and Kat Sweet at Valley Bike and Ski Lebanon Hills MTB park, west trail head Mike Holme, Kat Sweet, Jake Carsten

By the time we gathered (6 men, 5 women) for the 5 pm classroom-only session at the Lebanon Hills MTB Trails west trail head on Friday, I’d already gotten to know the two lead instructors a bit. As a favor for IMBA’s Midwest Associate Region Director Matt Andrews, I’d picked up Kat Sweet (Sweetlines) and Jake Carsten (Dirt Dojo) at the airport on Thursday afternoon, brought them to their hotel, took them to get their loaner bikes courtesy of Jeff Milbauer at nearby Valley Bike and Ski, and gave them a pre-course tour of Leb’s beginner trails.

That tour culminated with my mildly spectacular crash on the final two of 21 rollers in the upper open field which I tried to manual in hopes of impressing them.  More than a little embarrassing. The good news: it provided them a real-world opportunity to demonstrate what to do when someone crashes hard on a ride and bounces back up saying, “I’m fine!” In short, don’t believe them right away. Use “Let’s check out your bike a minute to see if it’s okay” to buy some time to see how they’re really feeling physically, as sometimes the adrenaline surge can mask the pain of an injury.  (I actually dinged my shoulder pretty hard.)  After a couple of minutes, they then told me about their intervention strategy and then later asked my permission to use the incident in class the next day.  Um, sure. It was a lesson I’ll never forget so best to put aside my tender ego and share my mini-debacle with the others.

Mike Holme Mike Holme Contents of Mike Holme's backpack

Most of Friday night’s classroom session, held outdoors in the covered pavilion at Leb’s trailhead, was devoted to a class discussion of all the items on the pre-test.  It also included a presentation by Mike Holme, co-owner of Magpie Cycling Adventures in Utah, who joined Jake and Kat as our third instructor for the weekend. Mike showed and explained the amazing contents of his backpack that he carries when he leads group mtb tours.

Fundamental skills demonstration Fundamental skills practice Demonstration trail tour

On Saturday morning, the instructors first put us through on a small set of “fundamental elements” exercises with a tell it, show it, do it approach, offering a small amount of pointers to correct our technique.  And then they demonstrated how we would be expected to incorporate these for a group ride as part of a pre-tour skills session.  Likewise, they demonstrated a pre-tour safety talk before taking us out on a short group ride, stopping frequently to model what good group ride leaders do while out on the trail.

And then they announced that each of us  would get to practice doing what they just did.  And on Sunday, we’d do it again, only that would include a formal assessment on our performance, determining whether or not we’d pass or fail. GULP.

Fred Johnson practicing a skills demo Martha Flynn practicing a safety talk Heather George practicing leading a group ride

My handwritten notes were a mess and of no use whatsoever. To make our practice experience even more helpful, the instructors would scheme with the students we were practice teaching (our fellow classmates) to see if we could detect errors in their riding, deal with problematic behavior on the trail, or handle various emergencies. One of my ‘students’ pretended to have a broken leg. I pretended to get separated from the group in one scenario. In another, I pretended to be a show-off.  (Tough acting job, right?) It’s a very effective learning strategy, quite fun when you get to scheme, quite nerve-wracking when you’re in the ride leader role, but altogether immensely engaging.

Having seen the ten practice sessions of my fellow students plus having bumbled through my own first attempt, I had a much easier time reorganizing my notes overnight.  I rehearsed my presentation out loud to myself while walking around Leb’s skills park on Sunday morning, and by the time it was my turn for the performance evaluation, I was still nervous but I was confident. I missed a few things and I talked too much but I did fine and so did everyone else.

Jeff Milbauer Amanda Dekan high speed cornering drill

By 3:30 on Sunday, the instructors announced that we’d all passed and the rest of the day was spent learning additional mtb skills that we’d be expected to have should we be interested in taking the Level 2 course.

IMBA ICP Level 1 participants, Lebanon Hills

At the end of the day after our group photo, we each got a one-to-one session with an instructor in which we got very detailed feedback on our strengths and weaknesses.

The structure of the course, with the emphasis on doing and practicing with others, was brilliant.  But like any curriculum, its success depends on the teachers who deliver it.  This crew was, to speak a bit of Minnesotan, not half bad. Which means they were good. Very Good.

Mike Holme, Kat Sweet, Jake Carsten Kat Sweet, Jake Carsten Mike Holme, Kat Sweet, Jake Carsten

Their coaching was spot on, their presentations were engaging, their style was personable, and they were fun.  The collegiality among the three of them was very noticeable. All of that helped to put us at ease, enjoy ourselves, and inspire us to work hard.

But through it all, there was an unmistakable but hard-to-put-your-finger-on air of seriousness. This was a no-bullshit course and you could not miss that.

I got my money’s worth and I’m more than a little curious and excited to see what I do with it.


  1. Jake C said:

    Thanks for graciously shuttling us around all weekend Griff, especially pulling double duty with actually being in the course and having to study after hours! Really nice write up as well. I’m thinking Tammy should share this link with all future potential students so they get a good idea of what to expect 🙂

    May 27, 2014
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    You’re welcome, Jake. If my next career as a mountain biking coach doesn’t pan out, I’ll consider being a travel host. 😉

    May 28, 2014
  3. Dan O said:

    Griff, I hope you’ll take your new certification and do some instruction! As a 1 year MTBer and MORC member it’d sure be nice!

    May 29, 2014
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Dan.

    I’m definitely scheming and plan to announcement something soon.

    May 30, 2014
  5. Fred Johnson said:

    I had my first real life accident scene last night on the trails since I received my ICP level 1. Coming down a hill, I noticed a bike rider off the side of the trail, tangled up in her bike. Right away I was accessing the scene: 6″ drop, tree, helmet was on and I didn’t see any blood. I asked her if she is alright and helped her get up. While getting up, she was showing that she was having pain in her left leg. I asked her if she would like me to look at it, but she refused. I went over her bike to make sure everything was working. (Running through my mind was “I need to make sure that I stay off the trail” because Griff reminded me of that during our training when we had a mechanical. Always keep the trail clear to avoid more accidents.) While going over her bike, I asked her how she felt, and how long had she been riding.(I know she is there with someone because we saw them leave the trail together). I waited until she was ready to ride and I felt she was safe to ride.

    Not sure how I would of handled this situation before the ICP training. I felt completely confident in handling the scene because of the ICP training. Thanks Kat, Jake, Mike and especially Griff for crashing and sharing his story during the training session.

    May 31, 2014
  6. Griff Wigley said:

    Hey Fred, that’s great a story. And the fact that you felt confident through it all is indeed a testament to the ICP training and our instructors.

    June 1, 2014
  7. Mark Hower said:

    Nice Article, I have been wanting to go to the IMBA certification program, as I really want to be a mountain bike coach. Is it expensive? I was looking for a class in California, but I did not see any dates for 2014. Awesome blog by the way, I have been a reader for a while.

    August 8, 2014
  8. Griff Wigley said:

    Mark, the Level 1 course is $450. Levels 2 and 3 are $700 each.

    They just added a combo Level 1/2 for Truckee, CA in September. Is that near you?

    I’m glad to see your site/blog on MTB riding tips:

    I ordered your “How To Manual And Wheelie On A Mountain Bike” as I need help with both!

    You might want to subscribe to my email list, as I’ve recently changed to putting my riding-related stuff there instead of on the blog. It’s all part of my new venture, Thick Skull MTB Skills:

    August 8, 2014
  9. Ryan said:

    Hi Griff,
    I was wondering if you had any insight or opinions on the differences between the IMBA ICP and the PMBIA Certification. I have looked into both but I have really only found information on their respective websites.

    March 5, 2015
  10. Griff Wigley said:

    Hey Ryan, good question! I only have taken the IMBA ICP Level 1 course, which is mainly on how to be a ride leader. PMBIA’s Level 1 appears to be similar to IMBA’s ICP Level 2 in that both certify you to teach an actual clinic.

    March 6, 2015

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