This spring I’ve gotten certified as both an IMBA ICP Level 2 and PMBI Level 1 mountain bike instructor (blog posts with photos here and here). The competing certifications are similar in that they’re designed to equip one with the ability to instruct beginner and intermediate-level riders in basic skills. (IMBA’s ICP Level 1 is a Ride Guide course; PMBI’s Ride Guide course doesn’t use a Level number.)
I wasn’t planning to take either one this spring as IMBA wasn’t offering a Level 2 course locally and PMBI’s Level 1 course at Spirit Mountain in Duluth sold out quickly. But I got lucky.
Jeff Milbauer, owner of nearby Valley Bike & Ski, had contracted privately with IMBA to offer the course to some of his staff/instructors. When one had to drop out, he contacted me and I took the spot. And then PMBI added a second course/instructor to their Spirit Mountain Level 1 weekend and I snapped up one of those openings.
My rationale for taking PMBI Level 1 having just completed IMBA ICP Level 2 two weeks prior?
- Proximity: Duluth is only 3 hours away and I wasn’t confident that PMBI would offer the course nearby again anytime soon
- Terrain: the IMBA Level 2 course was held at nearby Buck Hill in Burnsville, MN and neither its new mountain biking runs nor its new skills park was open yet. Spirit Mountain is a mountain bike mecca with lift access
- Weather: it poured nearly the entire weekend for the IMBA course. I was hoping I’d get lucky for the PMBI course in Duluth
- Collegiality: I wanted to be able to team up with fellow instructors. With everyone passing, there were 8 IMBA Level 2 instructors in the state of Minnesota. The two courses at Spirit Mountain would mean there could be up to 14 additional PMBI instructors in the region
- Curiosity: I’m a blogger and I was naturally curious to know first-hand what the differences were between the two competing certifications
- Future professional development: I figured that having a foundation with both certifications would give me better options for pursuing their more advanced certification levels
- Marketing advantage: I’d likely be the only mtb instructor in the Upper Midwest region with both certifications.
Course comparison: details/analysis
IMBA ICP Day 1: 5-8 pm discussion/lecture; Days 2-4: 9 am-5 pm
PMBI Days 1-3: 9am-5pm
Participants per instructor
IMBA ICP: 1 instructor, 6 participants
PMBI: 2 instructors, 14 participants. There were only a few lecture sessions in which both instructors presented to the entire group. Otherwise, 90% of the time it was 1 instructor with the same 7 participants.
PMBI provided a 170-page PDF which I chose to print out. IMBA ICP provided a printed 150-page manual in a ringed binder. Both manuals are well-organized with ample photos, illustrations, worksheets, and appendices.
Advantage: PMBI. Their manual has a 40-page section titled Riding Theory, considerably more in-depth than the 20-page Skills Analysis section of IMBA ICP’s manual. This focus on understanding — the ‘why’ — is important to me.
The PMBI manual also has a 5-page section devoted to teaching children. It’s their belief that that “children are not simply smaller adults” when it comes to learning mountain biking skills. The physics for the fundamental skills are different. And the developmental characteristics vary greatly between pre 5 yr-olds and older teens.
It’ll take me many months to see which manual I refer to most often. It might depend on the extent to which I’m teaming up with other PMBI or IMBA ICP instructors.
Written open-book tests
Both courses required us to read large portions of their manuals prior to the course and to hand in our written answers to a set of questions. It was a technique to get us to become more familiar with the material ahead of time so that we’d be better prepared to discuss it, apply it, and ask questions about it. This homework was not considered for our overall evaluation.
The IMBA ICP course began with an evening 3-hour classroom focused entirely on the discussion of our answers to the open-book test. The PMBI course did this in three sessions scattered over the 3 days.
Fundamental elements vs skills vs maneuvers
The courses use specific terminology to help instructors think about the development of mountain bike skills. And that word ‘skills’ is not as simple as you might think!
IMBA ICP has its Ten Fundamental Elements (“techniques used for balance, stability, and control”) that are the foundation for developing skills like cornering or front wheel lifts.
PMBI has its Six Skills (each one “a fundamental and necessary component of mountain biking”) that it fashions into a Six Skills Pyramid (“a logical, natural progression from which to teach”). It distinguishes those skills from maneuvers (“something a rider does, using the skills”) like cornering or front wheel lifts.
Despite the different terminology, their overall approach is similar, it seems to me. By concentrating on teaching one fundamental, for example, an instructor can help students improve their riding in several different areas (techniques & maneuvers on various types of terrain).
The challenge for an instructor, of course, is that most recreational mountain bikers aren’t really interested in improving their fundamentals. They want to learn to corner faster! Get over big obstacles! Fly off big drops! So a skilled instructor must be able to frame the teaching in a way that respects the student’s motivation while first assessing their fundamentals and providing instruction that addresses any shortcomings. Both PMBI and IMBA ICP approach teaching mountain biking in this way.
Advantage: PMBI. As a new instructor for beginning to intermediate-level riders, I found their Skills Pyramid concept to be helpful in that “it provides a logical, natural progression from which to teach, the relationship between the different skills, and how they build on each other…” For the weekly youth sessions (all beginners) that I’m leading this summer, it helps me to know I have to first work with them on A) Operation of Controls (braking, gear selection); and B) Position and Balance. Nothing else matters much until the kids get a decent grasp of those.
Both courses emphasize the importance of following a lesson structure when working with students on developing a fundamental skill/element or a maneuver. Their formats are quite similar:
- Demonstration (static and active)
- Teaching points/Key words
Advantage: PMBI. In the description/explanation phase of a lesson, they stress the importance of detailing the Why, not just the What and the How. It’s their belief (and mine, too) that a lesson is much more effective if students can begin to understand the rationale for what they’re about to learn. For example, why is the Ready Position important? And related, PMBI also emphasizes experimentation or ‘guided discovery’ more than IMBA ICP. For example, an instructor might ask a student to perform a few front wheel lifts from both Ready and Neutral positions and then ask them for details on what effects they noticed. Likewise, an instructor could encourage experimentation with level pedals vs vertical; knees/elbows bent deeply vs mostly straight; weight in the feet vs hands. I think this guided discovery approach sends a message to the student that the more self-awareness they develop, the more they’ll learn on their own, the more their level of confidence will grow.
Both courses made heavy use of practice teaching. Each gave us some choices of what to teach to our fellow students. Each assigned us lessons to teach. When we were playing the role of beginner mountain bikers, we were instructed to deliberately make mistakes to see if those performing as instructors would spot/correct the problems. Both courses encouraged us to give feedback on each other’s performance. IMBA ICP allowed us to use note cards. PMBI did not. Both included Practice Teaching as part of the final exam.
Only IMBA ICP included a written test (no notes, no manual) on the final day, which took most of us about an hour to complete.
Advantage: IMBA ICP. I was a nervous wreck much of the IMBA ICP weekend, knowing that there was going to be a written test at the end. But it forced me to learn the material in a different way than just applying it in the practice teaching sessions. And in the end, this actually helped me to understand the concepts better.
Both courses provided each of us a written evaluation form with our instructor’s ratings/score for many subcategories of our riding and teaching skills. The forms had also had room for instructor comments on our strengths and areas to work on.
Advantage: IMBA ICP. Our IMBA ICP instructor met with each one of us privately for 15+ minutes at the end of the course, going over both the written test results and his evaluation of our teaching and riding skills. I found the personal feedback extremely valuable and I was definitely disappointed when it wasn’t done at the end of the PMBI course.
I don’t want to use a blog post to provide any detailed assessment of the instructors we had. I will say, however, that the two I had were very good: Mike Holme (IMBA ICP) and Ross ? (PMBI).
Ongoing support for certified instructors
IMBA set up its own web-based forum for certified instructors on its website in July of 2015, but it remains nearly completely dormant due to a flawed launch strategy, lack of programming, and a poor software platform. PMBI doesn’t offer anything.
Both courses provide some additional online resources for instructors, mainly supplemental PDFs. Both offer special purchase deals for mtb gear through 3rd-party vendors.
Advantage: IMBA ICP. It has seven how-to-perform-instruction videos, ICP-branded jerseys and patches in its online store, and a more comprehensive offering of gear deals through its partnership with Promotive.
Cost (US dollar)
PMBI: $475 + $50 for lift tickets (2 days)
IMBA ICP: $700
We made good use of the Spirit Mountain lift ticket on Day 1 of the PMBI course, but only rode it once on Day 2. This was partially due to a weather-related closure for 2 hours but seemed more due to a lack of planning on the part of the instructors. (The chair lift was closed on Day 3, a Monday.)
Advantage: neither. The IMBA ICP course was longer by 3 hours, provided a printed manual, and ended with a private feedback session for each student. That was definitely added value but I’m not sure that it was worth an additional $200.
Both PMBI and IMBA delivered on their promise of high quality instructor certification with these courses for teaching beginner and intermediate-level mountain bikes. I hope the competition between them continues.
I don’t recommend that anyone take both of them, as they’re quite similar in their methodology, content, duration, and cost.