Exploit the latest developments in bikes and trails by learning a new way of riding
In the last five years, bikes and kit have made quantum leaps in performance. Improvements have come thick and fast, and include seismic shifts — such as larger wheels and aggressive geometry — and revolutionary products like the dropper post. The upshot is that today’s bikes are far more capable than ever before.
Equally, the trails we ride have evolved to keep pace with the advances in our equipment. The new breed of purpose-built trails are faster and utilise berms and rollers to promote flow, while technical features such as jumps, drops and rock gardens have become commonplace.
Simultaneously, riders have been seeking out more challenging terrain on this new breed of trail bike. Demanding bridleways, downhill racetracks and bike parks have all become regular fodder for trail riders.
To fully exploit today’s amazing bikes, and adapt to the changing terrain, new skills and techniques have been developed. In this new series, Andy Barlow — head coach at Scotland’s acclaimed Dirt School — breaks down the most crucial elements of modern riding, explains the ways in which they have changed over the years, and reveals how you can adapt your technique to get the most out of both your bike and the trails.
The average modern trail bike has more in common with a downhill bike from a few years ago than a current XC race bike. We’re talking long wheelbases, slack head angles and low bottom brackets, all to increase stability.
Dropper posts have been revolutionary and mean that movements and body shapes associated with downhill racing have become commonplace on regular trails. The fact that you can get your saddle out of the way so conveniently, frees your hips up to allow all kinds of movement that just wasn’t really possible until recently.
Knowing what shapes to adopt, and the range of motion available to you, will allow you to exploit the extra control and stability brought by modern machinery, and deliver that much sought after feeling of riding ‘in’ the bike rather than perched ‘on top’ of it.
Neutral riding position
Most of you will have read about the neutral position — the stance you adopt out of the saddle when riding technical terrain. But many riders still struggle to achieve the optimum position, and it’s by far the most common problem we correct among our clients.
As this is the starting point for all other movements, getting it right is crucial. By standing correctly, you can maximise your range of motion, which will greatly increase control when the terrain gets hectic. It will also allow you to neutralise the front end of your bike, and free up your hips to do the balancing.
A stable front end
Your front wheel is your balance, your steering and, ultimately, your control. It needs to be weighted to find grip for cornering and braking.
Instead of simply thinking about getting your weight forward, try moving your head closer to your bars by bending your elbows. As long as you keep your legs straight and your hips high, you’ll go heavy and light (weight and unweight) through corners, undulations and trail features, and you’ll be creating a much bigger footprint on the ground.
This will give you a huge amount of stability. It will also really help when we start talking about pushing for control further down the line, as you’ll have a much wider impact on the trail. It sounds simple, but if you’re riding upright, or off the back with your knees bent, very little of your weight will be anywhere near the front end of the bike and it’ll go light and lack grip when turning and braking.
Adopting the right standing position involves a few key elements. First of all, actually stand up! You want to use your skeleton to support your weight when you’re coasting down a smooth trail, not your thigh muscles. This will save you so much energy over the duration of a ride that it’s worth getting your head around right from the start.
You wouldn’t stand in a queue at a bus stop with your knees bent, but go to any trail centre at the weekend and you’ll see a large proportion of mountain bikers doing it down every descent. Having straight legs as you coast will not only save you energy, but it will allow you more room to move around the bike when you need to.
Once you’ve got your seat out of the way, let your skeleton support your weight by keeping your legs straight. Drop your heels, and keep your elbows bent. Your head should be directly above your stem and bars. This will feel like your hips are high and your head is low, but this shape will give you a massive footprint on the trail and allow you to have a much larger range of motion.
Learning to balance using your hips is a total game-changer. Look at any XC rider from the 90s and you’ll see they stayed balanced over simple trail features by moving rearward, keeping their hips and legs in line with the bike and moving their head along the line of the bars by twisting at their neck and shoulders.
In contrast, watch a current World Cup downhill or enduro racer and you’ll see them maintain a neutral riding position with their upper body. Instead of moving their head and shoulders to balance, they’ll use their hips and knees, leaving their head roughly in the middle of the bars.
This allows them to maintain neutrality at the front end, giving time to react to other upcoming obstacles. It also means that, as soon as they reach a slightly easier section, where they can regain control, they can actually take advantage of it. If a rider is twisting, or off balance, then they will most likely feel out of control.
You wouldn’t go through a jump with your bike leaned over, your outside foot all the way down, and your shoulders all squint, but that’s how a lot of people will corner.
Take an aggressive stance
You want to think of your riding position as being attached to the front end of your bike — your bars, forks and the front wheel. Don’t become attached to the frame, saddle or rear of the bike. If you’re detached from the front end, you’ll have a body position that is consistent with your rear end.
This will mean that your steering is something that happens way ahead of you and it won’t promote stability. Keep your body connected through the bars and your hips will be free to move around at the rear of the bike, staying loose and flowing with the trail.
Watch a mountain bike video from the 90s and you’ll see what we mean; the hips are fixed. Look at any decent downhill or enduro rider today and they have a consistent position relative to the front of their bikes — no matter whether they’re going around a corner, through a rock garden, or over a jump.
The neutral riding position is always connected to the front of the bike. The little guys make the best examples — Loic Bruni, Troy Brosnan, Sam Hill. They all display a similar stance with very little head movement, no matter what they’re doing.
Try riding along a narrow piece of trail. Where do you twist from as you corner? How about when you balance? Are your hips fixed above the saddle? Or is your head fixed above the bars? This might be easy to correct when you’re balancing along a log skinny, or enjoying the consistent traction of a berm, but what happens when you slip on a root or loose the front end on gravel? Do you hang off the back? Or do you steer with your hips and keep your elbows out?
Watch: How to jump tabletops and doubles
Ask a friend to film you the next time you go riding, as your actual body position rarely coincides with the vision in your head.
Try riding around a corner, where you feel awkward and out of control, and take turns to get footage of each other. Seeing yourself ride is incredibly revealing, and modern smartphones even allow you to slow the footage down so you can really break down your movements.