We’re going to break down the manual into its component parts and look at where it fits into the rest of your riding. Get it right and improve across the board.
What looks at first like the wheelie’s cooler cousin is in fact one of mtb’s foundational skills – read this guide to learn how to manual a mountain bike. Manuals not only look cool, they also unlock your true trail-riding potential.
In this guide we’ll also see why the manual is such a difficult skill to acquire, and hopefully give you some solid feedback on what is likely happening if you can’t currently master it.
Unless you are in your teens and you want to impress your mates at the skatepark, the manual by itself is a pretty useless skill. When you start to look a little deeper though, you notice the same control mechanisms keep coming up time and time again. The big one here is pushing with your legs to create stability on the trail, instead of picking your bike up off the ground. This control mechanism runs so deep in modern mountain biking that a lot of top riders don’t even know they’re doing it. If you read our articles regularly you’ll know this idea of pushing your weight into or against the trail is at the heart of controlling everything from jumps to corners. And if you’re struggling to manual, this might be the very missing component that you need to allow for.
Where and when
Once you have a good manual technique, things like controlling your traction mid-turn, or keeping your front wheel from diving off a slow, awkward drop, seem to be something you don’t even have to think about any more. The reason for this is that the control mechanisms are exactly the same. Read on and we’ll explain this a little further, but it’s all to do with pushing with your legs to a point that goes beyond a tipping point. If you know where that point is, you can immediately back off and get on the right side of control.
Take any old corner. You start low with your knees bent and as the turn progresses you deliberately apply pressure to the trail by slowly standing up. This gives you more and more grip because it forces your tyres into the ground, but the instant that the grip fades you can back off that pressure and regain traction. It’s just like controlling the tipping point in a manual.
How to manual:
Range of motion
A big part of nailing your manuals is how much you allow yourself to move on your bike. Everyone knows that they have to get their weight back, but there’s a little more to it than that. First, the amount you load your body in order to set up the throw backwards will affect how easily your bike tips. If you’re starting too high or too far back you’ll struggle to set up enough momentum in the first place and end up feeling like you can’t generate enough pop, or that you have to lift with your arms in order to compensate. Start with your body and head closer to the bars and you’ll have more room to play with and in turn feel like you have more time to gauge your tipping point when you get close to it.
You need to have control on either side of that tipping point, so you have to leave enough range of motion in your legs to not only push away, but also bring it back again. It’s no different than being able to steer further to balance your bike when you’re rolling down the road. If you had limited steering available, you’d lose balance because you couldn’t go past a certain point. Open up the amount of steering that you have available and you can swing from side to side to correct your balance. Do this in your manuals and you’ll have more control at that tipping point.
The tipping point of a manual is that perfect balance where everything slows down and you feel like you have it. Watch out though because the further away from it you get, the faster the bike will fall away. That applies to your front wheel coming back down, but it also applies to falling off the back. In the same way that when you ride your bike you are always steering left and right to stay in balance, when you find a tipping point in a manual you are always moving forwards and backwards either side of it in order to stay in control.
When you’re sitting there at the tipping point, your handlebars might be higher than you’d expect. We find that the larger the wheel, or the longer the wheelbase, the higher the front end will need to come in order to settle into a balanced position. This in turn has meant that as bikes have become more stable, the tipping point has changed. Smaller-wheeled bikes like a BMX, or a 26in-wheeled DJ bike, will have a relatively low front end at the tipping point, whereas a longer-travel 29er will have a higher one.
The biggest mistake we see in manuals is that people think they have to pull on the bars in order to keep the front wheel off the ground. This is especially present in drop-offs, where the risk is higher. A rider will lift their bike off the ground in order to stop the front wheel from dropping. A much better control mechanism here is to keep your arms straight and push from underneath with your legs, as described above.
Once riders start exploring a bigger range of motion, the second-most-common mistake we see is that riders use all of the available push on the set-up. They’ll get their weight back and their hips in arguably the correct position, but they have no bend left in the knee to control the tipping point, or they have their shoulders shrugged and are inadvertently pulling their weight forwards. Remember that your hips should be behind the saddle and control the balance of your manual with a range of motion that comes from the legs being able to push or bend.