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.
Words by Andy Barlow | Dirt School
We write these articles to be helpful guides to allow you to have control and confidence when you ride. Every so often though we like to get really specific with them and deep dive into the complexities of riding.
Let’s start with a nice easy one… the manual! This is a trick that few master, but is so far reaching that once acquired you’ll look back on how you used to ride and think “how did I used to do this before I could manual?!” It’s the holy grail of tricks and the back bone to modern riding. How do you go about acquiring the skill needed to master it? Let’s break it down into it’s component parts and layer it back up in a way that you can practise and improve on.
Where do you use the manual?
Why is the manual so important? What could possibly be so essential about pulling a pedal-less wheelie through a car park? The answer lies not with the manual itself, but how you control it. If you can manual properly then you’re pushing with your legs. The same push that you use to control a drop off, to take off from a jump properly, to keep your front end out of a drainage ditch or puddle, or even to drive your weight into a corner for traction and exit speed. Sure you can learn how to do all these things without learning the manual, but the manual is the key to unlocking them all at once. Once you can push with your legs to activate all of the above then you can also back away from the push to control them. Keeping it low off a jump, backing off in a turn when you overstep your grip, or staying in control when it feels like you’ve overdone it on a drop are all tied to the same feeling of controlling the tipping point on a manual. Once you crack it everything else will be a piece of cake.
Two parts – movement and push
The manual can be broken into two main parts. Your range of motion that you use to initiate the tipping toward the back, and how you control the balancing point once you’re up there. Most people are told to “keep their weight back” or to “pull on the bars”. While both of these pieces of advice are kind of on the right page, neither of them really explain what you’ll need to do to unlock it properly. The crux lies in using all of the movement that you have available, then re-training your reaction to be to drive the front end up from underneath with a powerful leg push. Let’s look at them both in more detail.
DO NOT PULL ON THE BARS
Stop it. You’re still doing it! Nope. You just did it again! Seriously, as soon as a rider’s front wheel comes off the ground most riders tend to bend their elbows and lift the front wheel up further. All that this does is move your body weight forward and restricts how far back you can go. If this is how you control a manual I’ll bet that it goes right through your riding. It will be how you take off from a jump, control a drop, avoid roots… Pulling on the bars is the very control mechanism that you’re trying to undo. Instead focus on getting low to begin with, then pushing the bike forward and keeping your arms straight. Ask a friend to film you and watch out for the tell tale head moving forwards or the shrug with the shoulders. After you throw the bike forwards and rock back you should be fairly still up top and all of the control over the balance point should then come from your legs.
Range of motion
This works in both directions. Most people know that they have to get their weight back, but the don’t really apply the same exaggerated range of motion to pre-loading the set up. When we run sessions with clients one of the most common pieces of advice we give is to start lower at the front as well. A lot of riders will throw their hips back, but their chest, head and upper body hardly moves at all. Remember to bend your elbows and get your head low to start, that way when you throw your weight back you’ve basically taking a bigger swing at it. This give you more ‘potential energy’, and will allow you to put more weight into the rocking back that you’re trying to create. In turn, and with a bit of practise, this will open up time to react. A short, fast, violent throw is very difficult to gauge. A longer sweeping movement will feel like you have more time and warning, and mean that you can get a better feeling of control.
If you’re starting low, pushing your bike forwards, and starting to get that moment where everything slows down, then the next part is keeping it there longer. This is really the crux – pushing with your legs. Try and think about letting the front wheel come as a result of the rocking of your body weight, but keep a slight bend in the knee. That way when the front wheel stops climbing and starts to kind of hover there for a split second, you have a bit of room to extend your legs further. This will force you hips backwards, and subsequently your feet, pedals and bike forwards. Do not stand up and go top heavy. Instead try and move your hips horizontally backwards and forwards to balance. Keep that rear brake covered as if it goes too far you can immediately throw your anchor down by locking the back brake and bringing the front end down again. You want to keep your upper body still, arms straight, head up, and allow all the movement to happen around your hips, legs and feet. This will allow you to adjust how long you stay there.
Different bikes and wheel sizes
Every bike out there will have a slightly different tipping point. This is a bit of a minefield at first, but a very good way of gauging how a bike will handle once you get used to it. A long travel 29er like the Santa Cruz Megatower for example will be almost impossible to manual at first. You’ll really have to lever the thing off the ground, then push loads with your legs to control it once it’s up. This is because the larger wheel has a much bigger circumference. As you push your legs into the balance point and back off again to bring it back down, you’ll have to really exaggerate it to work your way over that large tipping point. This is the same characteristic that you’ll feel a 29er do out on a trail. However, a wide tipping point means a lot of stability at speed. A 26in wheel hardtail with a short back end by contrast will be a lot easier to get up, but very twitchy once it’s up there due to the smaller overall circumference and therefor steeper drop off either side of the balancing point. Once again the same is true of it out on a trail. You can throw it around quicker but that same platform is inherently unstable. Going between two different bikes will be very strange at first but it will teach you more about the tipping points of different bikes than you realise. Think biting points on clutches. At first anything different to what you’re used to is almost impossible to get your head around. After a while though you can jump in any car, find the biting point, then pull away no bother.
Manual and drops explained
The big fear when it comes to drops is that your front end will dive and you’ll go over the handlebars. What most people do to stop this is go fast and kind of speed hop so that the bike stays level in the air. This will actually work if you’re going fast enough, but it doesn’t work if you’re going slow or if the drop is above a certain height. The correct way of neutralising your front end and stopping it from plummeting down is to drive it up the same as a manual by pushing with your legs. Put it this way, if you can manual properly then drops of any size are easy. Come in low and think about pushing your bike out into the space in from of you. You only need to be able to manual for the length of your bike to be able to apply this to a drop. You’re trying to throw your weight back at just the ride time to stop the dive, then get back into a neutral riding position while falling so that you can come down.
How to manual
Drainage ditches and puddles are no different. Try and come in low and close to the bike. Rock your weight back same as a manual, then push your legs into the dip in the trail that you’re trying to manual through. Remember: you’re not trying to lift your front wheel over it. You’re trying to drive your rear wheel into the gap. This is why when you see a BMX racer pulling a manual through a set of rollers, their head and front wheel stays level. It’s their legs and back wheel that fill all the gaps as they pump into them. Doing manuals ‘in context’ on the trail is easier because the rear wheel is falling away into the obstacle. Practice on the flat though and your manuals will really improve.