When trails are muddy, slippery and unpredictable, get loose and have fun.
As the trails become slicker, the roots shinier and the puddles deeper, now’s the time to take a leap forwards in confidence come spring.
Words: Andy Barlow Photos: Andy McCandlish
At this time of year more than ever, you need to have your wits about you. The trails are wet, the roots are glistening, and traction is as unpredictable as the result of public voting.
Instead of slogging around the usual route at half the speed, why not use this time of year to refine your control and develop the bike-handling skills that will let you ride difficult conditions in confidence, while your mates are floundering in the mud?
Treat every ride as an opportunity to improve your technique.
Instinct takes over when the ground is slippery and unpredictable, and the body naturally stiffens up and you start to drag the brakes. Which, of course, is the worst thing you can do. The result is that your suspension will stiffen and your tyres will struggle to find traction, and when they do slide you’ll go with them! Instead, you have to fight the reflex by avoiding that situation in the first place. Take a more cautious approach on the entry to a difficult section and keep your body close to your bike. This will mean that you have time to think and stay relaxed. When you do hit slippery roots or mud, your bike will have the time to slide without you getting taken with it. You’ll have the range of motion to let it move underneath you. If you feel yourself starting to stress out or lose control, have the maturity to recognise it and take control of the situation again.
Upper body for stability
Stay neutral with your head centred over the middle of your bars and your elbows bent. This will allow you to move up and down with the trail and maintain balance. The closer you can get to your bars with your head, the more range of motion you’ll have to stay composed when your bike starts moving around. Try and think of your body being attached to your handlebars, forks and front wheel, leaving your back end free to move around behind you. You’re always trying to line your body up with where you want to go — NOT where you’ve just come from.
Every time the trail calms down, or allows you to relax, take a mental snapshot of your body position. Are you standing or sitting? Are your legs bent at the knee? Are your heels down? What angle are your elbows at? Where is your head in relation to your stem/bars? These are the moments where you have an opportunity to reset your stance and go right back to your confident neutral riding position.
When the trail is smooth, you can afford to keep your legs straight. Remember, you’re trying to save energy by stacking your body weight on your skeleton‚ not supporting it with your quads on bent knees. As soon as the ground looks like it’s about to get rough, however, start to get closer to your bike and you’ll have way more range of motion.
Hips for balance
Your body should maintain balance by pivoting around your hips, NOT your head and shoulders. You should feel like the bike has room to move underneath you, and that your legs and hips move sideways as you lose balance. As a result, you’ll find that, as you start to slide, you can line your body and hips up with the next bit of trail, and you’ll have control and be facing the right direction.
Brake where it’s safe and let go where it’s complicated. As long as you don’t rush into a section too fast, you’ll be able to retain control by letting your wheels spin unimpeded. If you come in too quick, then you’ll have to brake, stiffening the bike, stiffening your muscles and making your tyres slide where grip is reduced. Divide the trail into places where you have control — the braking zone — and places where you need control — the technical sections — and try to be conscious of where you’re braking and why.
There are very few times when your arms should be locked out. Remember, if you’re resetting your riding position, then your arms should be bent at the elbow and your head should be over the stem. With your legs straight, this should give you a low attack position that creates a huge footprint on the ground. From your head to your hips — your back should be almost parallel with your top tube. The closer you can get to the bars the more control you’ll have when your bike starts sliding around.
The boring bit
AKA the four stages of learning new technique.
1. Unconscious incompetence
This is where you have no idea where you’re going wrong and don’t really know where to make any improvements. None of the advice you hear seems to fit into place, and it seems like you’re just reacting to features as you ride down the trail.
2. Conscious incompetence
This stage is the most frustrating. It’s where you keep catching yourself doing the wrong things, but you can’t necessarily make any changes yet. It can be annoying, but it’s a major step in making huge changes in your technique and becoming a much better rider.
3. Conscious competence
This is where you slow down and deliberately try and apply the correct technique. It might feel like you’re going slowly here, but spending time practising your new technique will mean it will eventually become a reaction.
4. Unconscious competence
This is where your well-practised technique becomes an acquired skill. In other words, you don’t have to think about it any more, it just occurs naturally. This will only come about if you go through the previous stages.
There’s an app for that!
Dirt School’s free coaching app lets you see the right and wrong techniques in slo-mo.
Pick a trail that you know well, but is more challenging at this time of year because of the weather. Your homework is to identify one part of your technique and keep it in mind the whole way down. Whether it’s braking or body position, you should keep coming back to the same technique. Where are you braking? Do your hips line up with where you want to go on steeper corners?
Is your upper body neutralised with your front end? If you can ride the same trail again, then try and do it better next time. Remember; you’re not trying to do it faster. You’re trying to do it right.