Find your flow
How do confident rides make technical sections look so easy? How do they carry speed without looking like they’re trying?
Words by Andy Barlow | Dirt School
And how does a regular mountain biker ride with more confidence? The answer to all of these might be easier to discover than you realise.
In this episode we’re going to show Laura how giving yourself time to react can be the secret to opening up a whole world of control. We’ll look at options around line choice and why you might want to use more of the trail. And we’ll talk you through specific learning outcomes that will give you the control you need to a much more confident rider.
Set your bike up
While suspension set up, tyre pressure and saddle height all have a big impact on how your bike will handle on a trail, something as simple as how you set up your bars can sometimes be overlooked. The general rule of thumb here is that you want all of your controls at your fingertips. Having your brake levers mounted too close to your grips will mean that you’re crowding your hands on the handlebars and will in turn force you to put your fingers closer to the pivot meaning that you have poor leverage. Moving the clamp in towards the middle of the bars by 10 or 15mm will mean that you can pull the brakes with one finger, and that finger will be right on the final hook at the end of the lever. You’ll be able to use less force to achieve the same power because you’re taking advantage of the better leverage. Most brake levers will also have some kind of adjustment that allows you to adjust the reach of the lever so you can set it up to sit perfectly in the final knuckle of your finger. That way whenever you cover the lever it’s sitting in the exact right position. With this set up one finger is all you’ll need meaning that you’ll have a much better grip on the bars.
Laura: “I’m okay on the flowy stuff but I always feel like I’m stalling on the technical stuff.”
Andy: “How often do you session the things that you struggle with?”
Laura: “Never. We just keep on riding.”
Stop and session
This is so common. Most riders are out on a continuous loop and have no intentions of riding any of the features that they’ll encounter more than once. If they come across a difficult or challenging part of the trail they’ll get through it as best they can and just keep going. One of the best things that you can do as a rider that wants to make progress is to stop and session. If you’re had to put your foot down, or stalled on a particularly tight turn, get off your bike and go back up for another go. The aim here is to approach it with a specific goal in mind. This might be to come in slower, use more of the trail, or to be conscious of your body position. Either way, ride it more than once. If you can get through it clean on your fifth and sixth attempt, then the next time you encounter the same feature on your next ride you’re far more likely to ride it clean. Sessioning difficult trails is the best way of learning how to improve.
Laura: “What sort of stuff should I look for to practise then?”
This is such an easy one to be aware of. All you need to do is look for areas of the trail that will open up exits to corners. Typically a corner on a downhill will fall away from you meaning that as you get further around it you are accelerating. It might feel like you have your speed under control as you come in, but as you make progress the corner feel like it’s getting tighter. If this happens get off and go back up for another go. There’s most likely a really obvious high line into the corner that you missed on the first go. Don’t be afraid to open up the turn by going high, but make sure you stay high later than you think you should. This will allow you to do a lot of the turn while you’re still going relatively slowly, and as you drop in and start to really accelerate you’ll be facing out the other side and carrying all that momentum with you down the next straight.
Use the whole trail
We’re not encouraging cutting courses here! Far from it. Cheating by missing things out is not in the spirit of responsible riding, but there are options available to you that most people miss. This might be opening up a turn a little higher so save you going wide on the exit. Or it might be riding on the other side of a root or tree stump so that you can smooth out a technical section. Either way you’re still staying well within the boundaries of the trail, you’re just making life easier for yourself.
Laura: “I’m generally okay on trails I know but when they get steep of technical I feel like I’m out of control!”
Andy: “We hear this all the time. A technical or steep trail will feel like it’s a massive step up for some riders and they’ll struggle to find something that allows them to progress safely. The problem here isn’t the trail. It’s far more likely that it’s your body position.”
Sounds obvious, right? But the first thing to go when you feel intimidated will be your confident riding position. Ideally you’re not trying to keep your weight forward, you’re staying low so that you can neutralise any movement underneath you. As soon as your arms are straight and your brakes are on you’ll struggle to ride even the most basic of trails. Keep coming back to your body position and don’t be afraid of just getting off and having another couple of goes so that it starts to become automatic.
Laura: “I’ve been told to just keep my weight back on steep stuff.”
Andy: “DO NOT Keep Your Weight Back”
As soon as you have your weight back and your arms are straight you’re basically riding rigid on your bike. Any time your front wheel slides on a root, goes off even the smallest of drops, or even locks up over a pinecone, it will feel massive because you have nowhere to go. Stay close to your bars and stem with your elbows bent and you’ll be able to handle huge movements without it really disrupting your balance one bit. This will allow you so much more time to react and control over your weight on the trail. If you’re struggling on a steep bit of trail get into the habit of pushing back up and trying it again.
If you were rolling down a steep road with consistent gradient and traction, you can control your descent on the brakes. Apply consistent pressure and you’ll be able to balance the effects of gravity and stay at a consistent speed. Off road things become a little bit more complicated. You’re still trying to use your brakes to keep your speed consistent, but there will be places that you can brake safely, and places where you need all the grip you can get! The secret here is to do more braking where it’s safe, and allow your wheels, especially your front wheel, more grip on the technical or choppy features. Look for smoother areas of consistent grip and aim to do all your braking there. That way you can enjoy a lot more traction where you need it.
As long as you have your braking zones and your body position dialled you’ll be able to enjoy a lot more control. From your point of view you’ll feel confident because you’ll have opened up so much more time to react, and from anyone else’s point of view you’ll look fluid. The more time you can open up by staying low and braking deliberately, the more confident you’ll feel on even the most challenging of trails. Don’t be afraid of learning a technical trail off by heart. If you’re always hitting features blind you’ll be reacting to what you see. Once you know a trail off by heart you’ll open up the thinking time that allows you to work of something deliberately. The goal is to neutralise your body weight through range of motion and safe braking. The more you practise the easier and more automatic it will become.
It’s all about the exit
Every time you come across a technical part of the trail, whether it’s a tight corner or a choppy section of natural features, focus on getting through it so that you can carry speed with you. There’s no point in rattling in fast and stalling in the difficult bit. Deliberately make a shape on the way in, control your speed and get on the right line. Then you’ll be able to roll through the challenge with time to react and carry all of that momentum out the other side. This is what people mean by slow in / fast out. It will take time to perfect, so set up those sessions on challenging perts of your loop and allow time to progress. Charging through and making loads of mistakes isn’t satisfying. Riding with confidence will come from having control. And continually making progress is so much more satisfying than stalling in the same features every weekend.
Making it look easy
The things you want to focus on to become a more confident rider are maintaining a low body position – especially when you’re stressed, braking where it’s safe to do so, and using all the trail. Don’t just head out for a loop and ride everything once. Head back up and practise. That way you’re always making progress.