Natural progression

Time invested in perfecting your position and braking at the right time reaps dividends when the terrain gets rowdy.

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Riding technically difficult terrain can be one of the biggest thrills you can get out of a modern trail bike. That feeling of being right on the edge of control but somehow pulling it off is one of the most rewarding parts of being a mountain biker. Some riders out there seem to be able to make it look easy, so why do so many of us struggle when it gets steep and rough? And what are confident riders doing to make it look so easy?

This month we thought we’d continue the progression from our previous articles and give you some key points to focus on when riding more formidable hillsides. We’ll look at the techniques the more advanced riders use to stay in control, and equip you with a new mindset to tackle more challenging terrain.

Using your knees for balance means that your head and body weight will always remain neutral and composed.

Range of motion

The worst thing you can do as a mountain biker is to keep your weight back. As soon as you retreat behind the saddle you have limited range of motion and will start getting tugged in any direction that your bike lunges you in. This is because your arms have no range of motion and are basically pulling you over the bars as soon as your front wheel slides on a root, or plunges down a drop. Instead of going back when it’s steep get low! It’s okay to allow your hips to go behind the saddle when your bike dives at the front, but keep your head low and close to your bars and your elbows bent on the approach. That way when your bike dives – and it will, your head and body can remain neutral.

Choppy terrain

Last month we looked at fluidity and safe braking zones to control your speed on the approach. If you’re slowing down and staying low into choppy or rough ground, then you should be able to start relying on the fluidity and easy range of motion that this allows. Stay low and loose with your arms and allow your front end to track the ground without going stiff or panicking. If you’re on flat pedals you should also drop your heels to really secure your feet to the pins. All of this range of motion and fluidity will mean that you can keep your body weight neutral and decide for your self where you can go heavy for grip, or stay light to float over roots or rocks.

Loose ground

When riding in loose, dry conditions always try and give yourself room to move. You’ll never stop your bike from sliding away from you but what you can do instead is give yourself the room to move so that when it does you stay in control. Try and keep your head nice and low and your legs apart so that when the slightest movement happens you can balance with your knees. Braking will play a big part as well, so look for safe patches of terrain and do as much as you can as you pass over them. This will give you loads more control later on down the track when you need it more.

Muddy trails

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got for riding in mud was to do with speed. If you go too slow then the mud will push you around. Go a little faster and you can push a lot of the mud out of the way. If you have the right tyres on, and you brake in the right places, riding in mud can actually offer a lot more grip than you think. Try and aim for cambers and surfaces that you can trust, and always give yourself plenty of room to move.

Balancing act

As much as you can try and keep your head low, close to your stem, and in the middle of your bars. This neutral riding position will allow you so much more control as your bike slides all over the place. For balance, try and keep your knees and hips loose and be ready to swing a knee out to counter balance or to set up a lean. If your head is swinging around all over the place it won’t feel stable at all. Keep your head nice and neutral and your balance can be taken care of from below the waist.

Deliberately linking grip points together on a trail will completely change your where you should focus your attention.

Grip points

This is the best way of really changing the way that you think about technical trails. Anyone looking at a gnarly bit of track will see the obstacles. Slippy roots, loose rocks, exposure, tree stumps.. there’s a lot going on. Look for the grip, however, and suddenly your perception of a trail will completely change. Instead of seeing all the hazards, you’ll be deliberately looking for all the positive aspects of a trail, and relying on them to catch you from one section to the next. With a little practise you’ll be spotting your grip points everywhere you go and completely forgetting about the features that used to distract you.

Staying low not only allows you to handle movement from the dirt. It also allows you to handle larger features on the trail.

Learn a new language

With Grip Points in mind, listen to the way that different riders describe the same section of trail. One rider might say, “That horrible rooty section where you tripod down the off camber.” Another more experienced rider will say something more like, “The high line that avoids all the roots.”. Both riders are correct in how they see the trail, but one is thinking of how he or she might get through the section with confidence, while the other is already committed to losing control. This might sound too subtle to make a real difference, but the way that a rider describes a trail the quickest way of telling what they are doing wrong when we run our coaching sessions at Dirt School. The language that you use to describe trails, or the words you use to describe the feeling of descending, is an insight into how you think about it. Talk positively and you’ll ride positively. Start looking for Grip Points and you’ll see grip and control everywhere you ride.

Slowing down on the way in to a technical section will give you loads more control where you need it by staying loose and low. You should have the same amount of control on a technical trail as you do an an easy one. Remember and focus on safe braking zones, a low body position, and looking for grip points, and you’ll be in control and gaining confidence in no time.

Smooth riding

Whenever you ride technically demanding trails your attention should shift to riding with control. Don’t try and do it fast. Do it smooth. That way you’re concentrating on all the things that will give you control instead of flailing around in the mud or clipping trees with your feet dragging on the ground. Stay smooth, look for the positive features on a trail, and you’ll be riding with more confidence and control as a result.

Perceived exertion

A fire road climb, or open flowy piece of trail might have you pedalling hard and feeling like you’re making good progress. Once it gets steep, however, back off and focus on being smooth. Brake where it’s safe, set up wide, and carry speed out of sections. This should fell like a deliberate change of your perceived exertion. In other words it should feel slower and that you’re in control.

Keeping your hips facing the same direction as your upper body will allow you to trust your grip because you’ll create room for the bike to slide in to or under you, rather than away from you. Technical trails isn’t always about going slow. Sometimes you can release the brakes and make good progress.

Wiggle room

Slightly different than range of motion this one – it’s more about felling like you have time to control a situation so that when things don’t go your way you have room to extend into. It should mean that you can allow yourself small moments where the bike and you are out of control, but recognise them as such and have the patience and maturity to go back to your plan of riding with control. Stay focussed on your goal and you’ll get through even the scariest of trails with control.

Practise rractise practise

The best thing you can do for your riding is to allow time to do your purposeful practise. Doing two or three loops of a technical trail is way better than doing one big XC loop where you ride everything once. Make sure you have a goal and ride a trail with that goal in mind. It might be to spot your Grip Points, or to stay focussed on your neutral riding position. Whatever it is stay on target and try it more than once. Even finding a particularly difficult section of a trail and going back up for another go (or five) is better than riding through it unsatisfied and carrying on.

Getting off and heading back up for another run is the best way of doing your purposeful practise. Don’t leave a section dissatisfied. Get in to the habit of heading back up for another go.

Feedback loop

Having a coaching session is a great way of getting feedback on what you’re doing right and wrong. An experienced coach will give you a list of specific techniques that you can go away and practise in your own time. Don’t try and ride technical trail fast. Try and ride them neat and tidy. Your tyres will always slide on wet roots and damp mud. The trick is not to stop that, but to allow for it with a bigger range of motion and clearly identified braking zones. Be neat and tidy and the confidence will come.