How roadies can learn to tame technical trails

Ex-pro road rider James McCallum learns to take the rough with the smooth by controlling his body position.

>>> What mountain bikers can learn from roadies

Words by Andy Barlow | Dirt School

The pupil: James McCallum

Jimmy has been riding bikes for a very long time. He’s been British and Scottish Champ, appeared at the Commonwealth Games twice, and won a bronze medal on the track in Melbourne in 2006. He’s the man behind all the Training Plans for Dirt School, and has also been getting into more technical trails recently after working with Ruaridh Cunningham (Trek Factory Racing) and Mark Scott (Santa Cruz).

Jimmy obviously knows how much of a difference having a coach can make to a rider’s performance, so we thought we’d take him through a few techniques that will allow him to progress safely and with the same confidence that Mark and Ruaridh enjoy on the more demanding trails.

Natural progression

As Jimmy has been getting more and more into technical trails, he’s had various bits of advice along the way. Most of it good. He’s generally a positive, confident person, so the same ‘can do’ mentality that has served him well on the road has meant that he’s been able to progress quickly in the world of MTB as well. There are a few ‘go to’ control mechanisms that he’s still holding onto though, and a couple of old school techniques that he’s finding hard to shake from his previous mountain bike experience as a youth. It was really interesting working with him for the day because he’s so coachable! Not really surprising for someone who’s spent a good part of their life giving and receiving feedback.

Lining up with a grip point like a corner means Andy can enjoy control right where he needs it.

Old-school control

Jimmy makes the right shapes where he’s confident, but on the loose ground, or on shapes that he’s not that familiar with, he resorts back to his 90’s MTB/Cyclocross technique. One way of controlling unsteady terrain is to do what he’s more familiar with and move away from the danger relying on your brakes to slow you down. This actually works really well if you’re going slow or if you can trust the grip, but on technical trails you’ll quickly run out of control. A much better control method is to stay low and drive with your legs more like a skier.

Identifying the grip and making the right shapes on the way in to allow you to use it while you have it, will take some practice, but it’s worth it!

Grip points

A huge game changer for Jimmy was the idea of Grip Points. When people start to progress onto technical trails they always get distracted by the obstacles. Roots, rocks, exposure, trees, slime.. you name it, the eye is drawn to it. The best thing you can do to change your mindset is to start looking for the grip. You’re training your reaction to tune in on all the shapes on the trail that will give you control. Smooth ground, cambers that are in your favour, even just patches of trail where you can reliably brake will be of huge benefit when you’re looking to slow down on a steep trail. Deliberately look for the grip and you’ll soon forget about the dangerous stuff.

Get lower than you thought possible and make space to move on the bike.

Push for control

Once you start recognising the shapes or textures on the trail that will work in your favour you can start getting more out of them. A big advantage here will be to get lower than you ever thought possible and open up room to move so that you can push back into the trail. This will allow you to really hook up on the shape you’ve identified and mean you can apply more weight right where you need it. You can actually allow yourself to make some pretty weird shapes on the way into these grip points. Just make sure that you’ve timed the push so that you can make the most of the limited grip while you have it.

Great flexibility meant that Jimmy got the hang of bouncing through his ankles in no time. Straight legs mean he’s getting more potential push out of his new position.

Neutral riding position

Really think about where your body and head are in relation to your handlebars and stem. You want to stay as close to the middle of your bars as possible. Whenever you see something coming up ahead of you, your first reaction should be to get closer to your bike. Not only can you handle more movement if it happens, you can also generate traction where you need it by extending your legs. If you do need to come away from that central riding position to handle a movement underneath you, make sure you quickly reset back to the shape you were in on the way in.

Finding some ruts and spending half an hour messing about on them is great for mastering unpredictable ground. Just make sure you stay low and push with your legs for the corners! Let your hips and knees to all the balance and you’ll be able to stay on target and push where it counts.

Look at the difference on the way in. Andy has room to spare and is keeping his upper body neutral by balancing with his knees. Jimmy is making a good position for going in a straight line but it will come undone as the corner progresses and the control becomes limited. Jimmy really struggled with the ruts at first. Look at the squint body position and limited range of motion.

Riding ruts

This was a departure from anything Jimmy had done before. He’s used to riding longer ruts in a CX race, but you’d control that situation by continuing to pedal and by balancing with your upper body and knees. The quick succession of corners really threw him off. Controlling ruts on a mountain bike is completely different to CX as it’s about staying low and maximising range of motion on the way in, then applying pressure to the camber you can trust.

Balance with your legs

Allowing for movement in your hips and knees will be crucial to freeing your upper body up for stability. You need to stay low and close to the bars to feel like you have control, so your knees will have to do the majority of balance for you. This can be seen on the way into ruts where riders will stick their knees out so they can stay on target without having to turn. You can also see it on the exit where a rider has pushed so hard that they’ve actually overdone it. As they blast through the grip they have to back off the pressure and balance by throwing a knee out. Think 50to01 videos or Danny Hart before he calmed his riding down a few years ago.

GOOD: The trick is to stay low and in the middle of your bars while turning your hips to anticipate the slide. Keep your knees and elbows bent and the bike will slide into you not away from you.

BAD: It’s a difficult one to get your head around at first. Getting feedback on this from a coach will help you master it in time though.

Off camber

Trails with little or no support require a slightly more subtle touch. You can’t just push for grip and expect it to stick. Almost the opposite – You’ll need to go in expecting it to slide! With this in mind you can make a shape that allows the bike to move underneath you and allow your body weight to remain neutral. It’s all about making a shape that deliberately lines up with where the bike will be if it loses control.

Stay low and keep your head in the middle of the bars. As the bike starts to roll onto the camber turn your hips and knees so your lower body is now lined up with the uphill. As the bike slides on the camber it will feel like it is sliding into you rather than away from you. This angulation will allow you to open up valuable time to react when the ground is against you and the traction is limited.

Practise with your mates

We cannot recommend this enough. Finding some ruts that have been kicked into a hillside, and taking the time to just have a laugh on them, is one of the most productive things you can do for riding in loose terrain. The balance you’ll learn, and the experience of how much pressure to use and when, will open up a whole world of control that will allow you to stay cool when the trails get crazy.

Game plan: stay neutral

This month we challenge you to ride more technical terrain. Your purposeful practise is to stay low and think about your body weight being separate from the trail. In order for you to be in control of where you push your weight back into shapes, it has to be under your control to begin with. Keep your elbows bent, your head low, and think about balancing with your knees and hips. You’re going to start hitting your saddle off your thighs and calves, so be prepared for some interesting bruises.