Car park skills!
Wheelies, back hops and cutties are fun but will also improve your trailcraft, so stop being self-conscious and upgrade your skills by relearning how to play.
It’s that time of the year again where the trails are slippery, the weather is offensive, and your bike time is limited. Instead of concentrating on winter skills, or even regular mountain bike technique, we thought take a fresh approach and encourage you to play.
Look at any good rider and they’ll be able just to flick their bike around and somehow have this innate ability to place it exactly where they want to. Why is that? Are they just naturally gifted? Or is there something else going on. Over the next few issues we’re going to encourage you to find a quiet corner and just muck about on your bike. Wheelies, skids, endos and track stands mostly seem like tricks for kids, but they will give you such a familiar understanding of how to balance your bike that practising them will undoubtedly make you a better rider on the trails. So why do so few of us do it?
Self Conscious by Nature
Firstly we are all way too self-conscious. There seems to be a culture among a lot of mountain bikers that you’re not allowed to look stupid. We’re all terrified of coming off our bikes in front of anyone for fear of them taking the piss. Or even worse; exposing us for someone that’s just making it up as we go. We don’t want to look like the weakest one in a group, so we all just pretend that we’ve got it worked out and make sure that we always stick well within our comfort zone and ride things that we know how to do well. That way we can always look like we know what we’re doing and people will like us. The thing is though, if you always try and do things for other people then you never get the satisfaction of doing it for yourself.
Fear of Failure
We’re all scared of stumbling or falling off our bikes. It’s almost like we think crashing our bikes is a stupid thing to do, and that you should just be able to do stuff immediately. Failure is a normal part of learning, and no one can do a new skill immediately. You need to try it a few times to even get your head around it. Then there will be a few more shots where you’re learning the feeling. Only after a bit of feedback, determination and encouragement will you start to get near. The first thing we try and do at any Dirt School session is create a safe learning environment. This means we celebrate any person taking part in a new skill or activity. Regardless of whether or not they succeed at it or not. The last think you want to do to a person is make them feel self conscious about failing, or scared to try something new.
How do You Do This?
If you’re really worried about what other riders will think about you, or if your riding buddies are going to take the Mickey out of you for playing like a kid, then perhaps you need to find a quiet corner of a car park somewhere and just muck about on your own for a bit. With no one to see what you’re doing it might be easier to try something new. You can just play and get your head around how much you can pull your brakes before they lock, and what happens when you pull your front brake with your weight back versus rolling your weight forwards while increasing the pull on the lever. You can try coming to a complete stop on your brakes, then throwing your weight back and accelerating whilst staying seated. How quickly does your front wheel rise? Whereabouts on the lift do you have to pull the rear brake to stop looping out? Can you just step off the back when it does? All of these are going to be complete disasters the first time you try them. But if no one is around to see then what’s the harm in trying? Maybe you can try it in front of your mates later once you’ve tried it 25-30 times on your own first. At least then you’ll feel like you’ve got a slightly better feeling for it.
This is the most accessible of all the tricks for kids. It’s fairly straight forward and will be a useful skill on technical or steep climbs once you master it. It’s also one that you can try almost anywhere and will turn a boring ascent on a fire-road into a new challenge.
- Tip 1: Stay seated throughout. Although you can lower your upper body as you slow down on the way in by bending your elbows, make sure you stay seated as you accelerate and rock your upper body back upright. This throwing your weight back will aid you, but as soon as you stand up you’ll be going forwards again so sit down throughout.
- Tip 2: Pedal don’t pull. Aim your bike uphill use your brakes to slow down to a walking pace. Use powerful pedal strokes to accelerate the front of the bike up. Don’t pull on the bars as you’ll just pull your weight forward. Instead select a gear that you can accelerate into and use that to get the front wheel up.
- Tip 3: Cover the rear brake. As soon as you feel off balance, or like you’ve gone too far and could loop out, pull the rear brake. This will cancel the wheelie immediately, and after a bit of practise you can use a light squeeze of the lever to adjust your balancing point.
- Tip 4: Step off the back. This is a lot easier on flat pedals because you can just step off the back of your bike. Make sure you’re getting a feel for pedalling into the balancing point, then just go past it and step off the back. This won’t work above a certain speed though, so slow speeds only.
The One-Handed Wheelie
This one is slightly trickier, but a good progression for those of you that have already mastered the wheelie. With a little practise it’s actually no more difficult either, because you have an arm that you can use to balance your tipping point with. Just remember to keep your rear brake covered with the hand that remains on the bars.
- Tip 1: Skip to wheelies round a pole further on in this article.
- Tip 2: Engage your core and lock out the arm that remains on the bars with a slight bend in the elbow.
- Tip 3: Try and land with both hands back on the bars again.
The No-Handed Wheelie
This one is a lot more difficult and is a lot easier on slightly steeper climbs. Make sure that you are very comfortable with regular wheelies and one handed wheelies before you try this.
- Tip 1: Find a comfortable balancing point with a regular wheelie.
- Tip 2: Lean slightly forward as you take your hands off.
- Tip 3: Cross your legs over the front of the nose of the saddle as you pedal to stop sliding backwards.
- Tip 4: Keep the speed low.
Using the wheelie to raise your front wheel over step-ups on climbs is a great way of continuing to accelerate at the obstacle and keeping your momentum going. Just remember to stand up out of the saddle once your front wheel is over the step to allow your rear wheel to roll up with very little weight on it. Having a good understanding, or feeling, for where your balancing point is will mean you can raise your front wheel on steeper climbs without fear of looping out. This is great for your regular balance as you can place your front wheel exactly where you want it to be and pick your way through rougher sections with balance and control.
This one is a bit of a trials skill that is just fun to learn. It will give you a great understanding of where your timing point is and allow you to make quick adjustments when you run out of other options. It’s also the same technique that you use to nudge your back wheel up difficult step-up climbs, and is a good way of getting out of trouble if you come to a complete stop but don’t want to plant a foot.
- Step 1: Learn how to come to a complete stop with both your brakes locked and use a level bunny hop, or speed hop, to balance. This involves basically hopping both your wheels from side to side depending on which way you’re leaning so that you stay upright.
- Step 2: Do the exact same thing but with your front wheel slightly higher. Ideally you can lean this on something wedge shaped so that you can work your way along and the front wheel can get higher as you go along. To start though, a step, a kerb, or even a bench will do. Once your front wheel is on find a place on your bike where you’re centred and just hop like you were on level ground as before.
- Step 3: With your front wheel getting higher on the step or bench, play with rocking your weight back so you can do one or two hops on your rear wheel only. You can always touch your front wheel back on the bench if it feels unstable. With a little practise you will be able to go away from the obstacle on your back wheel. Or rock onto the back wheel without needing a step or bench to help you.
Round a Pole Wheelie
This is a great one to learn safely as you’re always holding on to something solid. It’s also a good way of learning the one handed wheelie because it will teach you the control over your rear brake and where exactly the tipping point is.
- Tip 1: Select a low gear so you can easily accelerate into the wheelie and raise the front wheel with minimal effort.
- Tip 2: Cover the rear brake with the hand that remains on the bars and lean away from the poll. As you pedal you should be able to rotate around the poll by relaxing your grip and allowing your fingers to slide round the cylinder.
- Tip 3: Keep going! Once you find all the balance and tipping points this is one of the easiest tricks in this article. You won’t get it first time though, so keep at at. If it all goes wrong the worst that will happen will be you slowly slide down the pole and end up in a heap at the bottom. It’s low risk and fun.
This is basically a manual. Remember that when you see riders with their weight back they are actually throwing it back there to counter balance the front end of their bike. What they’re also doing is pushing with their legs so that the front end is driven up from underneath with a powerful leg push. They’re not lifting the front end up or pulling on the bars. Learning the wheelie or back hop will give you more confidence to trust that tipping point and will let you move about on your bike with confidence.
- Tip 1: Learn to manual on the flat. This is probably the hardest one to master as your rear wheel doesn’t fall off anything. You have to be doing it right to make it work.
- Tip 2: Practice with the rear brake covered, but once you get it try and spend time at the tipping point by controlling the leg push – NOT by using the brake to keep it there.
- Tip 3: Start small and work your way up
This is a car park classic. Look about in any busy trail centre car park and you’ll see deep ruts at the edge of parking spaces or carved into the grass. These are formed by kids coming in low and cornering by pushing with their legs. This will cause the back end of the bike to slide. You can control the slide by backing off the pressure.
- Tip 1: Come in low with your pedals level
- Tip 2: Corner tight and stand up powerfully
- Tip 3: If it slides, back off the pressure
- Tip 4: Keep your body low
Go find a quiet corner of a trail and have fun. You won’t be able to do any of this stuff first go. No one can. But with the right mindset you can make quick progress and have a much better feeling for what you can get away with on your bike. Ultimately you want to just raise a smile and play. As adults we are told that we have to act responsibly and grow up. This is one of those times where you throw that advice out of the window and just have fun. Play as much as you can on your bike and you’ll enjoy it so much more. That’s the whole point after all. Don’t ride like other people think you should. Do it for yourself.