You see it everywhere; people queuing up for a cash machine while the one next to it stands unused, a line of cars backed up for half a mile when there’s an empty out-of-hours bus lane on the inside. Sheep mentality plagues society on many levels, but if you use your eyes and your brain there are plenty of opportunities to make your life smoother and more efficient.
It’s exactly the same when you’re out on the trail. Next time you get to a technical section, stop and watch a few riders go through. Chances are they’ll all follow the same line (usually the most worn) without examining the alternatives or evaluating what occurs before and after the section. While sticking to the beaten track is a relatively safe bet, it may not be the fastest, smoothest or most efficient way forward. The aim of this technique lesson is to get you all to open your eyes, look around at the various options presented by the terrain and experiment with the way you ride.
Obviously it’s impossible for us to give you specific advice on the best line choice for every scenario, so take the following as a rough guide. Here we have a tricky little sequence of rocks that’s just itching to jam your front wheel and pitch you into the weeds. At first glance there appears to be just one line through the section — straight down the centre. Let’s call it Line One. As you can see by the amount of dirt dragged through the slot, this is where the majority of the riders have been. Rolling down the gap between the rocks avoids the harshest impacts and keeps the tyre in contact with the dirt. It looks the smoothest, but by stepping back a little and assessing the entry and exit, the limitations of this line become apparent.
The in-run is straight, but the section itself is on a left-hand corner with the sharpest part of the turn just as the rocks end. So, while the centre line may be the smoothest, it doesn’t set you up very well for the corner. Worse than that, reduced traction on the rocks means that braking and steering have to be minimised, so you risk not making it round the corner. While we were shooting this section, we watched several riders come through and all chose the centre line. As they got to the end of the rocks and realised they still had all of their cornering to do, they all jammed on their brakes and almost flew over the bars.
As you already know, never leave all your braking and steering until the last minute. It upsets the balance of the bike and drastically reduces traction. Here, we would want to do most of our steering and braking before we get to the rocky section, allowing us to keep a straight line through the obstacles, smoothly negotiate the corner, and carry maximum speed onto the next straight. We already know the obvious line is flawed, so we need to go back and see if there are any other options.
After a closer look, we can see there are another couple of lines. The first is to the rider’s right of centre and involves squaring off the corner, while the second is on rider’s left and takes a tight, inside line. One of these is no more technical than line 1, but makes the corner much easier and will let you carry speed onto the straight, while the other line requires a bit more skill and commitment, but is arguably the fastest line. Let’s deal with each one individually.
If you don’t want to make the section any more challenging than it already is, negotiate the corner easily and bring plenty of extra pace onto the straight; in this version, the line on the rider’s right of centre is the one for you. The key to this line is to get your braking done early and square off the corner. Andrew approaches the section on the right hand side of the trail, looking ahead to pick out his entry point.
He rolls over the rock on the far right to start off, but his eyes are already fixed on the slot between the rocks in the lower middle of the section, where he is going next. This initiates the turn and bike and rider naturally begin to fall into the slot over the next few frames. As Andrew exits the section, he is already pointing in the right direction and doesn’t have to touch the brakes or make any steering adjustments onto the straight.
Option three is the fastest line for the confident rider. By staying tight to the inside of the corner and riding a narrow finger of rock, you do all your turning early and find traction-rich soil on the exit. “Pick the line that suits your skill level,” says Andrew. “Once you’ve picked your line, don’t let your eyes wander.”
The key to this line is the entry. Andrew brakes up to the rock and spots his line in. He has already done about 80 per cent of his turning at the point he hits the rocks. Looking directly where he wants to go, he lines up with the narrow spine of rock, and rolls along it. As he approaches the end of the rock, he weights the front end, preloading the fork. By smoothly pulling back and moving his weight over the rear wheel he keeps the front wheel up as the bike rolls over the drop. It clears the big rock, a foot or two further on, and lands in the fresh loam on the inside of the corner. Like option two, this line gets all the turning done early, allows you to stay off the brakes, and roll onto the straight with bags of speed.
What we’re trying to teach you is to look beyond the obvious. Riders tend to fixate on the obvious, especially as speeds increase, which is one of the reasons why downhill racers walk the whole course first. So, next time you encounter something tricky, stop. Get off your bike and walk around it. Suss out the possibilities and give each of them a try.
Your pilot on this voyage of discovery is former DH pro and freeride legend Andrew Shandro. A top DH racer and X-Games gold medallist, Shandro was one of the first downhillers to don a backpack and go freeriding. As a big mountain specialist he took silver at the Red Bull Rampage in 2003. He has appeared in The Collective and Roam, and teaches kids how to ‘send it’ at Whistler’s Summer Gravity Camps. Check out www.summergravitycamps.com.