Don’t panic when your bike starts to slide under you, instead learn to go with the flow and bring back control in the corners
We’ve been revealing how riding technique has evolved to keep pace with the rapid development in bikes and trails. Most recently, we showed you how to make yourself more stable, by taking the long, consistently heavy ‘push’ you experience on jumps, and applying the same technique to corners.
By keeping your neutral body position strong and central, and pushing — or weighting the bike — through the heavy parts of a trail with your legs, you can generate a huge amount of stability on longer turns. But how do you adapt that technique when the corners are tight or you’re trying to traverse off-camber roots?
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Today we’re going to look at how to retain control when the terrain tries to destabilise you, how you can use your body position to actually change direction, and how to stay on track when your bike wants to go in a different direction.
So what goes wrong? This one sounds simple, but trust us, your body position will be the first thing to fall apart when you see something scary coming up on the trail. You know the feeling; you’re flowing along, minding your own business, then suddenly you feel like you’re going a little too fast, or that you’re running wide on something tight or twisty.
The first thing you do, without even realising, is tense up. Then you’ll stare right at the very thing you want to avoid. Think of the last time you ran off the trail and play back what it was you were looking at. Was it the correct line? Or was it somewhere off to the side of the trail, or at the obstacle that you were trying to avoid?
Even if you do manage to stay on your bike, you’ve lost momentum, the brakes have probably come on, and you’ve killed your all speed and have to try and regain your flow all over again. So how do you stay on track?
Take a slippery, off-camber section of trail and most people will ride it with their outside foot down and a stiff and upright body position, maybe even leaning uphill and away from the bike. All of this limits the range of motion of their arms and legs. As soon as their bike slides, it will take them, and all their momentum, in the direction of the slide.
Instead, approach the same section with your arms bent and your hips facing into the hill. Think of it as the same technique from the corners but you’re going straight. After all, the lean angle of your bike against the trail will be the same as when your bike corners on a flat surface.
Let the bike slide… but into you
As your bike starts to slide on an unpredictable surface, you’re looking to stay in control by allowing it to slide further underneath you, rather than letting the front end drift away from you down the hill.
You’ll have more time to react, and a lot more control, but it’ll take a lot of practice, especially if you’ve been using a different technique up until now. With a bit of conscious effort, though, you’ll be able to correct your bad habits and end up with a technique that better suits modern bikes and equipment.
Support versus no support
Typically, if a corner or a trail has loads of support — such as a berm or a positive camber — then you can rely on your neutral body position and level pedals to generate stability in the form of a ‘push’.
You’ll feel this as you go heavy through the change of direction. But if the trail has little or no support, then you’re going to have to set up and plan for that loss of control. This might be a good time for you to drop the outside foot a little in preparation, tilt your outside knee in towards the top tube — which will twist your hips to face the exit — and lean the bike a little.
Basically you want your whole body position to line up with where your bars are facing and where you want the bike to go. Maybe a little further if it’s really unstable and the trail’s very slippery.
Set up for the corner
You don’t want to just look round the corner, you want to line your whole body up with a part of the trail that’s still ahead of you. Awkward riders tend to be lined up with something that they’ve already ridden, resulting in them feeling like they’re running out of room. You need to be consciously lined up with a part of the trail that’s maybe one or two metres ahead.
Look at any World Cup downhill racer and you’ll see evidence of this. All the top riders are turning before they’ve even got there. Good riders will always maintain that exaggerated turn all the way through till they’re out the other side. You’ll rarely see any good rider lined up with a part of the track that’s now behind them.
This is straight out of the world of skiing. Imagine what a skier looks like sliding into a turn, and pushing for traction, before turning, almost floating weightless out of the snow and repeating the process again during the next carve.
This is what you want to emulate on your bike. Almost lining up with the exit before you’ve got there, so that as you apply pressure, in the form of a push, you’re already facing out of the turn and in the direction that you want to go. This angulation will make you feel like you’ve got more time to play with, because you’ll be facing the direction that you want to go earlier, rather than heading off the trail.
Lean on me
As you get into an awkward situation, you want to stay focused on where you want to go. Keep your body position pronounced, with your elbows bent, look around the turn and point your outside knee in to touch the top tube.
This will allow you to keep your knees bent and lean the bike over in the direction that you want to go. If the bike starts to lose traction, you’re already in a shape that will help you regain control.
Watch a World Cup downhill race and you’ll see evidence of the skiing technique on wide, off-camber turns and unstable sections. Nobody’s hanging off the back, or tilting their bike into the turn as they lean to the outside. Instead, they’re all overturning with their hips and facing the direction they want to be in further round the turn.
With this exaggerated body position during cornering entry, you’ll be lined up so that if your bike slips on anything as you go through, you’ll already be facing the way that you need to save it. As long as you keep your arms and legs bent, your hips facing towards the challenge and your outside knee against the top tube, you’ll be able to let your bike dance around underneath you and it will have relatively little impact on your body weight and its momentum.
Find an off-camber piece of trail criss-crossed with roots and session it for a while. If you’re riding with a buddy, it’s really useful to film each other (riding!) as you can see exactly what you’re doing wrong, and what you’re doing right. You’re looking for the kind of section that’s always sketchy when wet.
As you approach, exaggerate your neutral riding position and crouch closer to the bike by bending your arms and legs. Tip your outside knee into the top tube, even brushing your kneepad against it. This will angle your hips and your outside foot will naturally drop sightly. Let the bike lean but don’t exaggerate it.
As a big root comes up, try to push through the whole bike before and after it, so that you go light for a split second over the root itself. As long as you have your hips facing in to the hill and you’re still low on the bike, you should be able to push on the other side and ride out of the slide by facing in the direction you need to correct it.
Find a sequence of turns or a chicane, and get a friend to film you. Is your head in the middle of your bars the whole time? Do you steer with your hips? Or are you moving all over the front end? You should have a neutral riding stance through every turn and your hips should be swinging from one direction to the next, just like our skier friends.