Andy Barlow from Dirt School shows us how to get there, with some some deliberate techniques and skills to focus on. Follow his expert advice to effortlessly trickle down your local trails.
Riding is easy, the trail comes at you in slow motion and you’re at one with your bike – congratulations, you’re in that zen state of flow where mountain biking is like a dream. Everyone enjoys the feeling of flow when they ride. It’s that effortless forward movement that seems to happen without any real energy input. The trail just comes to you and every feature seems to pass by without any thought… Or so they say.
In reality flow is often something that only happens when the best mountain bike conditions are perfect. Then, when you try to recreate it on the next trail, it’s gone. In this issue we look at what deliberate techniques you can focus on to start letting you enjoy that feeling of flow more often. We’ll break down some classic bits of advice and look at why they work. And we’ll give you some specific skills to practise so that you can start finding the feeling of flow more often.
One of the best ways to think about flow is that you’re trying to separate yourself from the trail. There’s no way of stopping your bike from slipping on roots, bouncing off rocks, and dropping into holes as you ride down something technical. All of this will distract you from the smooth gliding motion associated with flow. What you’re trying to do as the rider is separate yourself from all that movement. The more that you can isolate your head and body weight from the clutter, the more control you’ll have as you descend. If you are gliding down a trail separated from all that movement you’ll have more time to react, and more time to see what’s coming. Perfect conditions for setting up more satisfaction.
That feeling of everything happening automatically will only occur if you have all the correct techniques so well practised that they are happening without you really having to think about them. Unfortunately in order to make them your reactions though, you’re going to have to think about them quite a lot. It’s similar to learning how to drive. The first time you get in a car you’re pushing the clutch pedal in with no idea where the bite point is. You’re having to think every time you want to indicate or change gear. After a while though this starts becoming smoother until it gets to a point where you don’t have to think about it too much. The days of turning your wipers on every time you want to make a turn are behind you and you can have a conversation with a passenger while you negotiate a roundabout. The mechanics of driving a car have become an acquired skill.
This is when you don’t know what or why something doesn’t feel right. You might not even be aware that there is a better way of doing it because whatever it feels like now is the only way it’s ever felt to you.
This stage can be frustrating as you are now aware of what it is that’s going wrong but you’re
still catching yourself doing it. Stick in there though, as this is the stage that will motivate you to do it better.
This stage is often a lot of effort and will require you to slow your riding down for a while in order to give yourself time to think. It’s where you’re doing it right but it’s taking a bit of planning to get there.
This is where whatever it is that you’re working on has become an acquired skill. It’s a reaction, and you’re not having to consciously think about it. The more of your riding falls into this category the more flow you’ll experience.
Reset your riding
How you stand and move on a bike has changed considerably in the last few years. The upright and rearward shapes that you recognise from the 90s are long gone, and today’s confident position has more in common with motocross than it does most other forms of cycling. Your range of motion nowadays is very different, with most of the push or weight being transferred to the trail through your legs, and your upper body staying stable and low. This is because the bikes are so much more stable than even just a few years ago.
When looking at a rider resetting their body position from the side there are a few things to note. Firstly, the legs are straight. Now obviously when you’re riding down a trail you’re not going to lock your legs out, but the strong ‘reset position’ that you see here is the shape that you’re always trying to return to when you drive your body weight into a corner, or generate grip in a smooth pocket of dirt in amongst the roots. You’re always trying to return to this shape when you descend. Often the only time you see a rider actually make it all the way through to this shape is after the trail calms down.
From the front you are trying to calm your movements down to a point where you feel like you are doing less. Keep that stable ‘arms out’ stance as strong as you can, and even fire up your core, shoulders, stomach and lower back in order to maximise your stability. We’ll look at balancing with your knees in future issues, but for the moment focus on keeping your head in the middle of the bars and roughly above the stem. This will mean you can hang on to your bike and let it handle all the slippy stuff without it really throwing you off balance.
A great way of working out what your range of motion is doing is to roll through a series of smooth successive bumps. As the rise hits your arms then legs, absorb the impact, but get ready to drive your weight back into the shape as it falls away again – peaking your effort with powerful legs as your rear wheel hits the lowest part of the trail. Try to keep your upper body strong and your core engaged.
When approaching drops with the aim of keeping both wheels on the ground we are looking to smooth out the trail. Our arms and legs are our extra suspension so when approaching a drop we want to maximise this. By getting close to our bike we open up our range of movement allowing our bikes all the room to move so we can neutralise the trail. As your front wheel falls away you extend your arms down, this keeps your body weight centred and neutral and won’t feel like you are getting pulled over the handlebars. Remember we are allowing our bikes to move and when you get it right it will feel smooth and in control.
With your body position becoming more conscious and your range of motion deliberate, it’s time to throw your braking into the equation. When you pull your brakes two major things happen: you have less grip at the tyre because your wheel is trying to slow down, and your body goes stiff in order to brace your weight against the forces being created. This second one isn’t obvious, but every time you pull the brakes your arms brace in order to hold you in the same position. This in turn will hamper your fluidity and mean that the trail feels harsh and sharp. Try and identify smooth places to brake, and if you can stay off the brakes and allow for more fluid movement in the choppy sections.
In order to be able to brake safely and still be in control, it helps to have a good brake set-up. Ideally you’re looking to keep as many fingers on the bars as possible, and only use one finger on the brake lever. With brakes working as well as they do these days you shouldn’t really need any more fingers on the lever, and that means a stronger grip on the bars. Set your levers up so that your pointing finger rests comfortably on the end of the lever. This way it’s always there if you need it.
Has anyone told you just to keep your weight back on steep trails? This advice is a thing of the past and results in your bike pulling you down the trail with no control or flow. Just like in rolling drops we want to use our arms and legs as more suspension. Staying close to our bike keeps our body weight centred and allows us to open up that range of movement we are looking for. Our bikes then have room to move underneath us and even the steep sections of trail have that flow-controlled feeling. Don’t go back, get low.
Front wheel lift drops
This is a slightly more complicated technique but one that feels very smooth if executed properly. Keeping your wheels level whilst heading off a drop at speed will allow you to stay neutral on the trail and keep your head up. The trick is to come in close to the bike and treat it more like a manual by throwing your weight back. If timed right this will unweight the front end and keep it there long enough to land both wheels together. This technique is hard to see from a photograph as it just looks like the rider has their weight back, but look closer and you’ll see that any rider doing this right starts close to the bike before throwing their body weight back and keeping their arms straight.
The coach: Andy Barlow
Before joining Dirt School Andy liked to win things – races like the Scottish XC Champs and the Scottish Downhill Champs. Since 2009, though, he’s coached some of the world’s best riders with Dirt School and helped bring on the BASE MTB course at Borders College in the Tweed Valley. But what Andy really likes to do is communicate those pro techniques to everyday riders.