Don’t be a passenger in corners or jumps, Andy Barlow of Dirt School shows us how to ride faster and safer, using weight and stability to maximise grip
The trails we ride today are faster, more technical and more varied than they’ve ever been before. Thankfully then, the bikes we ride them on have evolved too — more capable, more controllable and faster than ever before.
To fully exploit today’s amazing bikes, and adapt to the changing terrain, new skills and techniques have been developed. In this new series, Andy Barlow — head coach at Scotland’s acclaimed Dirt School — breaks down the most crucial elements of modern riding, explains the ways they’ve changed over the years, and reveals how you can adapt your technique to get the most out of both your bike and the trails.
Last time we talked about the shape you make in order to maximise your stability — your neutral riding position. Putting this into practice allows you the range of motion to stay in control by keeping your top half strong and neutral, and leaving your legs and hips flexible.
Hanging off the back, with straight arms, limits your movement and results in a bucking bronco effect that will eventually throw you off. By contrast, staying neutral at the front end, standing up, and creating a larger footprint, will allow your bike room to move underneath you, and you’ll enjoy a much more predictable feeling of control.
With that in mind, how do you adapt that neutral position to ever-changing terrain? How do you add fluidity to your riding? Good riders generally look like they have absolute control over where they put the bike, how much traction they have, and can leap tabletops, doubles or even entire sections of the trail effortlessly.
Their secret is to maximise control by pushing their bikes into the trail during the most stable sections. They go heavy where they have control, and light where the terrain doesn’t offer much grip.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But how do you know when to go light and when to push through? I find that the best way to teach someone how to access all this extra control is to watch how they jump.
Push For Longer
Don’t get fixated on specific points along the trail. Instead, think about slowing down your movements and making them last longer. For a better idea of what I mean, look at a slalom skier carving around a series of turns. Ask them where they pushed during a turn, and they’d probably say, “All the way round… maybe a little more towards the end.”
This is because the stability through the turn came from the weight of carving it. As they move through the corner, the extra weight that they’re having to support with their legs manifests itself in a ‘push’ that goes on for the duration of the carve.
Take a bucket of water and swirl it around you at shoulder height; the water doesn’t fall out because it is forced outward against the bottom of the bucket. The same is true when a skier carves a turn — they’re getting forced in to the slope by the very fact that they’re cornering.
If they can make this heavy sensation last the whole turn, then they can enjoy a consistency that results in a feeling of control. Apply this to jumping a bike and you’ve got a whole new perspective on riding and a whole new level of control. The heavy part of the jump stabilises your airtime.
Don’t Fade Out
When you see someone take off, but they fail to really spring up into the air, or pop, the chances are that they gradually reduced their effort as they reached the top of the jump. This is a common way of playing it safe, effectively absorbing the takeoff, but it will also mean that the heavy part of the jump has happened much too early, reducing its effect on your airtime.
Try using the jump itself to create the heaviness and build your effort towards the lip — right off the top! It will feel like your bike wants to buckle your arms and legs as you go through it, but keep forcing it towards the ground with your legs and keep your neutral body position strong.
The result will be that the heavy part of the jump lasts longer, and instead of it fading out towards the top, you’ll pop out of it with ease.
When bigger is better
With this in mind, you should feel that bigger jumps seem to give you more stability, because longer lips give more time when the bike is weighted. By the time your wheels are in the air, you should already feel like you’re locked into a smooth, consistent, predictable trajectory that sees you take a steady arc.
Listen to the noise that any good rider makes when they take off, and you will hear the difference. The volume of the tyres increases dramatically as they make their way up the jump — proof of a slow, powerful extension of their legs and an increase in pressure through the tyres into the dirt.
Use the stability generated from the corner itself to go faster and safer
Jumps on Their Sides
Once you’ve got the feeling of pushing for stability, it’s time to take it to corners. Berms are basically just jumps lying on their side, and their uniform camber makes them ideal for putting your jumping technique into practice.
A lot of riders come in low on the trail and use the camber to catch them, but your line should be high enough that you can take advantage of the consistent camber all the way round. That way, it becomes so predictable that you can use your legs to push, once you get a feeling of how much control you’ve generated. Like jumps, if you don’t want to take off you don’t need to push very hard.
Controversial! Basically the rule of thumb here is that your pedals should be level with whatever surface you’re on. If you’re in the middle of an off-camber turn, your outside pedal would likely be all the way down, but in a berm your bike is actually perpendicular to the surface — effectively upright.
The same push that you were able to produce on a jump will now give you control of how heavy you are in the turns. You wouldn’t go through a jump with one foot down and leaning over to the side! Instead, you should be in a strong neutral position with a slight bend in the legs so that you can initiate a push as you go round.
Beware of the Collapse
The thing you’re trying to avoid is letting your bike go round the corner while your body goes in a straight line. When this happens, everything comes together towards the exit in an off-balance wobble that feels like you’re leaving the trail.
Watch how a lot of riders collapse toward the top of a jump by weakening their limbs and pulling the bike up before they’ve taken off. It will look the same in a turn except the body will collapse over the bike. If you’re lined up properly, then you can push into the trail and enjoy a boost out of the corner in total control.
Remember, you’re trying to make your body line up with a part of the trail that’s ahead of you. This way you can take advantage of the heavy part, once it rolls round, and push to stabilise the same as you do on a jump. Equally, your tyres will make the same whoosh as they would on a takeoff and you’ll enjoy the same smooth, consistent, predictable weighted feeling that gives you control on jumps.
Get a friend to film you on some jumps. Nothing fancy, just taking off and landing straight. Where do you push? Are you pulling on your pedals in the air? Do you need a lot of speed to clear the jumps? Or can you increase the distance jumped by increasing your push?
How about corners? Are you lined up with the exit and able to push for momentum after feeling like you were in control all the way round? Or are you collapsing halfway round, losing balance and running out of room?