If the secret in going fast is being a confident rider, then the secret to confidence is control.
Being in control on any trail will mean you have more time to react, get more satisfaction from your riding, and will be able to go faster and take on more difficult challenges without exposing yourself to additional risk.
Quite often when you see an experienced rider go through a technical section it looks like they aren’t doing anything. They might not even be aware of the things they are doing in order to give themselves control over the terrain. Dig a little deeper, though, and there are some crucial control mechanisms going on here that mean the rider feels settled and prepared. Let’s dig a little deeper and find out what those are.
A workable position
Let’s get this one out of the way. Bending your elbows is not about getting your weight forward. It’s used in combination with standing taller and bending from the hips in order to create a wider footprint on the trail. The best full suspension mountain bikes nowadays are longer and slacker. If you’re riding something that’s been built in the last four or five years then you’re basically hanging on to one of the most stable platforms that’s ever been available. In order to make the most of all these advances in geometry though, you’ll have to make a shape that fits the bike.
In order to get the most out of a modern set-up you need to make a shape that spreads you out over the length of the bike. Focus on bending your elbows and keeping your head centred over your stem. As you turn left or right on a trail your upper body should follow your bars, forks and front wheel. By staying low at the front you’ll automatically be spread over a wider area, meaning that as you drive your bodyweight back into the trail with your legs, you are making a larger footprint on the trail.
We’ve all been told to push into a corner, or to push off the lip of a jump, but what does that actually mean? It’s often misunderstood, the push being described isn’t a fast aggressive action, but is actually more of a balancing of weight. Oh, and it’s mostly done with your legs. Confused? Let’s explain a little further.
Here come the science
When you see someone pushing properly into a jump or corner it doesn’t look like they’re doing anything. This is because what’s actually happening here is that they are driving their body weight back into the trail with the same amount of force that is being pushed in towards them. They effectively balance the two opposing forces. Think about it, when you roll around any turn the downward force of gravity and the momentum being carried by you moving forwards is combined. As you change direction the ground is pushing back against you. In turn you are pushing back into the ground in order to not collapse. The term to describe what’s happening here in its simplest form is Centripetal Force. In scientific terms, the force that you put into your bike is equal to your mass times your speed squared, divided by the radius of the turn. In other words if you weigh more and are going fast on a tighter corner it will feel like you have to push harder than if you’re going slower over a longer corner. In both of these situations though you’re only pushing equal to the amount of force that’s being applied against you.
If the force needed to control a change of direction is equal to the force that’s being pushed into you, then you’re actually balancing that effort all of the way round. When done properly, in a corner for example, you will be able to settle into an effort and feel when your tyres start to break traction because it will happen so gradually. In that moment your reaction should be to back off slightly with your push, applying less weight to the trail and your tyres will have less demand on them and be more likely to regain traction. From the outside it will look like nothing has happened, you didn’t really move, but you’d describe it as having driven your weight into the trail with your legs, then backing off from that effort when you felt your tyres start to slide.
Every time you hear someone telling you to push, they are talking about pushing with your legs. Keeping your pedals and feet parallel with the ground, and your legs bent on the way in, will mean that you can stand up by driving your feet lower into your suspension and keep a really low and stable centre of gravity. Your upper body should remain in your strong neutral riding position, and although there is a push with the arms it’s very subtle compared to the deliberate strength that should be going through your legs. After all it’s your legs that are holding up all of your body weight that you’re now using to drive back against the trail.
The Holy Grail of leg push: the manual
Stay low to begin with to give yourself the maximum throw with your momentum. Once you’ve thrown your bike forwards try to keep your arms straight and stay low. You should be just looking over your bars and no more. Pay attention to your knees at this point as they should be bent. You’ll need that range of motion in your legs to push the rear wheel forwards in order to drive the front wheel back up again.
Range of motion
With that leg push in mind, we’d recommend that you bend your elbows and keep your head over the stem, then don’t really move too much with your upper body. The geometry, wheelbase and suspension on your bike will do a great job of providing that stability. Your job in a corner, jump or any real compression should be to gauge the amount of push that you need to do with your legs in order to balance the change of direction. The closer you get to the bike on the way in the more room you’ll have to apply that weight or back away from it.
If you’re riding down something with loads of dips, rises, changes of camber and loose sections, then you will constantly be driving your weight into the trail as it pushes into you, then backing off. This will be directly in proportion to the forces that are acting on you – same as any jump or turn. If done properly then from the outside it won’t look like you’re doing anything. You’ll be maintaining that same strong body position you see confident riders make. But to you it will feel like you’re constantly pushing against that trail then backing off in order to allow the tyres to bite accordingly. You can deliberately drive heavy into things you can trust or that support you, then go lighter over the slippery or loose sections giving your tyres less to do on the complicated stuff. This dynamic movement gives you so much control over unpredictable surfaces or shapes, and is a complete game changer for the amount of confidence you will feel as a result.
This stable upper body will work everywhere on the trail because being in the centre of your bars and bike will mean you always have the room to react. With your upper body being so tidy and strong, you’ll need to loosen up your knees and hips in order to take out those minor imbalances on the trail. This can be recognised as your hips facing the same way as your bars in order to drive into a change of direction coming up, but it can also be seen when riders are being more playful and chucking their bikes around on the trail.
The knees will allow for a big movement from the bike allowing the upper body to remain stable.
Changing direction on the trail
We’ll go into more detail about this in the next issue, but for now try and think about opening up a change of direction with your knees on the way into a corner. You can do this by being aware of your upper body remaining fairly still, but your inside knee going further out. What this allows you to do is firstly set up the balance in the direction you’re about to lean in, but also then allow you to deliver that weight into the trail in a way that lines you up with the exit of the turn. You’re basically lining your hips up with a part of the trail that is still ahead of you. They follow your bars.
With all this deliberate pushing you might need to reexamine your suspension settings. A general rule of thumb is to be running 25% sag up front and 30% on the rear when you are standing stationary in the correct body position wearing all your riding kit. This will give you a good starting point. If you’re finding that deliberately pushing back into the trail is using up a lot of your travel, then depending on your equipment you can either add pressure or progressivity. Adding pressure will basically make your suspension harder. You’ll have less sag and it will feel firmer everywhere. On a more budget set-up this might be your only option. If you have the option of adding volume spacers though, this will mean you can keep the same suppleness and sag, but have your suspension ramp up the further through the travel it gets. It will basically feel harder the deeper you move into it. The perfect balance is when you feel like you have a workable platform where you can drive your weight into jumps, turns or upturns on the trail, and feel supported without it diving on you.
Get out and ride! If you keep a few things in mind after reading this article, then try and give yourself time to apply it on the trail. Get low, think about your body position, and try to balance that force that you’re putting back into the trail.