Learn from the pros and boost your technique with our MTB history class
Taking a look at how mountain bike technique has evolved over decades, from the sat-down pedalling style of the 90s to the stable upper body of today.
The evolution of technique
- Early 90s: Upper body disconnect, Sit down pedalling, erratic movements.
- Late 90s: Minnaar, Peat, Gracia All using angulation of the hips to change direction.
- The Noughties: Sam Hill Wide bars, short back end, stable confidence. An absolute game-changer and a rider that changed a generation.
- 2011: Danny Hart The turning point for technique. Stable and in control hips to change direction, stable upper body, confident commitment. All the elements of modern riding.
- 2014: Josh Bryceland Stylish modern riding – low body, hips for balance, the smooth weight applied to the track for grip. A huge influence on everyone that has followed since.
Learn from the pros and boost your technique
At Dirt School we pay close attention to the different approaches elite riders use to gain an advantage on their competition. We notice trends in body position, how they have evolved over the years, and more importantly for you, how you can spot them too. Once you start to understand what it is that a lot of the top riders are doing in order to gain control, then you can apply those same techniques to your own riding and feel the difference immediately.
The Glory Days
Type in ‘1995 mountain biking’ into YouTube and prepare to be amazed by how far our sport has come. There are some brilliant Grundig World Cups, or excellent throw back documentaries like the recent ones from GT Bicycles. We only mention this because a lot of riders that remember those days will still have large parts of their technique rooted in the 90s. The bikes back then had big chainrings, high saddles and limited suspension travel, but then the courses were a lot less technical, a lot faster, and a lot longer. This influenced what the racers at the time controlled their bikes with. The biggest difference was the high saddles. This meant there wasn’t any room to move your hips at the time, and therefor lots of twisting in the upper body for balance is present.
A combined evolution
As the courses became more technical the travel on the bikes increased, but saddles also got lower and the bikes became more stable through longer wheel bases and slacker angles. This allowed for a simultaneous change in technique where the best riders could centre their body weight around a much more stable front end. The lower saddle also meant that hips were now free to do a lot of the balance that the shoulders where doing just a few years earlier.
One of the best things about mountain biking is that there is no perfect body shape or style that works for everyone. Taller riders will have a bigger range of motion, but smaller riders can duck in and out of tight spaces with ease. Powerful riders can muscle their bike through technically demanding sections, but lighter riders can skip over the tops of the bumps and won’t fall into holes. With this in mind, pull up YouTube and look for the following styles and techniques from some of the world’s fastest racers.
- Riding style: Confident and loose
- Rider size: Small
- Advantage: Excellent gauge of grip
- Look for: Stable upper body, knee balance, rides closer to the bike now, which allows for more range of motion
Laurie Greenland is an interesting example of someone who consciously worked on his technique over winter, then won his first World Cup on Val d’Sole – one of the most technically demanding tracks of 2019. He’d had good results on that track before but he always ended up riding too close to the edge and losing time. If you watch a lot of the French riders just now: Bruni, Vergier, or Pierron, they all ride close to their bikes. This allows them a huge range of motion and the ability to have time to gauge traction when it is close to braking away. Greenland is a master of gauging his grip, but as a smaller rider he has limited range of motion and in the past was relatively upright. This limited how much time he had in those moments where he was losing grip. It made for some exiting runs but he never quite cracked that last piece of the puzzle till last year. He worked on getting closer to the bike allowing him to have more time in those moments and ultimately feel like he had more control. His perceived exertion was lower, but the result speaks for itself. He even said after his winning run that he felt like he’d had faster runs of the track in the past, even though he’d just won his first World Cup by around four seconds.
- Riding style: Neat and tidy
- Rider size: Tall
- Advantage: Size and fitness
- Look for: Range of Motion, angulation of the hips, powerful but tempered efforts
Steve Peat had a career that lasted over 20 years. He was at the top of the sport for longer than a lot of the 50to01 crew have been alive. One of the best things that Pete’s career allows us to do is watch his technique evolve over that time. If you can find footage of him back in his Kona days, or even the Coors Saracen team, he’s swinging all over the place with his body and making erratic movements that look out of place in todays stable world of neutral control. He was starting to use his hips to change direction by the time he was on GT, but by the Santa Cruz days he was a modern rider that was keeping up with (and occasionally still beating) the best of them.
- Riding style: Light and precise
- Rider size: Medium
- Advantage: Patient stability
- Look for: Stable upper body, angulation, heavy and light in all the right places
- Riding style: Confident and loose
- Rider size: Medium but Heavy/Strong
- Advantage: Flat pedals and brutal onfidence
- Look for: Knee balance, heavy on the grip points
Wheel size debate
Discussions around which one is better will never be over but one thing is for sure; the 29er platform allows for more time to react and creates a more stable platform from which to anchor your neutral riding position to. Even the mullet bikes make sense for a lot of smaller riders because the stability of the 29er front end, which your upper body and stable position is attached to, is paired with the more manoeuvrable 27.5 rear end that will allow for more room to move your bum into. Anyone that rides a modern trail bike with either wheel size has to agree that the 26in platform is, by today’s standards, twitchy, sharp and unstable. Bikes will continue to evolve, but even if you don’t care about Strava times or race results, more stability means you have less chance of crashing so it’s got to be a good thing.
- Riders sat down to pedal a lot
- Upper Body Disconnected from the Front End
- Lots of Outside Foot down
- Fast, Erratic Movements
- High Perceived Exertion and lots of Wasted Energy
- Lower Saddles and more room to move
- Strong Neutral Riding Position connected to the Front End
- Hips Dictate Direction and Riders Balance with Knees
- Controlled Aggression and Efficient Flow
- Low Perceived Exertion and Tempered Physical Efforts