We reassess yesterday’s received wisdom to make sure it works for you on the trails today.
Typically when you go out riding with a group of friends you all meet up at the bottom of a descent and exchange stories of how you “only just stayed on” through that last technical section. These shared experiences are great fun and are a huge part of why we all ride socially. Inevitably the conversation will turn to technique though, especially if there are a couple of more experienced riders in the group. Although better riders can get down a hill quicker, they might not necessarily be giving the best advice as to how to improve.
This time we’re going to look at some of the tips that used to be more common a few years ago and compare them with more up-to-date advice that is better suited to modern bikes. We’ll look at why our technique has changed over the years, and what it’s allowed us to do as a result. Most importantly, we’ll give you some good reference points to be better equipped to give useful advice in the future.
The good ol’ days
The first mountain bikes were terrible. 26in wheels were nimble but unstable and the instability of a steep head angle was o set with a longer stem and narrow bars but didn’t really give you any more control. And the lack of any quality suspension meant that when the trails got rough you had to be in self-defence mode in order to stay upright. By today’s standards they were awkward, unstable and inspired very little confidence.
A stable future
Bikes nowadays have larger wheels to o er less rolling resistance and more time to react. They have a longer reach from the bottom bracket to the bars to allow you to get lower and create a more stable footprint on the trail. They have a slacker head tube angle so that your front wheel doesn’t get deflected easily, coupled with a short stem to make your steering more responsive. And they have suspension that not only works, but can be adjusted depending on what you are riding. They are a massive improvement on what was available even just 10 years ago, and now inspire confidence through trust and stability.
As a result we’ve seen a big shift forwards in body position. This is because nowadays the front of your bike is so anchored to the trail, that if you make a low and aggressive enough shape you can actually lean into all of that stability. The general advice in 2020 is now to stay low and drive your weight back into the trail with your legs, in order to get more grip from your tyres.
Time to compare
Let’s look at a few common mistakes that riders tend to make. Some of these are left over from the early days of mountain biking. Some of them might be the consequences of poor advice, resulting in weak technique. Finally, some of them might just be natural instinct making us do the wrong things.
Having your upper body square with your handlebars is a crucial part of getting the most out of a modern bike. As you turn the handlebars, you need to stay connected with the front end so that the stable geometry can carry you out of the exit. If you follow the ‘lean the bike’ philosophy too far then what will actually happen is that your bike will be facing the right way but you’ll feel like you are going over the top of the corner. This is because your body weight is taking you o the bike and over the turn.
“Outside foot down”
This is a bit of a hard one to explain because there are actually loads of times where your outside foot should be down. The misunderstanding comes when people drop their outside foot all the way down with a straight leg. While it’s true that dropping your foot will allow you to lean the bike, lower your centre of gravity, and mean you can rail the traction, what it also does is stop you from being able to adjust how much pressure or push you are exerting on the trail. This ability to weight and unweight your tyres is what allows you to control how much grip you have, and if your outside foot is all the way down with a straight leg you are in no position to adjust your traction.
“High position to absorb”
We typically see riders with a high neutral riding position doing a pretty good job of absorbing features. With all that height they can suck up the trail and take the sting out of a lot of obstacles. This is a self-defence mechanism because all of the threat is coming from ahead or underneath them. A better way of looking at the trail is to try and spot the places where you can generate control by staying low and driving your body weight back into smoother areas.
“Lean the bike”
This is another piece of advice that is often taken out of context. Yes, when you corner, you lean the bike. But what a lot of riders will do is lean it over at the expense of any additional control. The tell-tale straight outside leg is common here, as well as a bit of a disconnect up top. What both of these postures mean is that while this technique will work up to a certain speed, as soon as there is a loss of traction there will be nothing the rider can do to control it. Instead, they should stay close to the bike and keep a bend in both legs. This will mean that they can still stay in control of the pressure on the trail and even allow their hips to follow their upper body.
“Pull up for air”
The correct way of jumping is often so counterintuitive that some riders go years without actually learning how to do it properly. It’s also the most common mistake that we have to correct at Dirt School, so pay attention. If you have any photos of you jumping then dig them out and compare yourself to these two images. In one, the rider is hitting the jump and pushing early, meaning that they have to pull up in the air. The other shows a rider driving slowly so that they can create all of their ‘lift’ off the ground. Once in the air they are neutral and stable. Which one are you?
“Keep your weight back”
This is another piece of advice that is often taken out of context. There are a lot of times where a rider has their arms straight, but it’s so that they can use a full range of motion. As soon as that particular obstacle is past they will then return to a stable riding position with their weight kept neutral. Constantly staying o the back of your bike will limit how much control you have when you need it. Don’t think of it as keeping your weight back, or even forward! Just keep it close to the bike.