How to ride faster
For this guide we switch from the specific to the general, with advice on the physical and mental hacks to help you up the pace whatever the trail.
Words by Andy Barlow | Dirt School
We’ve broken down and explained a lot of different aspects of riding. From jumping with control, to riding steeper trails with confidence. We’ve looked at specific techniques that will allow you to make progress and hopefully given you loads of purposeful practice to think about. While every other episode has deconstructed a technical component of mountain biking, in this episode we’re going to take a slightly more tactical angle on your riding.
Having a plan is a great way of making quick improvements. It gives your riding a sense of purpose and means that you will always feel like you are making progress. While Jimmy here is more used to going fast on the road or track, here we’ll take him through a few tactical advantages that will allow him to ride with more speed off road.
While we’d normally argue that what a rider does on their bike has a much bigger difference than the bike itself, a poorly set up bike will never inspire you with confidence and will always leave you with a lack of trust in your control. Jimmy had his bike set up for him a while ago and hadn’t really looked at it since. As a result his suspension was comfortable, but he found it would dive a lot when he rode steeper more aggressive trails. Remember, the harder that you want to ride, the more you’re going to be pushing your weight back into that trail and the more pressure you need to prop up all those extra forces. Here are a few quick tips for how to set your bike up to go a little faster.
Lower pressures are great for traction on loose ground, or sharp textures like roots or rocks, but when you start going fast and pushing the limits of your tyres they’ll start to roll around under those extra forces and bottom out on the rims when you hit things too hard. No body like punctures, so the easiest thing you can do to avoid them is to run a little more pressure in your tyres. The higher pressures will loose you grip in the turns, but you’ll be rolling faster on the straights and less likely to flat through rougher sections or through burping a softer tyre off a rim in a turn.
Firmer suspension will dive less, bottom out less and allow you to skip over the rougher stuff rather than sinking into loads of travel. The downside is that it’s less comfortable and often difficult to hang on to. Even just adding a few psi to your suspension forks will mean your front end doesn’t dive under heavy braking though, and will keep your bike balanced when pushing the limits. Sometimes adding a bottom out bumper of some sort will cause a more progressive feel, meaning you can keep your suspension feeling normal while ramping it toward the end of its travel. Remember that as you add pressure your fork will rebound back faster, so you might have to balance out the return stroke with a click of rebound adjustment.
Finding a compromise of comfort while still being able to ride your bike aggressively is the key here, and your travel indicators on your shock stanchion will be a great help. Get into the habit of resetting it after ever trail to see how much travel you’ve used. That way you can let more pressure out to get more travel if needed, or add pressure to stop it from bottoming out. When you’re trying a new set up remember and only change one thing at a time. Changing the pressure, rebound, and bottom out spacers all at once will mean you’re fumbling around in the dark. Add some pressure and go for a ride. That way you can keep track of what impact it’s had before you go clicking away on the other buttons.
Your fitness will play a huge part in how fast you can go, and the more bike time that you have under your belt the better you’ll feel when you’re putting effort in. Coming from a background in road cycling, Jimmy is a fit rider, but the extra physicality of riding technical trails is something that he’s not familiar with and as a result he tends to find that he tires out gradually over long days and looses control. Working on staying low and keeping a strong neutral riding position on easier days will play a huge part in him feeling like he’s got control on the more demanding days, as all the time spent in the correct position will mean he’s doing it automatically on the harder days.
One of the best lessons Jimmy has learned recently is that his brakes don’t always slow him down. If the terrain is demanding and the ground is loose, then pulling your brakes on will often lose you control! The best thing to do here is to plan your braking zones on the way into technical sections. Look for smooth areas of trail where you’ll be able to trust your grip. That way your speed is taken care of before it gets too technical. When the trail gets choppy and more exciting you’ll be able to flow over it by allowing yourself more traction, ultimately carrying more speed through and out.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m going that fast though.” This is because you now have control. Every rider will gauge their speed by how much control they have. I you are loosing control then you must be going fast, right? Not necessarily. Riding with control will mean that you have more time to react, and it will take a while to recalibrate your perceived exertion so that you have control and confidence rather than riding on the limit all the time.
Splitting trails down into different pacing zones is a great way of prioritising where you can invest loads of energy, and where you should back off and save some juice. The secret here is to train your weaknesses and play to your strengths. Riding more technical terrain will mean Jimmy gets fitter over the rougher stuff, but that doesn’t mean that he should necessarily push it here when he’s trying to go fast. He’s actually better playing to his strengths of being a fit rider by getting through the technical terrain clean, and putting all his efforts into the more physical sections. If he goes hard everywhere then he won’t have an advantage on the pedally sections. If he concentrates on riding smooth and carrying speed through the rougher stuff, then he’ll emerge out onto the more open ground with loads of energy spare and will be able to do some real damage.
Going between these different pacing zones will mean that you can play to your strengths and save your energy for where it really matters. It will take a lot of confidence to trust a tactical game plan like this, but it will keep you centred and calm even when the clock is ticking.
Go for it! This is open ground where you can invest a lot of physical energy because you know that it will have a huge impact. You’re getting from A to B in the least amount of time possible.
Keep it steady. This is where you want to carry speed by being smooth on the way in, and carrying speed on the way out. You can still pedal here but keep it short. You’re trying to ride by using your head.
Back off. Typically steeper and more natural features, this is a part of the trail where you want to be neat and tidy. Concentrate on wide lines into turns, tidy braking zones, and riding with control.
If you’re trying to go faster then it’s always about the exit. No matter what kind of obstacle or feature you’re trying to break down, always ask yourself where the trail goes on the way out. The steeper the terrain the better the acceleration you’ll have as you leave, so the more patient you can be on the way in. Remember, there’s no point in slapping it up the inside and pedalling like a maniac on the way out. You might be able to do one or two corners like this, but after your heart rate catches up with you you’ll be burst. Set up patiently and exit off the brakes. That way if you do pedal you’re doing it on the straight and when you’re already up to speed. A good way of testing this is to try doing whole trails without pedalling. Get into the habit of pumping rolling features and you’ll be amazed by how much energy you can save. Jimmy was getting frustrated that the only way he could keep up with me was to pedal frantically and raise his heart rate. Once I explained what I was doing though it started to make sense to him.
Control the controllables
This is another one that Jimmy was pretty good at. There are a lot of things that are under your control and a lot more that are completely out of your control. Some really common mistakes that riders make when they try and go faster is to start thinking about things that they have absolutely no control over. The weather, the tack, or other riders are the most common ones. You have no control over what other people are doing, so don’t waste any time thinking about them. Instead ask yourself if there’s anything that you can change. This might be sticking to your plan, or focussing on a particular aspect of your technique, or even thinking about your line choice. Just make sure that if you’re spending time thinking abut it then it’s something that you can influence. Jimmy is used to doing this in a situation that’s more familiar to him, but as soon as we talked about it in an off road context he totally got it.
A great way of protecting yourself mentally in a competitive environment is to know the difference between Process Based Goals and Outcome Based Goals. An outcome is something like the overall result. You can race a whole weekend and do loads of things well, but if you finish outside the top fifty then you might feel like your whole weekend was a waste of time. With this frame of mind you’ll only be satisfied if you’re getting the results. Instead break your ride down into processes that are under your control. Bike set up, tyre choice, body position, braking zones, line choice, pacing zones… These are all things that you have absolute control over so make them your goals for any ride. At the end of a weekend you can break down your processes into the ones that you did well and the ones that you could still improve on. This should determine the things you can work on for next time. Do enough of the processes well and the results will take care of themselves.
Game plan: have a plan!
Have a plan and stick to it. This might be to work on a particular weakness, or even just to just stick to a strategy when you’re trying to keep up with a mate. Whatever you do don’t get sucked into the frantic trap of trying to go fast. Save your energy for the places where it’s going to make the biggest impact, and get through the technical sections clean. Remember: go hard where it’s easy, and easy where it’s hard. Going fast is about being confident, and your confidence will come from control.