Deliberate typo. Geddit?
Loose, steep descents and tight corner can throw you a curveball but knowing how to play them is as easy as moving your knees and hips.
Words by Andy Barlow
We’re going to give you specific techniques and tricks that will allow you to push your technical ability whilst feeling like you still have control and time to react. After all, when you’re riding on a steep natural trail you should feel like you have the same amount of control as you do on a mellow trail centre… well, most of the time.
We’re going to give you a few techniques to think about first that will allow you to make a much smoother transition to the more threatening trails. As usual, we’ll encourage you to go out armed with your purposeful practice and really think about your body shape and mindset as you’re riding. Follow these tips and you’ll be able to make much faster progress without exposing yourself to any more risk.
A atrong riding position
The whole world of modern mountain biking centres around having a strong neutral riding position. This is the go-to shape that you make when you’re not thinking about it. Imagine that making this shape puts you in the centre of a circle or sphere. The outer perimeter is your maximum range of motion, and and you ride over obstacles features on the trail you should always come back to that neutral centre.
Heels down, knees straight, elbows out, head up. You should be able to bounce your rear suspension by flexing your ankles only. Not by bending your knees. The more you get into the habit of having your hips high and your head low, the quicker you’ll be able to progress. Remember, with your bum high and your elbows out, you’ll be making a much wider footprint on the trail. Perfect for modern bikes with longer wheel-bases and slack angles. This is just your starting position, but if you always come back to this then you’ll have maximum range of motion in any direction.
What we find is that as riders focus more on the trail in front of them, the less they focus on their position. They end up making a shape that is miles away from their good, solid neutral riding position, and they don’t even know it. Most riders will typically drift back with their arms almost straight and their knees bent, and they’re now not able to move any further in that direction. This is what causes the top-heavy, limited, off balance wobble that puts so many riders off.
Do the opposite
The correct thing to do in these ‘oh crap’ moments is to bend your arms and knees and get closer to the bike. Try and keep that wide footprint we mentioned earlier, but this time have it much closer to your bike. This will allow you so much more range of motion because as your wheels slide around underneath you you’ll have the reach with both your arms and legs to keep your body position neutral. Your footprint should be above the bike at all times though – NOT behind it.
It’s all very well knowing that you shouldn’t brake over the more technical features like roots, rocks, and loos ground, but if this is the case then where should you brake? After all, once the trail gets steep you’re accelerating the whole way down. The trick here is to balance the acceleration with the amount of traction that’s available to you. Brake more where you have it, and less when you don’t. You’re not really braking to slow down here, you’re braking so you don’t speed up. Get the balance for braking versus gradient right here and it will feel like you have the pace to ride with control, even though you’re going quicker than you think.
Time to relax
A large part of riding more demanding trails successfully is feeling like you still have the time to control the situation. If things are flying at you faster than you have time to react, then you’re doing something wrong. Take your time. As trails get steeper then your ability to accelerate will increase. Be confident that if you ride features and obstacles smooth, then you’ll be back up to speed in absolutely no time at all. If you try and go fast here then you’ll come undone. Take your time and really try and spot safe places on the trail where you have control. These are the places where you can do all your braking, steering, balance, or find grip to get back on line. As long as you allow a good range of motion to neutralise your body weight and keep balance on the technical stuff, you’ll be able to apply a deliberate strategy on the smoother features you can trust.
Actively and deliberately looking for grip will completely change the way to read a trail. Instead of looking to all the places where you will lose control, try staying low and neutralising your body weight over the rough stuff, then deliberately pushing into the places where you can trust the grip. Grip Points are the places where you’ll be able to brake, change direction, regain balance and gain confidence. If you train yourself to look for them then the more challenging aspects of a trail will fade out and become irrelevant. You won’t even notice the things that used to put you off because you’ll be going from one place where you have grip, to another. Remember, look for the Grip Points.
As you start to rely on your neutral riding position, and get better at using your lower half to balance, you can start thinking about turning with your hips. What you’re basically trying to do here is line your body up with where you want to go on the exit. The trick here would be to see the grip point on the way in to a change of direction, and as you lower yourself to the bike getting ready to do the push to apply grip, turn your hips slightly so that you now line up with the way out. It means that as you push and enjoy more traction because you’ll be heavy on the trail right where you need it, but you’ll also be facing the way you need to be to make a speedy get away. You’re basically trying to line your body up with something that’s in front of you. Look for it in the top riders. They all line their knees and hips up with the exit while they’re still on the way in.
Get yourself onto YouTube or Red Bull TV, and watch any rounds of the UCI World Cup Downhill or Enduro World Series. Look at the way the top riders balance. They don’t throw their upper bodies around like riders did in the 1990’s. They keep their upper body solid, and allow bars come directly to them – never really moving sideways. What they do to balance instead is throw their knees out and do all the balance with their hips and legs. Look at the DH round from Croatia recently. Those riders were basically riding in straight lines through a few sections, but they were doing it over a surface that was throwing them all over the place. Most of the field kept their upper bodies lined up with the bike and the trail, and did all the balance with their knees. This allows them to keep a neutral riding position even on the most harsh and unpredictable of surfaces.
This month’s homework
Pick a trail that you know well but is right on the limit of what you’re comfortable riding. We’re going to suggest that you ride it three times, so one where you can loop back up to the top easily is probably best. First run down just look for lines and get a feel for the conditions. Make a mental note about where you can be off the brakes and where you need to slow down on the way into more challenging sections. Second run, try and hit your lines. Don’t rush it. You’re looking to just tick boxes the whole way down. It’s highly unlikely you’ll tick them all, so on the third run don’t try and go faster, instead try and ride smoother. Getting into this way of pacing yourself and looking to ride with control will be the secret to progressing with confidence. Remember, Speed comes from confidence through control. The top riders may be taking chances, but at the heart of it all is loads of control. If you can ride with control, you’ll be confident. Then the speed will come but with no extra risk.