Experienced riders can be a goldmine of advice if you're new to the sport... here's how to sift out the genuine nuggets.
Words: Andy Barlow Photos: Andy McCandlish
Advice for riding faster or handling more technical trails is everywhere. YouTube videos, forums, books, magazine articles even. Even on a group ride with friends, as soon as you mention dabbing a foot someone will have the perfect solution that will make it much easier next time. Phrases like “Keep your weight back”, and “Drop your outside foot” are standard. They tend to sound like the right things to do at the time, but somehow don’t seem to work when you try them on the trail.
Over the next few issues we’re going to look at what your fellow riders mean by these common pieces of advice, and how most of the message is being lost in translation. We’ll look at each one in a bit more context, and hopefully allow you to be able to communicate better yourself, so that the next time you want to give someone advice you can say something more useful. That way you can get a better understanding of what you are actually doing to stay in control on technical trails yourself, and hopefully bring your riding buddies on a bit quicker too.
Out of context
The biggest thing wrong with most of the riding advice out there is that it isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just given out of context. You have to remember that a lot of your riding has become automatic over the years, so things like your body position, or how your weight is distributed, are things that you don’t necessarily have to think about any more. With these more important components of your riding automated, the things that you’re now thinking about aren’t necessarily going to be that helpful to someone with less experience.
“Brake where it’s safe”
If a friend of yours says that they are having trouble slipping on some roots on a trail, you might be tempted to say something like “Just stay off the brakes”. After all, you don’t brake while you’re riding over the roots do you? The problem is that there’s more to it than that. In order to stay in control over slippery roots, you have to slow down on the way in, you have to get close to the bike, you have to drive your weight against the grippy bits, you have to go lighter over the more slippery features… There’s loads going on that you might not even realise.
On top of that, the way that “Stay off the brakes” is received, is that the less experienced rider doesn’t know that they need to stay low or slow down on the way in. They do the easy stuff at a comfortable speed and arrive at the tricky section way too fast having missed the opportunity to scrub momentum or set up. Only now on top of that they’re thinking about staying off the brakes. Inevitably their body position starts to look tight and stressed, and at the slightest movement they do the only thing that’s going to make them feel safe – they pull the brakes. Hopefully they stay on board, but at the next opportunity they chat with you about what happened and the advice just starts all over again. If you really want to help them you’d actually be better saying “Do all your braking where it’s safe”. But unless you are a regular reader of these articles you most likely don’t think about your riding this way, because slowing down on the way in has become automatic for you.
Classic advice No1: keep your weight back (on steep trails)
Whenever trails get steep, or there are rollable drops ahead of you, the advice of keeping your weight back pops up. This is understandable, and it kind of makes sense. If you look at any capable rider negotiating a drop off on a steep trail there is a moment when they are off the back of their bikes and their arms are at full extension.
The problem with thinking about steep trails this way is that the image of the rider being off the back is only a tiny snapshot of a much wider range of motion. They might look like they are hanging off the back at the worst part of the drop, but they are setting up that maximum extension by doing something completely different on the way in.
Riding off the back seems to make sense initially. It’s defensive, and will feel like you are so far away from the danger that it must be safer. The problem with riding this way is that it causes rotation. If your arms are at full extension, and you are already off the back of your bike, as your front wheel falls into anything you will get violently pulled forward. If this happens on a big enough drop, or a steep enough trail, then that sudden forward rotation will be enough to send you over the handlebars.
The correct technique
When it comes to steep trails or rollable drops the correct way of approaching them is to lower your body towards the bike. Doing this on the way in will allow you a much bigger range of motion, and mean that as your front wheel repeatedly drops into holes, you have enough room in your arms to fill that space and keep your bodyweight neutral. There might be moments when you are at full extension, but remember that it’s only a fraction of a second, and that as soon as your rear wheel rolls off the same drop you will be back in a composed, low, ready position with your arms bent, your head over the stem, and your torso close to the bike. Riding this way will mean you feel like your bodyweight is neutral, and you have more time to see and react effectively to the next obstacle; lowering your perceived exertion.
The correct way of riding steep trails and rollable drops is to think about how to neutralise the forward rotation that a more rigid body position exaggerates. The next time someone says “keep your weight back,” think: “Stay low and keep your weight neutral.”
Classic advice No2: pull on the bars (on fast drops)
If drops are too large to roll, or if you are going too fast to want to drop your front wheel off the end, then a much better way of controlling them is to keep your bike level as you ride off them. After all, you are trying to keep both of your wheels level in the air and avoid any forward rotation that might be caused if your front wheel falls first. This can be done in a few different ways and the most common way of explaining this is when riders say, “Pull on the bars”. While this quick tug might work on a fairly straight forward drop off at speed, it has its limitations and won’t work everywhere, meaning that you get caught short on anything but a fast, easy drop in a straight line.
If you come into a simple, faster drop where you don’t want your front wheel to fall first, then in theory all you need to do is pull on the bars. After all this quick movement will keep your front wheel from dropping and mean that you can let your rear wheel clear the feature before both wheels come down together. The problem is when the drop is complicated, or when you aren’t going fast enough, or even if the drop is above a certain height. Add any complication to the trail and the technique of pulling on the bars will fall short, and most likely cause more rotation! What you need to do is keep the bike level by driving it from underneath.
The correct technique
A much better way of neutralising that front wheel, and keep it level in the air longer, is to master manuals. The further you can manual, the longer you can keep your front wheel up, meaning you can handle bigger or more awkward drops with balance and precision. This all comes down to starting low in the first place, then throwing your weight back.
This sudden shift of bodyweight off the back of the bike is often confused with a rider pulling on the bars, but in fact it’s the complete opposite – they’re pushing the bars away from them. Keeping your weight this low and off the back will counterbalance the front of your bike meaning you can use your bent legs to actually drive the front end up from underneath. Practise this on the flat and you can use the exact same technique on the most awkward of drops on the trail.
The correct way to keep your wheels level off a fast drop is to start low, swing your weight back, and push from underneath with your legs. So the next time someone says “pull on the bars” to get over something chunky, think: “Get low, swing back, and push with your legs.”