Trials to trails

Take a leaf out of Chris Akrigg’s book to see how approaching singletrack from a trials perspective can improve the trails and your technique.

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Trails To Trails

Words and photos: Sim Mainey

I was stuck in a rut. This isn’t the start of some angst-ridden, soul-searching story, or a metaphor for something, I was actually just stuck in a rut. It was one of those trails where you couldn’t not be in a rut, I was just in the wrong one and thanks to a series of poor line choices both my wheels were 20cm deep in a slot just a little wider than my tyres. As the groove started to get deeper my pedals edged ever closer to grounding me out. With one well timed and executed bunny hop I could escape out of this shrinking and sinking rut and land in the wider line running parallel. Easy in theory, the practice doesn’t go quite so well.

Hosing mud from the bike for what seemed like the umpteenth time in a month and trying to ignore the pain from where the stem had wedged itself into my inner thigh, I figure I needed to maybe look at working on what a coach would call ‘core skills’ or go ‘back to basics’. Or what I call ‘getting better at riding by dicking about on my bike’.

Dicking about in the woods is the foundation of mountain biking. No one gets into riding in the dirt by throwing a leg over a bike and heading out on a 50km death march – well, maybe some do but chances are they go off mountain biking pretty quickly. For most of us our formative first pedal strokes off-road were in small pockets of disused land. Woods, the bits of the park that the dog walkers didn’t venture in to, industrial wasteland that was being slowly reclaimed by nature – quiet, hidden bits of the landscape near enough to home that you could get away without carrying spares but far away from judgemental or disapproving eyes. The key was finding somewhere with features. A large kerb to drop off, a mound of earth to ride up, a steep roll-in to scare yourself on, a corner to skid round or, the ultimate goal, a jump to get two wheels off the ground. You never forget your first air.

A slow pace offers the space to pay attention to traction

Smiles over miles

It’s too easy to move on from this riding, to aim higher and further and judge rides based on the numbers a GPS spews out at the end of a day in the saddle. After all, miles equal smiles and skids are for kids. Aren’t they?

Someone who might disagree with that is Chris Akrigg. For those not familiar with the talented Mr Akrigg I can recommend putting aside 40 minutes of your time and watching his recent film ‘From There To Here’ that chronicles his life story (so far).

Angled rocks never present the same challenge twice

Chris’s background is in trials riding but to say he was just a trials rider is to sell him short, he’s probably one of the most talented and rounded riders in the world, able to make any kind bike go wherever he wants – usually somewhere it has no right being. While trials has a reputation of being slow speed precision riding that mostly involves hopping about on the back wheel Chris’s style is more aggressive and dynamic. His brand of riding uses speed less as a way of carrying him over obstacles but more so that he can do it quicker and get onto the next section. This speed, flow and ability to cover ground (or rocks, or trees, or walls…), most of the time on a full suspension trail bike, is what really appeals to mountain bikers and what makes it relatable. A large stretch of the imagination for most of us maybe but not wholly unrealistic. He’s the kind of rider most us aspire to be.

Slippery steps call for careful calibration

While I don’t think I’m ever likely to have an ounce of Chris’ talent I do think there’s something even an average rider like myself can learn from his ability to take on whatever is in front of him and get out of that rut. To do that I decide to trade in a big day in the saddle for one that involves fewer miles and more challenges.

Boulder and wiser

Figuring it’d be handy to have some spotters to give me a hand when I inevitably take a tumble I rope in Dan and Matt Stuttard to come along. Both of them have motorcycle trials bikes so have a bit of a head start on me when it comes to getting a bike over rocks and Matt is a professional Enduro racer, so doesn’t really struggle in the speed or talent department.

Dan and Matt are on the look out for inviting obstacles

As it happens Chris doesn’t live too far away from me in (sometimes) sunny West Yorkshire, so it’s pretty easy to get a few pointers on the kind of terrain to seek out – namely big slabs of grippy grit stone. We know just the place.

As with trying anything new or difficult the hardest part is starting. Peering over the edge of a gritstone boulder Matt seems confident it’ll go. In theory this is supposed to be a nice warm up into some trials style riding, in practice it feels a little scary. The move boils down to a short run up, a yank of the bars to get onto the boulder, a moment to steady yourself before another yank of the bars to drop off the other side. The problem for me is speed. Going slow feels like it will be easier and safer but the slower I go the more it relies on having perfect technique. I’m a long way from that so I add some speed to act as a crutch. Doing so requires a dose of brave pills and some mild bullying from Dan and Matt but it works. Speed is my friend.

Let out some air to get in some grip

Chances are if I’d come across something similar on the trail I’d probably have found a way around rather than over the boulder, promising that I’d come back to attempt it another day and carrying on with my ride. By actually making this the ride I’m forced to do it, to work on my technique and instead of deferring the problem dealing with it. Problem is an apt term to use. When climbers talk of a problem on a route it’s not a negative. A problem means a challenging section, a crux move, a puzzle that needs solving to allow them to move up and onwards. In climbing the ability to solve the problem can ultimately be the difference between completing a climb and abseiling off defeated, on a bike we usually just get off and push around the problem.

When the going gets lumpy, flats are a must

The grinding of pedal pins and chainrings, the howl of brakes and the rip of rubber on stone – we might not be packing in the miles but our bikes are taking a beating. The sound of aluminium gouging rock and visa versa brings a tear to the eye but not as much as that of cloth and skin on the same rocks. The penalty for failure on this kind of riding is relatively high and the failure rate is high.

Tyre pressures are lowered to increase grip, then raised again to stop rims clanging off sharp edges. Slowing things down focuses the mind on each action and the feel coming through contact points. Things we wouldn’t even notice if we were just riding like the precise biting point of brake pads on discs, the squirm of tyres and the amount of crank rotation needed before the freehub engages all become very apparent. Small things can make a big difference to how comfortable we are with our bikes.

After conquering the boulder we head off along a trail that puts our trials skills to the test. A short stretch of packhorse trail pulls out of a steep sided valley, testing legs and balance. Patches of frost and green slime mean power has to be delivered to the pedals with control and the front end wrestled over wheel-stopping steps. Getting to the top relies on a blend of brute force and finesse. The trail flattens out and follows the edge of where the moorland meets the valley. Narrow and littered with rocks which switch between adding to the flow and ruining it, it’s a proper workout.

There’s an obvious line to follow but it’s not necessarily the fastest, or in some cases easiest. We spend some time looking at the obvious and not so obvious options that will get us from here to there. The aim of course is to keep momentum and carry on down the trail without stopping or crashing. A pattern start to form. Get through a section with dabbing a foot, then trying again and adding some speed, followed by a bit of style and then joining it on to the next section. Completing one small move is satisfying enough but linking a series of complicated moves together is a real thrill. It’s a reminder that mountain bikes are versatile tools. They may well be designed to scale lofty heights and take you to far flung places but ultimately they are about getting from here to there, over whatever might be between the two.

Baby steps are the key to trials mastery

Short but sweet

Buoyed by our newfound skills and success and keen to ramp things up a bit we wander off the beaten track. A collection of large rocks, slabs, lumps and bumps that previously looked intimidating now look full of potential. Wandering around on foot and trying to piece together a line between them all nothing seems obvious to me. Matt on the other hand has something in mind. Dropping off a rock onto a downslope he builds enough speed to hit a small rock angled at 45º and style his way out with a jump. Once he’s done it it seems obvious. As with most forms of riding the better you are the more options you see, and as you get better those options become more doable. It’s also a reminder that riding with people who are better than you can only make you better in the long term – if a little bruised in the short term.

Without a rear tyre sponsor, Matt has taken to endo-ing everywhere

It might all seem like just wasting time, playing around and going nowhere when we could be getting some distance logged in the legs but it doesn’t take long to feel the benefit, not so much in terms of technique but more in the way the eye perceives obstacles and risk. The downhill back to the van is one I’ve ridden plenty of times before, but with a better appreciation for what my bike and I can do there’s a subtle change in the way I ride it. I find myself in a rut, again, but instead of jack knifing across it I hop out of it and even manage to then pop out of a small compression with a modest tweak of the bars. Not bad progress from a day of ‘just’ dicking about.

Dan has kept his GPS running all day and announces we’ve done a whole five miles but swapping worthy miles for a session of progression is a trade we’re happy to have made. We’ve also stuck mostly to rocky trails, helping avoid cutting up the rain softened trails and kept mostly clean in the process even if our chainrings, crank arms and rims might have picked up a few more scuffs.

Mountain biking is a gloriously varied sport and it is easy to get stuck in a rut (I am talking metaphorically now), to see it as an activity that requires it to be taken seriously. Getting back to the bits of riding that originally got us hooked is a worthwhile way of remembering why we ride bikes as well as helping us to progress further.