Looking to boost your confidence and control when the terrain heads down and starts to get steep? Andy Barlow from Dirt School breaks down the essential techniques you need to master gravity.
Riding on steep and technical trails is always a combination of managing grip, body position, balance and confidence…all of which can seem in short supply when you’re peering over the edge of something steep. And it can feel a whole lot worse when it’s dark, wet and slippery on top.
So how do some riders make it look easy despite the conditions? And where are they finding all of their control? This guide will take you through how to stay composed and confident on the steepest of trails, will give you some useful skills that will change the way you think about technical or poor-weather riding, and a solid game plan to work through to improve your game when it comes to the steep stuff.
Step one: focus on body position and range of motion
It’s so counter intuitive, but every time you feel yourself start to get intimidated by the lack of grip we want you to focus on lowering your body towards the bike. This additional bend in your arms and legs will give you so much more room to move, and will make all the difference between you sliding out of control, and allowing the bike to move around underneath you without it taking you off balance.
Stable body position
Modern bikes are incredible. The angles, wheel sizes and suspension all add up to be incredibly stable on the trail. In order to get the most out of this platform you need to make a particular shape.
Think of your head, shoulders and whole upper body being attached to the handlebars and front end of your bike. Your head over the stem, back parallel with your top tube, and elbows wide.
When you turn the bars your whole body should follow. While it’s okay to move with the contours of the trail, this strong stance should be locked into the stability of the front of your bike. It’s tricky to do sometimes, but the closer you stay to this shape the easier a trail will feel.
Use your knees for balance
If your upper body is attached to the front of your bike, and you’re focussing on keeping that stance firm and connected, then you’re going to have to think about an alternative way to handle all the minor imbalances that the trail throws at you.
This is where your knees come into play. The best way to do this is to bend your knees to lower yourself, but use your glutes to separate your knees slightly. Priming your knees to be more open by activating your glutes will mean that as soon as any movement is needed to retain balance or let the bike move, your knee will be ready to respond.
This is the same as you already do with your shoulders and arms when you lean on the handlebars. If there is already tension there the right muscles will be ready for reaction.
The myth: keep your weight back
When it comes to riding steep trails one of the worst pieces of advice out there is to keep your weight back. It makes you ride defensively, puts all your weight over the back of your bike meaning that your front wheel will understeer, and it limits your range of motion so much that the slightest drop will be enough to plunge your weight forward into an uncontrollable rotation over the handlebars.
If you want advice on what to do with your weight on steep trails, then keep your weight completely neutral! You can achieve this by getting lower and creating enough room in your arms and legs to completely separate you from all of that movement on the trail. Even though your bike will continue to buck around underneath you, your body weight should remain neutral and composed.
Step 2: Practice on rolling drops
One of the best ways of perfecting your steep trail technique is to focus on what you do on rolling drops as part of a regular, much easier ride. Ideally you should be taking your normal riding position and lowering yourself towards the bike as you get closer to the drop. This is often counterintuitive as you might be tempted to move your weight back.
Be aware of this the next time you ride though and you can practise the correct technique as you go.
Focus on moving closer to your bike on the approach with your elbows and knees bent. This will open up so much more room to move that when your front wheel suddenly drops you have loads of room to fill the gap.
As your front wheel hits the ground it should feel like you had loads of room to fill the gap as it opened up, and that your head and bodyweight haven’t moved at all. You should feel completely neutral and ready to let your rear wheel drop and your legs to do the same and fill the gap as it opens up.
Focus on body position to catch and correct your mistakes
We can see why the “keep your weight back” advice exists. Clearly there’s a moment when your front wheel has hit the ground where your arms will feel straight and your bum is off the back of the bike. The trick is to not make that same locked out shape on the approach!
The control on an obstacle like this comes from creating the room to move on the way in. If you are off the back on the approach you won’t have anywhere to move to when the trail drops away. Get low on approach though, and you’ll have plenty of room to make this shape when it’s needed.
This is also true of steep trails. Keep constantly resetting to a low ready position with your head close to your stem and your elbows bent, and you’ll have the room to repeatedly neutralise your body weight.
Step 3: Braking zones and speed control
A great way of improving how much control and stability you have on steeper, technical or more natural trails is to be aware of where you are braking.
Every time you pull the brakes on two major things happen. First a lot of the grip that you can expect out of your tyres will now be used up in the process of slowing you down. Basically this means your tires will slip over things like roots, rocks, or loose ground a lot easier. Fairly obvious.
The second one is maybe less so, because every time you pull the brakes your arms have to go strong in order to support all of your body weight from lunging forward. You essentially go rigid. Do this on slippery terrain while you’re experiencing less grip and all of a sudden your bike is taking you off line and more importantly, off balance.
Fluidity and anticipation
In order to be able to rely on more grip at the tyre, and more flexibility with your arms, try braking before you get to something you don’t like the look of and deliberately staying low with your body, and off the brakes, as you roll over it.
Your bike will still move, but nowhere near as much as it would if you were braking. Your low position should be able to keep your body weight neutral, and your lack of braking will mean that you can rely on all that fluidity as something you can trust when the trail looks unpredictable.
Balance traction, speed, braking and gravity
It’s a lot easier to add speed to a steep section than take it away. All you have to do in order to go faster is stop using your brakes and you’ll accelerate. It’s a lot more difficult to take that momentum away once it’s started going. This is where the problem lies.
If you’re not braking on the rough, slippery or choppy sections of a trail, then you have to do all of your braking somewhere else. This is easy enough if the trail isn’t steep, or if you have good grip to work with, but it becomes a lot harder when the trail conditions are poor or you’re on something steeper.
You’re going to have to master your braking to a point where the instant you feel either of your wheels locking or sliding, you release them and let them settle down again. As soon as you feel that you’re on safer ground, you need to get back on the levers and make use of the available grip before all that instability starts again.
Accelerating through grip points
Balancing that grip on the brakes with how much you are accelerating is a whole learning curve, but one thing that will make it feel good is looking for the next available grip point. These are typically pockets or cambers in the trail where you can trust the grip.
To make the most of them you should have a low body on the way in, be off the brakes, and drive your weight into the trail with your legs. Doing this will ensure that you can make that change of direction as cleanly and as efficiently as possible. Link a few of these grip points together, and you’ll soon start trusting the process.
Remember that it’s easier to get back up to speed by driving against the grip point properly, but you can only do that by deliberately slowing up on the way in.
Step 4: Trust being off the brakes
Once you realise that braking is necessary on steep trails, but that it’s best done in order to either set up the fluidity, or to maximise grip points, then you can really start to lean into it.
Once you turn down into something like this, brake all the way leading into the turn so that you can limit that acceleration. This will be a balance between how much grip you have, and how much speed you can get away with carrying into the rest of the corner. As you turn, really focus on staying low so you have loads of leg room to push with, and let your knees and hips follow the front end of the bike.
Stay off the brakes and drive your weight against the corner by keeping your upper body connected with the bars, and straighten your legs. This push against the corner should generate more grip but you can always come off that push if the grip starts to fade.
Next time you ride…
The next time you are standing at the top facing a slippery or technical trail, think before you drop in about what skills you want to focus on. As soon as your front end starts slipping you’ll want to keep your weight back, so be ready to catch this and put your plan into action. With a little time spent working on your purposeful practice you can continue to progress through winter