Solutions and Momentum Paths – Good Line Choice in Mountain Biking

There are three cool videos below that relate to good line choices in mountain biking.

But, first, a little something on the subject:

Reading the trail or track properly is arguably the most important aspect of riding a mountain bike fast and/or safely. This blog post focuses more on the Going Fast aspect of riding and racing and will appeal more to the higher level riders (where every little bit counts), but the newbies are still encouraged to follow along.

There’s a saying in racing, “The top riders are looking at a totally different track than everybody else.” Of course, it’s the same track, the best riders are just seeing it differently than the others. The best riders are seeing solutions while most riders are trying to avoid obstacles. . . again, same track. The best riders are seeing smooth and fast momentum paths and are then trying to find ways to maintain those momentum paths on the trail or track’s surface, while most riders are simply trying to ride the lines on the trail, and usually the main line (the People’s Line, as I like to jokingly call it) as fast as possible.

Unfortunately, the main lines on a trail are formed by the majority of riders. And, the majority of riders are doing what I call micro-managing the trail: simply dealing with what is directly in front of them . . . then what’s directly in front of them after that . . . then what’s directly in front of them after that . . . with no regard for where they need to be further down the trail. Therefore, the main lines are formed by and become an act of avoiding obstacles. Putting out fires. Damage control. When trail gets a bit gnarly, and gnarly obstacles appear, most riders are just in survival mode and trying to miss the big stuff.

Sound familiar?

Not a good way to ride the bike.

What we want to do is “macro-manage” the trail; treat our next line of sight as one piece of trail, set-up properly for obstacles, corners, etc. See our end-points and work off of smooth momentum paths that allow us to carry speed and reach the end of our line of sight in the least amount of time possible. See our solutions or blueprints, and then come back and work out the details and solutions through, around, or over obstacles in regards to where we need to end up. Often, this means doing the work early in order to get the payback further down the trail . . . but, you’ll never know where and when to do the work unless you’re able to look down the trail in the first place. (Of course, this does involve having a handle on other riding techniques which we cover thoroughly in camps.)

But, how do we do this? How do we know what to look for? How do we look ahead and find these momentum paths and solutions and and all the other crap I was talking about and still deal with all the danger that is right in front of our front tire and trying to kill us?

Well, that’s the type of thing that we cover extensively in camps and coaching sessions. We go waaaay deep down that Rabbit Hole. We look at how to properly read the trail in every situation that we encounter no matter what area of riding we may be focusing on. There is a segment in my coaching where we spend a couple hours focusing exclusively on the techniques of reading the trail or track.

Very, very few riders do this correctly.

Again, for beginners, you have to read the trail properly if you want to ride safely and feel comfort and control on a mountain bike. More advanced riders: you have to read the trail properly if you want to ride Actually-Fast (That means actually fast – not just faster than your slower friends).

Every Actually-Good rider knows that trail-vision is huge. There’s no way I’m going to attempt to cover the vision aspect of mountain bike riding via internet. Sign-up for a camp or coaching session and we’ll put in some quality time and I guarantee you’ll be blown away at the difference between doing this OK and doing it correctly.

In the meantime, check out the videos below of top riders doing it right.

 Video 1: The first rider (Ted Morton, the rider the camera is following) in this video takes a bunch of interesting and fast lines. He’s clearly seeing way down the trail and locating his end points, knowing where he needs to end up, and doing the work early in order to get there in the least amount of time possible. He also uses roots, rocks, etc. to bump-jump many many features, set-up for further down the trail, and to get backsides and good pumps off of all kinds of stuff.

Video 2: Skip to about 3:45 of this vid and watch these top riders rip this corner in the Aspen round of the EWS (Enduro World Series, the best professional enduro racers in the world). Everyone goes to the outside; some do it better than others, some set it up a little better, etc. . .but the last guy, in the last clip, Sam Hill – the winner of the race – goes to the inside of the corner. Notice his inside line that no one else took. No doubt, Hill was thinking in terms momentum paths and time and not blindly following the main line. The main line – the outside line that everyone but Hill took – did have a little banking to hold the riders in the turn. At one point, it probably was a smoother arc through the corner than the tight inside line. However, as the day wore on and more and more riders used the outside, the line got pushed out at the apex and “hooked.” Really, at this point of the race, the outside line is actually a sharper turn than going inside – riders are actually going back left and then turning right! Hill notices this and adapts, taking the sketchy, loose, inside line that is now actually better than the now blown-out main line. Hill is known for finding these sneaky lines that no one else sees. He’s definitely one of the best at reading a track. He’s also a two time Downhill World Champion (three time?) and now one of the top dudes in enduro racing.

Video 3: People are talking about this Downhill race run as possibly the best of all time (I’m still going with Danny Hart’s 2011 World Champs run, but whatever . . . C’mon! It’s World Champs! The huge whip at the end?!? C’mon!!!). Anyway . . . Because of the rain, the track is about twenty seconds slower than it was when dry in qualifying. In Gwinn’s race run, right off the bat the announcers are talking about his inside line choices and that he’s taking the “shortest way down the track.” Clearly, he’s adapting and thinking in terms of momentum paths and time – not simply trying to go as fast as possible down the main line. The track is obviously slower than it was when it was dry, so the line choices should change, right? It can definitely be argued that Gwinn won this race in the mental department by thinking outside the box, adapting . . . and reading the track better than the other riders.

 

 

Technique of the Week: Fenders

I guess this could be more of a “Tip of the Week” instead of Technique. But, still good stuff.

For some reason, I’ve never run fenders on my bikes. . . until now!

They looked a little goofy; I didn’t think I really needed one; and, honestly, I really didn’t think that that little piece of plastic was going to help much in keeping gunk outta my grill.

Way back in the day — just like everybody else, at that time — I did occasionally hack a Gatorade bottle in half and zip-tie it to the downtube at muddy downhill races. But, as far as the recent incarnations of fenders — those small, plastic little suckers; almost imperceptible on the bike; adhered to the fork brace/arch —  I’ve never messed around with them until recently.

It took about 50 feet into the trail, on a pretty wet day, and I was blown away at how well that little fender actually works.

The usual face splattering, muddy glasses, and the palatable taste of gritty dirt was pretty much nonexistent on that ride.

And, I’m sold on fenders!

It’s probably pretty easy to understand why a rider would go with a fender — especially if it works well — when it’s wet. But, I’ve also been loving the fender in dry conditions.

There have been countless times that I’ve had to pull to the side of the trail in order to dig a small rock or other type of trail debris out of my eyeball, even in the dry. Rocks coming off the front tire can have some pretty incredible velocity (the good ones will easily chip the paint of a frame). I’ve had plenty of rocks come off the front tire, rattle around in between my glasses and face for a bit, until finally finding a home in my eye. It sucks when that happens.

I’ve also — again, on quite a few occasions — had a rock come off the tire and hit me hard enough in a tooth that I had to give the ol’ tougue-swipe to make sure the tooth was still there.

Teeth aren’t cheap. Fenders are (only a few bucks).

And, to a small degree, the fender will protect your frame a bit.

Cheap, easy to put on the bike, and a remedy to the above annoyances. Pretty sure I’ll be rocking a fender from here on out on all of my bikes.

Definitely give a fender a try if you’ll be riding in conditions that will be even a little bit wet. And, I highly suggest leaving it on in the dry if the trail conditions are at all loose, providing sections the risk of catching flying debris of for the front tire.

 

 

The “Glass of Water” MTB Technique

Check out this video featuring many of today’s top professional Enduro and Downhill racers (and, yes, the following will apply to beginner, intermediate, etc., mtb riders):

Click on HERE for Video

Notice this: when things are going correctly, all of these riders have virtually no movement in their heads. Of course, they are moving down the track, but the momentum path of the head is smooth; there are no abrupt or jarring motions. Even when the bike is bouncing, pivoting, and sliding wildly, the head is moving through space in a calm and predictable manner, a smooth momentum path.

Enter the Glass o’ H20

In my MTB camps, I have students imagine that they have a glass of water duct taped to the top of their helmets. If they are doing things correctly while descending, this glass of water should not spill, it shouldn’t slosh around, the surface of the h20 should be calm and smooth. (Of course we don’t take this exactly literally. But after watching the video, you probably get the point.) 

Keeping the head — or control center of the body — calm is essential to descending on a mountain bike well in tough terrain. This is true to all speed oriented sports (and, with very rare exception, all athletics); watch motocross and supercross racers in the rough stuff; watch downhill and mogul skiers…check out some slow motion footage of a cheetah chasing a gazelle through the Serengeti on National Geographic (Gazelle? Antelope? Whatever…the fast, scared thing with the horns).

In all of the above examples, the top athletes — and big cats — will have That Calm Glass of Water. There are many reasons why this is essential .

Really, the calm glass of water is a result of doing all the other things properly — or extremely close to properly — while descending on the bike: particularly, body position and especially weight placement/distribution.

Here’s Where Things Get Good!

I have never met a rider who has a complete understanding of descending position, or the “attack position,” on the bike (and almost no one understands what I like to call weight placement and/or line of force, two very essential elements of MTB technique when it comes to riding well). This includes world cup downhillers and pro enduro racers. Often, top riders are doing many things correctly or very close (you don’t ride that well without doing most things very well). But, because they are unaware of what these things actually are, it is very easy for riders — even at these levels — to develop bad habits, to train ineffectively, to communicate improper techniques to others, as well as not being able to replicate what they were doing properly, when they were on there game, once they inevitably fall of that game a bit. (Often, that’s when they come to me!)

In other words, they would stand a way better chance of staying fast and going faster if they knew what they really needed to work on. Following this logic, even in the areas where they are pretty good, even these top riders could certainly improve.

For less experienced riders, knowing what’s up with riding means being able to ride more difficult trails, keeping up with your buddies, developing control and confidence, being more efficient.  These equate to being safer and faster, things we all want and need!

The Nuts and Bolts

The body is a kinetic chain. This couldn’t be more true when it comes to keeping the head balanced and stable while riding the bike (the Imaginary Glass of Water). If one area is off, that will permeate and reflect poorly in other areas. Often, this isn’t apparent in areas that are adjacent to one one another or local to where the problem becomes noticeable.

Example: I’ve worked with numerous riders that have complained of riding “tight” or “stiff.” The typical rider who is aware of this issue is usually fairly experienced. They know this is a problem not only because they are a student of the game, but because they’ve ridden way better in the past. When they were riding better, they were smooth and flowing instead instead of bouncing around (and spilling that glass of water!) and holding on for dear life .

This issue of being too stiff or rigid usually becomes noticeable in the head. The rider is bounced and jarred off balance and off line on the trail. Vision is difficult in the rough sections because of the jarring of the head (I call this “eye-ball jiggle” where it seems as if your eye-balls are going to jiggle out of your skull because of the successive and harsh impacts). Balance is way off because of the jarring of the vestibular system in the inner ear and lack of properly functioning vision resulting in the inability to define space (which essential for balance). The rider is pretty much out of control, simply trying not to crash, and doing damage-control rather than being proactive and looking to gain time on the trail or track. And, because the rider is fighting all of this, they become fatigued very quickly.

You do see the above mistakes in the video, especially on harsher than expected landings off of big drops (“head-slaps”) and when the rider gets the weight too far forward under braking, particularly in choppy braking bumps. Even though these are the top riders in the world, they still make mistakes.

When a rider develops this problem of unwanted head-jarring, they often simply try to keep their head still; they try to stay loose in their arms and upper body in order to absorb shock. Very often, they think they simply need to get into the gym and get stronger (This is soooooo common. And while strength can definitely be an asset, it alone will never remedy this particular problem caused by bad technique).

Enter the Feet

This problem almost always originates in the feet. Keeping the weight on the feet and keeping the line of force going through the bottom bracket (largely a function of weight placement and distribution) are huge in keeping the head still and that glass of water calm.

Example: Something as simple as dropping the rear heel more will initially place the weight of the rider slightly rearward and rotate the cranks slightly backwards. Initially, this isn’t good, however, as the bike impacts rocks and obstacles on the trail, it will essentially slow down because of these impacts. At this point, the rider’s line of force can no longer be vertical but it must now be angled downward from rear to front and through the bottom bracket of the bike (an imaginary line from the rider’s center of mass through the BB) in order to compensate for the forces of deceleration and keep the weight supported by the legs (the strongest muscle groups, and the natural suspension of the body — optimal Human Movement 101). Subsequently, now the body is able to absorb the impacts with the legs and retain an athletic position in order to provide for the most effective control of the bike.

The properly angled line of force (through the bb) will enable the bike to pivot and move around the bottom bracket and “float” through the rough sections – the way the bike is designed to work (it won’t pivot and float optimally over obstacles if the rider’s weight, or line of force, is either in front or behind the bb).

The above also results in keeping the rider’s weight off of the arms* and allows the arms to remain loose and supply while the core remains a stable and balanced platform.

All this because we dropped the rear heel a bit…

And bingo! This will aid tremendously in keep the head calm and stable. Drop the heel and it controls the head… Kinetic Chain.

There are, of course, other factors that will contribute to this — either positively or negatively — but the above is a nice big chunk of what really matters.

Symptoms to Cures

When a rider’s head is bouncing all over the place, I almost always immediately look to the rider’s rear heel and the angle of the cranks. The cranks will always want be to perpendicular to the riders line of force, and therefore, will be angled slightly rearward** when things are going good in the rough stuff . If the front foot is lower than the back foot and/or the rear heal is up, higher than the toe; that tells me that the rider’s weight is almost certainly in front of the bottom bracket, on the handlebars, arms, and front wheel. Now, the rider will be stiff and rigid in the arms, the bike won’t pivot and float optimally over obstacles further impeding it’s progress and robbing momentum… and that’s when that glass of water on the head goes bye-bye!

[In regards to the angle of the cranks: In the context of this article, the bike will be impacting obstacles and often the rider will be on the brakes, so deceleration forces of the bike need to be accounted for — the rear heel should be down, cranks should rotate slightly backwards, and the angle of the line of force should change from vertical to down from rear to front. If the bike is NOT DECELERATING AT A DIFFERENT RATE THAN THE RIDER — for instance on smooth or level trail, if the rider is off of the brakes, or perhaps if the rider is “pumping” an obstacle — then this rearward rotation of the cranks probably won’t apply.]

I really love this video. It shows pretty much all of the things that I coach being used at the highest level of the sport. It also disproves a lot of the bad technique that is being spread around as quality riding by all kinds of culprits. The “Glass of Water” is just one angle I plan on covering while using this vid as solid proof of solid technique.

Stay tuned, we’ll get back to this vid soon. I plan on getting a lot of milage out this puppy! Haha!

Check out the camp schedule here. Sign up! Bring a friend!

 

* Contrary to what you may hear in videos, from riding buddies, even from many pro riders — we can CAN NOT control the bike well if our weight is on our arms. I debunk this “weight the front wheel for control” myth immediately in camps.

** Unfortunately, many MTB coaches teach students to use the front foot as a “bracing foot” during braking. This results in the weight ending up on the front foot, in front of the bb, and, thus, the front of the bike (arms, bars, front wheel). This is not only terrible technique in terms of maintaining speed and momentum, but also quite dangerous.

 

 

 

 

MTB Chairlift Access Riding

Why should you clock some time with chairlift accessed MTB riding this summer?

Lot’s of reasons…

First, let me say that I’m just as guilty as anyone for not getting my butt up to the resorts these past couple years and getting some time in with good ol’ chairlift accessed downhill mountain bike riding.

Committing to making a living coaching MTB has, at best, severely limited my time at the races. This, combined with a borderline unhealthy addiction to motocross as my speed fix, has diminished my drive to get up to the hills and get on the lifts.

My excuses? Hey, I’m probably not going to get to race anyway, so who cares? And, I ride a ton of motocross these days, so my comfort level at speed, ability to process things at speed, and riding/control-fitness should be pretty dialed in when i need it on the MTB. Also, I ride trails a ton on my MTB; and, that, combined with the motocross should keep me sharp as a tack.

Right? Nope! Wrong…

Two awesome things that I RE-discoverred about lift access the other day:

It’s All About the Bike…

1) There’s no better way to dial in your ride for descending and/or control oriented technical riding than busting out huge amounts of vertical feet that only lift assisted riding can offer. Downhill bike, Trail-bike, XC bike…doesn’t matter…

After a whole day of riding and who-knows how many vertical feet of descending, I felt that finally — at the final run of the day — my new Yeti SB5.5 was about where I wanted it. I thought it was dialed coming into the day…

Wrong!…

Everything changed once I was able to get the bike up to speed and consistently ride there. No hikers. No riders coming up the trail in the other direction. Just endless terrain and gobs of time to play with settings. One after the other; tire pressures, sag adjustments, compression, rebound, bar height — and playing those off of one another — got tweaked and messed with until at the end of a long day, I was finally really close to where I wanted to be.

It would have taken weeks, if not months, if not ever, to get that amount of time, with that terrain, and with that consistency, to dial things in the way I was able to in one day.

It’s All About the Loose Nut Behind the Wheel…

Again, coming into my first Lift Day in quite sometime, I thought I felt pretty good on the bike. But I quickly discovered that though I had been riding a ton of MTB on normal trails, and riding lots of motocross, there’s no substitute for really riding mountain bikes fast if your goal is to ride mountain bikes fast.

First couple runs, I was waaaay off. I was sloppy. I was riding tight… At the end of the day?

Money!

I knew I was riding the best I have in probably in couple of years (since the last time I spent some decent time hitting the lifts).

And, again, there is no way I could have gotten that type of repetition, consistent speeds — while also on consistent and predictable terrain — from normal trail riding.

My comfort at higher speeds, ability to process, body position on bike, line choices… you name it, all jumped up a few notches by the end of the day. Huge gains in technical ability that just wouldn’t have happened without the stinkin’ chairlift…

Even ME? ChairLifts?… Yes, YOU!

Even if  you’re not into downhill, kinda freaked out about hairy terrain, whatever… I still can’t encourage you enough to give a day of lift access a shot.

Almost all resorts have very easy trails in addition to nastier ones. You can usually rent protective gear (I highly recommend a full-face helmet and knee protection at minimum — even if you are “taking in easy”). And, if you desire, you can usually rent bikes. Although any modern trail bike will be adequate for all but the real gnarly trails at resorts these days.

Obviously if you’re a gravity rider, lifts area no-brainer. But, even if you’re into XC, endurance… maybe just into having fun and being more competent and safe on the bike, there’s no better way to get the time and repetition to dial in your descending skills and techniques than lift access.

Get up there!

 

MTB Pedals: Clipless Pedals vs Flat Pedals

Mountain Bike Pedals: Clipless Pedals vs Flat Pedals (or Platform Pedals) and what to look for in a flat pedal

Without stirring up the clipped-in versus not clipped-in pedal debate a whole bunch, I’m going to shed some light on proper set-up and favorable shoe/pedal/cleat combinations for each, along with a few tips and tricks to get the most out of each set-up.

Well … what the heck, here’s my two cents on the “clipped” vs “no clips” great debate:

Guess what? Neither one is better! Each set-up has its advantages and disadvantages. Really, if you want to become the most well rounded and competent rider possible, get comfortable on both types of pedals. I’ve learned very important things (possibly, the most important things in controlling the bike!) riding flat pedals and transferred it over to riding clipless pedals, and, there’s a good chance I never would have learned the significance of these techniques had I ridden clipless pedals exclusively – and vice versa. Currently, I do switch back and forth between clipless and flat pedals.

Try out the other set-up! You’ll learn a thing or two about your riding and develop some technique that you otherwise will not!

O.K., first “non” clipped pedals, otherwise known as platforms or flats:

Too often I see my students (and other riders) riding with sub-par, junk for pedals. Pedal pressure is the most important element of controlling your bike. If you don’t have an excellent relationship between your bike and your feet, you’re at a major disadvantage when it comes to trying to ride the thing. You absolutely do not want to use cheap plastic pedals such as the kind that come with toe-straps with the straps simply removed. They have no traction and small platforms and are really quite dangerous. You also want to steer clear of cheap metal-cage pedals. Flat pedal technology has come a long way in recent years. A few years ago there were only a handful of quality flat pedal choices out there. Now, the choices in great flat pedals are darn near infinite!

The first thing you want to look for is a very thin pedal, for a few reasons.

Thin Pedal MTB InstructionFirst, the pedal has less of a chance of “rolling over” under your foot. What’s rolling over? Picture this: let’s say you’re looking at your bike from the side, and let’s say your pedal is actually a 4”x4” square block of wood with the pedal axle right down the center. If you sit on your bike and hold the brakes so it can’t move, place your foot on the block (pedal) and push your foot forward in its relationship with the bike (without moving the pedal or rotating the cranks), because your foot is so far away from the axle (in this case, about two inches), in other words, because the pedal is so “tall”, the pedal itself will eventually rotate and “roll over” under your foot. As you can imagine, this would be no good if it happened while you were riding. Rolling a pedal over usually happens when a rider gets out of position on the bike and doesn’t have enough weight on his/her feet, especially while braking, because the bike (and the pedal) wants to slow down or stop, but the rider (because of inertia) wants to keep moving forward. Do you have a tough time staying smooth on the descents, want to learn how to be smooth by getting lower on your bike and keeping your weight on your feet? Get on some flat pedals, they’ll force you to do this correctly!

A thin pedal also has more clearance from obstacles on the trail then a thicker one. An eighth and especially a quarter of an inch, is a huge deal when it comes to smacking pedals on rocks, logs, whatever, and can easily mean the difference between a small, manageable error, and a crash.

Thin pedals also put your center of gravity closer to the ground. Who cares? It’s only a quarter of an inch? Your feet are the most important aspect in controlling your bike. They’re tied into the balance sensors of your body. Ever wore a pair of shoes and then got another pair of shoes that are just a bit thicker? You notice this instantly. Combine this with the fact that a tall or thick pedal stands a better chance of hanging up on obstacles and rolling over and all of a sudden I’m not feeling so great about my pedal choice with a thick pedal and I’m not riding very confidently. Ever hear a top rider complain that they hate the pedals that they are riding? Nope? Know why? Because they won’t be riding them for very long and definitely not when it counts. Look closely, and you’ll see plenty of riders who are sponsored buy a certain company while riding another companies pedals, risking losing a nice chunk of money and definitely upsetting a few people in the process. It’s that big of a deal!

Thicker quality flat pedals also have a parallelogram shape (viewed from the side) to help the pedal to rotate into position under the rider’s foot in case the rider happens to step on the “edge” of the pedal (vertical front or back of the pedal).

Let’s talk pedal pins! These are the pins that stick up out of the pedals and stick into your shoe, providing traction.

Short pedal pins allow for an easier removal of the foot from the pedal and they don’t mess up your shins quite as bad WHEN you rake them across your legs. Often BMX riders will ride short pins and also fewer pins because they need to remove their feet from the pedals, slide them around and re-adjust, or just plain get off of the bike in a hurry (eject). Ever see a hard-core BMXer’s shins? Not pretty …

Nice long pedal pins keep your feet in place. With long pins and a good shoe (discussed below) your foot is pretty much locked in. There’s no siding around or re-adjusting. Your foot is planted on the pedal and it won’t move unless you get all of your weight up and off of the pedal. Yes, they do a number on any type of soft fleshy tissue that they come in contact with, but the chances of “slipping” a pedal with a proper shoe and a proper pedal with long pins is drastically limited.

How ’bout shoes?

5.10 Shoes for Mountain BikingThe shoe company, 5.10 is the industry standard in quality flat pedal shoes. They use a super sticky and soft rubber for their soles and an awesome pattern for traction. They have numerous models from street shoes to full Downhill shoes with padding and reinforcement in all the important places. Another not so bad choice is your typical “skate” shoe like Vans, DC, Etnies, etc. These shoes are also designed with fairly soft, wide, broad soles for sticking to skateboards and BMX pedals. The sole on all these shoes is also thin so that your foot is as close as possible to whatever it is that you’re standing on and trying to maneuver.

Stay away from running shoes. These are designed to minimize impact, not stick to pedals. Often these shoes have large lugs for traction (trail running shoes) and, often, sections in the soles of these shoes are removed by design to help enhance their purpose – which again, isn’t to stick to pedals – obviously, your pedals won’t stick to a section of your shoe’s sole if it isn’t even there. These shoes also have quite thick soles – especially trail running shoes – that put you at a greater distance from the pedal.

… and they don’t look nearly as cool!

Anyway, check back soon for the “clipless pedals” version of this article (Part 2). Put some serious thought into learning to ride flat pedals if you haven’t already done so … even if you are a “Clipped-in for life” rider.