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.

 

 

How to Lead a Mountain Bike Ride

How hard can it be to lead a mountain bike ride? All you have to do is make sure no one gets lost, no one gets hurt, and everybody has fun, right?

Unfortunately, people get lost, get hurt, and have terrible experiences on rides all the time. These mishaps are almost always preventable. There is a good argument stating that everyone should be responsible for themselves; however, if you’re the person in charge of the ride, the least you should probably do for your trusting riding buddies is put a little time and thought into what the ride will entail and make sure that the newbies survive and have a good time.

Some of these tips will seem obvious, some won’t. If you’re fairly new to riding, and haven’t lead many rides, then some of the following will be big eye openers. But, even if you’ve been riding for a while and have lead plenty of rides, there will be a few things below that you’re probably not considering.

401 thirteenIt doesn’t get a whole lot better than this!

 

Before we even get to the trail:

1) Screen the Back of the Pack

This is a pretty obvious one, but people end up on rides that they probably shouldn’t be on all the time. Often it’s a well-meaning friend who would like another riding buddy and simply wants spread the joy of MTB. Maybe the rider is enough of a newbie to not understand what they are getting themselves into. Maybe you’ve even been one of those unfortunate souls?

Let’s face it, having a person terrified, extremely humbled, overwhelmingly exhausted, etc., while doing something that is very new to them — and especially if said activity potentially carries a big penalty for mistakes — is a much better way to get that person to never ride a bike again rather than “hardening them the F up.”

Want to get someone stoked on riding? Get them on a ride that matches their ability and enthusiasm and allows them to have a blast, build some confidence, and have fun. Help them feel like a champ, not a chump.

If someone is going to be in way over their head on the ride and with the group, some gentle dissuasion is probably in everyone’s best interest. They’ll probably thank you down the road.

Getting "out there" is fun. But getting hurt, lost, caught off guard by the weather . . . can make things very not-fun really quick.Getting “out there” is fun. But getting hurt, lost, caught off guard by the weather . . . can make things very not-fun really quick. Be prepared, be smart, don’t die!

 

2) Screen the Front of the Pack

This one’s not as obvious, but is responsible for wrecking the day way more than it should. Example: your buddy is a beast of a rider, racer, all around super-fit animal, type-A personality. And although he’s a good guy, he’s been known to have a lack of patience and some questionable social skills. He decides that he’d like to jump in on a ride with you and a few buddies that are new to riding “just to get a little work out in.”  Is this dude going to be a gigantic jerk when things move very slowly compared to what he is used to? Obviously, the group is going to be quite slow and unfit relative to him, but they will probably also be unfamiliar with their bikes, equipment, riding clothing, maybe even transporting their bikes to and from the trail. Is he going to be in a huff all day with a bad attitude, killing the good vibes of the ride?

This happens all the time. Bad group dynamics 101. Perhaps politely explaining that this ride probably isn’t going to be a good fit for him is the best bet in this situation . . . and, for the more advanced riders reading this: don’t be That Guy!!

Once you’re actually at the trail:

3) Check Clothing

Does the group have decent rain jackets, hat, gloves, etc. in case the weather turns bad. Do they have adequate packs to carry the stuff, shed layers, etc. If not, are you carrying extra for the group?

Now, do you need to bring an extra ice axe and survival gear on a short ride if it’s 80 degrees and sunny with zero chance of changing weather? Probably not. But, a decent rain jacket is probably minimum in conditions any less than perfect.

As long as everything goes fine with the weather, extra clothing shouldn’t be needed. But, what if someone does get hurt, it takes hours to get off the trail, and it gets dark and cold?  What if you do get lost? And, rest assured, if you spend any amount of time riding MTB, especially in mountainous areas, you can count on getting rained on and waiting out storms. So, be prepared!

4) Check Equipment/Gear

Spare tubes? Multi-tools? One spare tube between a group of five is a recipe for long walk for somebody. You can almost always count on having to tune or tweak a bike here and there, so at least one set of adequate trail tools is a must. Tire pressure? A few folks will almost always be way out of the ballpark with tire pressure, especially in a group of newbies; so, a foot pump and gauge to use before you even leave the parking lot are a good idea. With rare exception, hand pumps take forever to actually inflate a tire; and why waste a CO2 if you don’t have to?

Do they have adequate bikes? (This is a good info to obtain, pre-ride, before you’re at the trail). You don’t need the most expensive, high-tech scoot in the local shop to get into MTB. But some specific types of bikes simply won’t cut it for other types of riding. If your chubby buddy wants to ride a fifteen year old, forty-five pound downhill bike on Saturday’s 40 mile death march because he’s decided now is the time to get in shape. Well . . . bad idea. Let’s get him to borrow a more adequate bike, rent, or find some other solution (and maybe a ride of that nature isn’t the best idea for an out of shape guy to get back into riding?). I don’t want to pedal a downhill bike 40 feet, much less 40 miles.

Take breaks and check on the crew; making sure everyone has enough food, water, energy, gumption . . . all very important factors in keeping the group safe and having fun.

Take breaks and check on the crew; making sure everyone has enough food, water, energy, gumption . . . all very important factors in keeping the group safe and having fun.

5) First Aid Kit

Hopefully you won’t need it. But, things happen. It should probably be your responsibility to carry the first aid kit. You can get however crazy you want with it, but you should at least have the basics for the type of injuries that most often occur on MTB rides when someone hits the deck. Also, if you do anything outdoors, a bit of knowledge of first aid is kind of a no-brainer. So if you don’t have any of the knowledge part, get some!

6) Directions and Maps

When it comes to shorter rides, especially when you’re never very far from civilization, you can use your phone to snap a picture of the trail map on the kiosk at the trailhead. This will usually work. Until your phone battery dies. Or, your phone gets soaked and it dies. Or, you break it. Also, counting on having cell service is never a good idea.

If you’re getting out there a bit, a good quality map, designed to hold up in tough conditions is a good idea. Most bike shops and/or outdoorsy stores will sell these. If you’re getting at all remote, be overly prepared. Have a real map . . . or two.

Why two maps? Because maybe your group will have to get separated for whatever reason. This is where clear directions, communication, and plans become very important. Do whatever you need to do, but make sure everyone knows where to meet up again. Make sure the plan is clear and at least one member of each party can trace the route and find the location(s) on the map.

This is actually a very crucial point when it comes to safety. Everybody assumes that everybody else knows where they are going when the group separates, and too often, they don’t. Take the time to BE SURE that both parties knows where they are and where they’re going. There are countless instances where things have gone seriously wrong in the outdoors, and simply taking the time to do this could have prevented bad things from happening.

7) Orientate Your Group

I always like to point out to the group where we’re at and where we’re going to be on the ride; point out ridge lines and valleys, “we’re going along that ridge, dropping down the other side and we’re going to come out way over there.” Have them set eyes on the features of the land and where they will be. Show them where the drainages are.

I don’t have the greatest sense of direction, myself. But if I’m consistently conscious about the features of the land, the direction that I’m riding, etc., then I’m fine. If you’re in any area where visibility is tough, a compass and knowing how to use it probably isn’t a bad idea.

Also, alert the group of particularly tough sections of trail, either climbs or descents, and maybe even slow or stop the group before these features so that no one gets a painful surprise.

8) The “Waiting Rule”

If your intention is to keep the group together, have an understanding within the group about how you’re going to wait at trail intersections. You could simply wait for the whole group; the first person waits until the last person gets there before anyone proceeds. The other one is the “ladder” technique. Each rider waits at the intersection until the following rider shows up before proceeding. MAKE SURE that everybody is clear on this, abides by this rule, and makes verbal communication before continuing down the trail. “I thought they saw me turn” is not OK!

9) “How’s everyone feeling?” Keep tabs on everyone’s energy levels, morale, etc. Be careful and aware of people trying to be a little tougher than they really are. When people are fatigued, that is when they are most likely to make mistakes and get hurt.

Before you leave the parking lot you should check that everyone has some trail food on the ride (you should carry extra). And for those that are hungover, skipped breakfast, etc., try to get them to eat and drink something. Most normal people are always a bit dehydrated. This isn’t a good way to start a ride.

Often on rides that are loops, there will be “points of no return.” In other words, once you pass this point, you have to do the full loop to get back to the start. There will also usually be “bail-out points” or trails that will offer short cuts back to the start.

Know where these points are, and be aware of the energy and moral of the riders in the group. But, be VERY careful in deciding whether it’s a good idea for the group to separate to allow some riders to opt out early. Often, just taking it real easy with lots of breaks is a better option then separating the group. Use the guidelines above and good ol’ common sense.

10) Post Ride Recovery Refreshments

At minimum, have a cooler full of ice-cold bevies waiting in the parking lot upon return. Better yet: have a local post-ride sushi, Mexican, or burger joint and beer-fest planned for the post ride recall (BS session). Make the plan and location known to the group before and during the ride. This feast will serve as the proverbial carrot helping everyone to push through those last few miles. Make sure this joint is accommodating to the volume and energy of endorphrin-buzzed mountain bikers swapping (perhaps slightly embellished) tales of gnarly descents, puke-educing climbs, close calls, and the inevitable proud comparisons of scabs and bruises.

11) Have Fun!

Cornering on a Mountain Bike?

Cornering on a mounatin bike.

“Jump for show; corner for dough”

Being able to turn your bike well is a huge asset to your riding. If speed, flow, and riding to the best of your ability is a concern, then cornering well is a must. And if you’re new to riding – a beginner, novice, intermediate – control and safety in the turns is something that, if you’re not already concerned with . . . you will be soon.

Am I going to break down all of cornering here, in the span of a few hundred words? No, of course, not! Not possible. But I will touch on some nuances of cornering and hopefully shed some light on many things that are overlooked when it comes to doing it right;. And, of course – no matter what level of rider you are – cornering well is about the human body working optimally in an athletic sense in harmony with the design of the bicycle.

 

Take a look at these photos:
Heather Park City

Richie Rude Leaned

AndyW_2016_7646 copy

Greg_Corner

Steph Corner

One is of 2-time, back to back current Enduro World Series Champ, Richie Rude. The others? Students of mine and myself. Point is, good cornering technique works at all levels.

One bummer that I see in MTB coaching is that cornering technique is always exclusively about what happens in the corner (I haven’t seen any exceptions) . Bummer, because the most important part of cornering is what happens before the corner. If you don’t read the trail correctly you’re already dead in the water. If you don’t set up properly in terms of body position, line choice, momentum management, proper braking – all happening before the corner – it’s already game over.

Lean the bike, not the body

Notice the lean angle of the bike in the photos. Notice how the core of the body is still very upright and controlled. This provides a balanced and stable platform to ensure effective movements of the rider’s limbs and, thus, effective adjustments, corrections, and manipulations of the bike. Also, the bike will turn when you lean it over. We want to let that happen; let the bike do the work! This means the rider can remain very much on top of the bike so that the weight and force of the rider pushes through the bike and stays much more perpendicular into the trail’s surface than if the rider leans the body at the same angle as the bike (as most riders do for various reasons). When we lean the body with the bike in a flat corner, the lower that angle gets, the more the forces of the rider are horizontal to the trail’s surface. This will eventually force the bike to slide out. We’ve all probably been there!

Again, none of the good stuff above is possible if you screw it up before the corner.

If you’ve been riding for a bit, you’re probably aware of the “attack position”, or the body position a rider should obtain while descending in tough terrain. This is the position the rider will need to be in approaching a corner (if the corner is at all fast or difficult). Assuming one understands the how’s and why’s of this position (which most riders don’t) and can obtain it while coasting down the trail or in the parking lot, then the question is how do we maintain that position as the bike decelerates hard under braking? Or, maybe, gets loose and slides around when it loses traction because of braking forces and rough, loose terrain; bounces violently through braking bumps, root sections, and rock drops; all while trying to slow down for the turn?

Many riders believe that leaning back under braking is the solution to the above dilemmas, but leaning back is one of the worse things you can do – for many reasons. When we lean back the bike will not pivot around the bottom bracket and float over the terrain (too much weight on the rear wheel). We also lose range of motion in our limbs when we lean back. That’s bad. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there are many other things that go wrong when we lean back

What should happen with the pedals?

In the corner: Weight that outside pedal? No, not really. It’s actually about keeping the weight on the bottom bracket and centered on the bike as much as possible. I want riders to focus on moving the inside leg out of the way to get lean angle on the bike – not weighting the outside pedal. This difference of focus provides an emphasis on being centered on the bike and riding the bike through the bottom bracket. This is extremely important for control. This emphasis doesn’t happen when a rider focuses on weighting the outside pedal. Focusing on weighting the outside pedal can also create a lot of bad habits. We go over these in the camps.

While my pedals will often go to 12 and 6 in relation to the bike, sometimes they are still level in relation to the ground and to my “line of force.” That means sometimes they’re 12 and 6 sometimes 10 and 4 . . . or anywhere in-between. Again, I want students to focus on keeping their weight centered on the bike, through the bottom bracket, and their pedals end up wherever they end up as a result of how much lean angle the bike gets.

Drop the outside pedal, though, right? Well, sometimes. It depends on the trail’s surface. In a berm, bank, or rut – in theory – the bike is still perpendicular to the trail’s surface, thus, bike lean angle away from the body isn’t really necessary. In this case, we often can keep our feet level and lean the body with the bike.

Why not keep the pedals level, even in flat corners? This is fine for beginner riders (who usually aren’t carrying enough speed to need much lean angle in corners), corners where you’re not really going fast enough to need much lean angle, or corners where the trail’s surface prioritizes accommodation of bumps, and, thus, the pivoting of the bike around the bottom bracket and fore and aft control of the rider’s mass. (Rock or root sections in the corner are examples of the latter where this would be necessary. The bike will actually have to be adjusted/manipulated to go relatively straight over these sections, meaning it will have to stand up and be much more perpendicular to the ground and pedals will have to level out as it travels over this section of the corner. Having the core of the body balanced and stable in order to make these adjustments mid-corner – often in the same corner: lean bike and turn; stand bike up to go straight; then, lean back down to finish turn – is another reason why maintaining proper body position approaching, as well as through the corner, is crucial.)

However, we simple can’t lean the bike over very far before it will hit our inside leg. So we have to move the leg – and rotate our pedals – out of the way. See above.

Weight back? Weight Forward? Weight centered!

Weight the bars in the corner so that the front wheel will get traction? Nope. I don’t care how many 23 year old – and often super fast – pros tell you to do this (It’s kind of a cool thing to say you ride the bike very aggressively over the front of the bike like a motocross rider. One big difference: a motocross bike has a motor so it will accelerate back under the rider. It often has to be ridden over the front end to accommodate that acceleration. MTB’s don’t have motors. Therefore, with very rare exception, they don’t accelerate back under the rider.) With very rare exception this is terrible technique and a terrible habit to get into. Also, there’s a huge difference in pushing down with the arms on the front of the bike, perhaps steering to get traction . . . and weighting the front of the bike. This has to do with how your body works in an athletic sense and is crucial to all areas of riding, I prove why in my camps (Go to 2:32 of this video). If I do end up weighting the front of the bike it’s almost always a result of overcompensating because my weight was initially too far back, the front wheel was in danger of drifting and now I’m doing damage control. Not fast, definitely sketchy!

Elbows? Hips? Braking? (hint: yes on the braking)

Keeping that outside elbow up is mega-important for so many reasons it isn’t even funny.

Lead with the hips? It doesn’t really work that way.

You will have to brake in many corners but it has to be done properly. Doing it wrong will put you on the ground in a quickness. Most riders brake incorrectly the majority of the time, and if they do this in a corner, they will almost definitely end up hitting the deck. This is why people – even most MTB coaches and coaching organizations – state to never brake in the corners: because they don’t really understand the dynamics of proper braking even in straight line (you actually can go faster by braking properly in the corners than if you don’t brake; “gotta go slow to go fast” works at times, but I’ll take Go Fast to Go Fast every time! Hint: braking isn’t always about deceleration.)

Obviously, there is a ton going on with properly cornering on a mountain bike. We address it thoroughly in the camps, spending a couple hours exclusively on cornering and touching on different examples through the duration of the camp. We relate descending body position and weight placement in a straight line to how this will directly affect our approach to cornering technique. Proper vision techniques are huge in cornering correctly.

The list goes on and on.

If you’re still reading this, you’re interested. If you’re already fast, then you know that every little thing counts, and from reading this, you’ve probably deduced that there is still a lot you can learn. If you’re beginner, intermediate, novice, I promise, I can help you turn better, help keep that front end from washing out, and not only help keep you off the ground, but get you around the trail with more control, safety, efficiency, and – yes – speed!

Brake Control and Wheelies

Brake Control and Wheelies

Here’s the latest Technique of the Week video: “Brake Control and Wheelies”

However, before the techniques in the featured video will make much sense, the rider must first understand basic wheelie techniques. DirtSmart videos featuring those techniques can be found here: Pedal Wheelie Technique; and, here: Manual (or Coaster Wheelie) Technique.

Normal disclaimer: great as the internet and video-coaching can be, taking a camp or private coaching will always be the best way to improve your riding; there is no substitute for real-time coaching and the real-time interaction between coach and student.

Thanks for checking out the video. Check back soon, I’ll have plenty more! Always feel free to contact me for and questions or information concerning MTB camps or coaching.

VIDEO: Technique of the Week — Get Low

 (CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO)

Technique of the Week — Get Low

 

How low should we be on the bike when we get to nasty sections on the trail? How much bend should we have in our knees? Well, essentially, as low as we can get and that’ll give us about 90 degree bend in those knees.

There is still a bunch of bad advice circulating out in MTB-land that states that riders should have a slight bend in their knees when they are on the “attack” position. Not so . . .

In the video, we’ll see WHY it’s so important to get low and we’ll learn about all kinds of problems we’ll encounter if we remain tall on the bike with straight, or slightly bent knees. Also, check out this other video and watch some of the top riders in the world getting low whenever they’re in the nasty stuff.

Thanks for watching. Check back for more!

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.

 

 

Technique of the Week: Brake Levers and Braking Technique

Welcome to this week’s Technique of the Week. This week we’re going to talk about brake lever set-up and a little about braking technique.

I always want to pick a topic that will be relevant to riders of all levels, and his one hits that mark. The first bit should a no brainer for most advanced riders; but; don’t worry, it’ll get pretty interesting as we move through the content.

First, we’ll cover getting one finger out there on the brake lever instead of two or more, why this is important, and a few ways we can go about getting this set-up to happen and still manage all the controls on our bars. This is a big deal for many beginner riders. I very often see riders braking with two or more fingers per lever and/or trying to ride technical sections without first “covering” the brakes, neither of which we want to do.

 

Next: the angle of our brake levers. Again, I see many riders, even quite advanced riders, with their levers way to low. We’ll talk about where they should be and why.

And, finally, we’ll talk about lever throw, and, particularly the throw of the front brake lever and how playing around with this may help more advanced riders find a little extra speed and stay out of trouble.

A Little Braking Break Down

Braking isn’t just about slowing the bike down and stoping it. But — especially at the upper levels of riding — braking is very much about speed control and/or momentum management. Often, we don’t need to slow down, we just need to not go any faster. Often, we should be accelerating, but not as fast as we would be if we were entirely off of the brakes.

Think about that for second.

There is a also a massive difference in braking technique between slowing the bike down — actual deceleration — and speed control.

These are nuances that very few riders understand. This is a huge reason why even many pro downhillers still believe — incorrectly — that you shouldn’t brake in corners or through rough sections (and why many coaches and coaching programs still coach this). This is also why when I bring up the subject of braking in camps, many riders, in a joking self deprecating fashion, proclaim “oh, I’m real good at braking!” or “I know all about that part!”  When, in actuality, they’re way off.

These misunderstandings also contribute to the myth that being completely off of the brakes or super hard on both brakes, and never in the middle, is proper technique. Actually, it’s terrible technique. [think about it: in any type of motorsport racing, is the vehicle driven at complete full throttle or completely hard on the brakes? No. finesse in both throttle control and braking are essential and all of the best drivers/riders have this finesse. So, why would you ride your MTB completely full throttle (completely off of the brakes, gravity being the throttle), or completely hard on the brakes, but never in between?]

Do we have the time and space to cover all of braking technique in the blog post? No. That’s the stuff we do in camps. But, getting brake set-up dialed in is the first step to this and that’s what we’re going to dive into. . . . and, some technique, of course.

Give it the Finger

First — and this will be fairly obvious to the advanced riders (hang in there; we’ll get to the good stuff in a bit) — we need to set the brake levers up so that we operate them with one finger, not two . . . definitely not three or four.

I’m pretty blown away at the amount of riders that still use more than one finger on a brake lever. Often, bike shops and professional bike fitters are the culprits of bad lever position and this seems to promote bad technique. Traditionally, when a bike is built up, the brake perch will be next to the grip and touching it, with no space between grip and the brake perch. Often, we will need to move the brake perch in-board a bit, creating some space between the grip and the lever in order for our finger to touch the lever in the correct spot. What is the correct spot? Way out on the end, tucked right into that little bend.

This often means that we will need to swap the order of brakes and shifters and and adjust the reach of the lever. (all decent brake levers will allow for reach adjustment (or how far away from the grip the lever resides). This also can sometimes mean that we will have to ditch the integrated brake/shifter/dropper-seatpost configuration that some component companies offer. I still run all of my components on their own exclusive clamps because the integrated options never seems to allow me to get my controls right where I like them to be.

The pointer finger is the braking-finger of choice for most riders. However, the middle finger will also work especially if the rider has small hands. But, either way, we need one of our first two fingers on the brake lever and the other on the grip.

And, this is how you should be riding the bike whenever things get rowdy. This is called “covering” the brakes (Look at any photo of top enduro or DH riders—one finger on each brake lever). You need to have a finger out there operating the brakes while also having a powerful grip on the bars with the other fingers and thumb.

This is very important because we’re simply not going to be able to move our braking finger back and forth between the brake lever and the grip and effectively brake. Also, our first two fingers offer powerful gripping strength. Our ring and pinky? Weak. So, covering the brakes in technical terrain is essential while having the other of the first two fingers on the bars for gripping strength

[Contrary to popular belief, we will not always be able to keep a loose and relaxed grip on the handlebars. This is is one of those myths of riding, and, unfortunately, is often coached by professional MTB coaches. While it is true that we don’t want to constantly have a death grip on the bars, there will be plenty of times that we will need to be gripping the bars with as much power as possible.]

IMG_5028

One finger on the lever. Proper contact point. Good stuff. Notice how the lever has been scooted in-board a bit.

IMG_5029

Not Good stuff. See how the finger is contacting the lever in the middle and not out at the end? Notice how the brake perch is right up against the grip. And, this often leads to this:

IMG_5030

. . . two finger braking . . . Bad stuff

The Angle

Now that we’ve got only one finger out on that lever, we’re going to talk about the angle of the lever. Most riders have those levers way too low. Again, this is often the fault of shops and bike-fitters; the lever angle is usually set in regards to the rider being in a seated position and with the bike on level ground (the traditional way to set up road bikes — which is where most pro bike-fitters are still coming from).

Quite obviously, the brakes will be used the most, and be most important, when to bike is pitched forward while we’re descending (not when the bike is level). Also, the rider should be low on the bike while descending; and, although the rider shouldn’t be leaning back, he will be back relative to where he would be if he were seated if he’s in good descending position. This means, that in order to keep a straight wrist for power and control, with the elbows and upper body in proper proximity to the bars, the levers will have to be angled quite a bit higher than most rider have their levers set.

If the levers are too low, and we’re in the proper position on the bike while descending, we’ll have to start bending our wrists to reach the brake levers. This is not a strong and powerful position of the wrists (Imagine trying to do a bench press with bent wrists).

In other words, if you intend to ride trails with steep descents, your levers should be set a little too high for when the bike is on level ground, enabling them to be set-up correctly when the bike is pitched forward and you really need them most.

Lever Throw

Andy finally, let’s talk about lever throw, or how far the lever has to move before the brakes actually engage. And, this one is gong to come down to the rider’s personal preference, something for the more advanced riders to maybe play around with. I’ve been messing with this a bit myself lately and haven’t come up with any solid conclusions as far as what’s absolutely right or wrong, but I do see how this could work out well and help alleviate some bad braking habits.

In the past, I’ve always run my brakes with exactly the same throw, front and rear. And, I always wanted both brakes to engage right when my fingers were bent at ninety degrees. However, I do recall numerous top-level riders, back in the day, who did run their levers with a ton of throw, particularly the front brake, so that the lever was basically at the bar when the brake engaged. I never really heard a decent explanation why this was done. The explanations that I got didn’t make much sense. But, those dudes were all really fast, so things couldn’t have been too bad.

As I learned more about properly braking a two wheeled vehicle (And, keep in mind, this happened years after what could be considered a fairly respectable stint as a mid-pack professional downhiller with very occasional flashes of brilliance. So, I must’ve been doing an OK job of braking previously), I realized that the front brake is waaaaay over used at the high levels of riding.

The front brake is essential to deceleration. But, very often, deceleration isn’t the goal with braking; as stated earlier, often speed control and/or momentum management is the goal which requires much different braking technique than deceleration.

Unfortunately, too many riders grab front brake when they don’t need it, and, thus, shouldn’t be using it. The front brake is a very powerful tool and a huge asset to your riding. But, like any powerful tool, use it incorrectly and you’re going to hurt yourself.

And, this could definitely attribute to why lots of lever thrown for the front brake may be a good thing: we simply don’t want to use it unless we really need it, and that extra bit of pull could be just enough to take away that initial bite of front brake when you don’t need it.

There’s no way I’d ever attempt to give a full break down of braking technique via internet. But, in terms of this post: the front brake is going to offer the arbitrary 70 – 90% of stopping power to a vehicle on level ground. Let’s go with that. The harder you brake the more traction is needed to deal with those forces of deceleration. If your deceleration forces over come the traction, you skid. An unwanted skid can mean loss of control, particularly when it comes to the front wheel.

When we’re in situations where traction is very minimal—rough, loose, steep, stuff; hard cornering—it’s essentially too late to decelerate the bike. So, stay off the front brake. Because of it’s power, weight transfer while decelerating, etc. (more than we can get into here), and very minimal traction, it’ll almost definitely break traction of the front wheel and skid and that can very easily mean loss of control in the above situations. But, you can almost always control speed by dragging the rear brake. Really, in these situations dragging the rear brake is all you have. And, If the rear wheel does break traction and skid a bit—which it will, at times—it’s not the end of the world. We’ve all had that happen.

In the above situations, it’s very important for the front wheel to maintain direction. That may mean continuing an arc through a corner, or maintaining a straight line over the uneven, off camber surfaces of a rock garden.

You can’t take away traction from the front wheel — in the above situations — by braking or you’re going to give up the ability to maintain direction: brake here, and you’ll either skid or have to take a different path that requires less traction. There’s simply not enough traction to go around. . . This is where taking the edge off of that initial bite of front brake — with more lever throw — may help you out if you have the habit of grabbing front brake when you shouldn’t.

Take the Edge Off your Panic-Brake

The front brake will drastically slow the bike down. The rear really won’t slow it down that much at all (it’ll simply skid the rear wheel if you do try to decelerate hard, which is usually controllable). If you have the habit of grabbing front brake when it’s not necessary, you’re also slowing down when you don’t need to. Tap both brakes before the jump and then case the heck out of it? (We’ve all been there, right?) I almost guarantee if you just tapped a little rear brake—no front—you would have greased it.

As stated above, often we don’t need to slow down, we just need to not go any faster, and doing this correctly translates into faster times.

It’s also much easier for the rider to get thrown forward and out of position if they panic and grab both brakes because of bad braking habits (because, obviously, this will engage the front, thus, decelerating the bike, usually much more than the rider would like), rather than keep their cool, dragging some rear, maintaining good position, visually focus on solutions, and riding it out.

So, again, here’s where having a lot of lever throw on the front brake can be a good thing. You simply have to pull that lever a bit farther to engage it. It may help you to not over use it by grabbing too much front brake if you do happen to panic-brake.

I’m not so sure that running a lot of thrown on the front brake lever is such a good idea on public trails with other trails users, where you may need to suddenly and unexpectedly stop. Let’s just say that I discourage that. But if you’re on downhill trails, bike only, directional, etc., where you can safely work on finding and keeping speed; especially if you have the habit of grabbing front brake when you don’t actually need it, running more throw in that lever may be something to play around with.

IMG_5035

Not much throw

IMG_5036

Lots more throw

VIDEO: Technique of the Week: the “Rachet Pedal”

Very few riders — beginner or advanced — use the ratchet pedal as much as they should.

Many beginner and novice riders have issues with pedal strikes — on rocks, logs, etc — while trying to pedal in technical terrain, especially on climbs. As we all know, it’s essential to keep forward momentum on tough steep climbs, but how do you keep pedaling without smacking your pedals on trail obstacles? Answer: the Ratchet Pedal.

This technique is also great for advanced riders, and, again, is seldom used enough. Most advanced riders will naturally already use ratchet pedals when necessary while climbing, but very seldom do I see it used enough while descending in tough, steep terrain, when it is impossible to get in full pedal strokes.

Check out the video. Work on this technique with each foot forward, both standing and seated.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Coming Back From a Big Crash

A buddy of mine recently sent me an email regarding coming back from nasty crash that he had recently. He was having some issues getting confidence back and getting back up to speed on the bike. The text below is an edited version of my response. 

I’d say probably 20% of my biz is from people that have a “crash hangover.” In other words, they had a big crash and are having a tough time getting their head back in the game. Their confidence is rattled and all they can seem to focus on when they get on the bike is what could go wrong…again!

Coming back from a big crash isn’t easy. Like most things difficult, curing that crash hangover takes some time and effort. Yet, it seems that everybody feels that they should to just be able to snap their fingers and make it go away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

But I do have some good news: there is a cure!

 

 

First, let’s  take into consideration, that the “crash hangover” is there for a reason. Your primal-emotional brain is telling you, Hey, last time we did this bike-thing we got WORKED! So maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.

That’s just common sense and good ol’ self preservation at work.

But, your smart human-brain knows that you still want to ride bikes and that you definitely can still do it at a high level. So you ague with yourself.. but, that primal brain is gonna win. And, it’s real tough to just over-ride that fear.

So, you have to re-boot the system.

First thing you have to do is just get some seat time, back on the bike… But do this on trails that offer you absolutely no challenge or threat, what-so-ever… Put in a few rides on trails that are easy and boring. If there is anything that freaks you out — even a little — get off and walk.

What you’ll be doing is convincing yourself that you’re not going to die every time you throw a leg over the bike (Post-crash, you”re your primal brain isn’t so sure of this). Even though you know this to be true, you gotta feel it a few times to authentically trust it.

Probably the worst thing you could do, immediately after a big wipe-out, would be to go out and try to ride nasty stuff, but since you’re scared, you’ll probably ride timid, scared, tight (shitty)… and then you goon it again and have another bad crash. Then you’ll really have your work cut out for you…

Eventually — on the easy rides — you’ll start to feel comfortable and want to push it again. Congrats! You’re coming back. But, it may take some time…

Another thing you need to do is take a look at things logically. Why did you crash and can it be remedied? What went wrong and can you fix it? (Hint, hint: get some professional MTB coaching! wink, wink…)

Also — more logic — is that you know that you still can ride at the level you were at, previously. That’s a fact. Can’t argue with the facts… And, riding — even with the occasional gnarly crash — is way better for you than not riding. Again, facts… so get out there and do it… Take it easy for a bit, and it’ll come back.

I think the worst part of this is that sometimes — if you ride hard and push it — you’re just going to crash hard. No way around this. But again, the benefits of going out on the bike and getting’ after it far outweigh not riding for fear of getting hurt.

 

Finally, we don’t multi-task. “Multi-task” may be the catch phrase of the day/year/millenium, but our conscious brains actually are unable to focus on more than one thing at a time (unconscious is different).

So, you need to focus on solutions and not obstacles. If you’re focusing on the solutions (Proper riding: body position, weight placement, vision, proper braking, breathing, etc), then you CAN NOT be focused on what may happen if things go wrong. If you’re focused on what could go wrong, then you CAN NOT be focused on proper riding…

The last one also goes for times when you’re doing something supper hairy and right on the edge of your skill level. It takes full commitment in these situations and fully focused on the solution is the only way to have full commitment.

 

But, don’t worry so much about the last one yet.

Right now, just get out and get that seat time in on the easy stuff. Get a few of those under your belt. Work your way up with baby steps to tougher trails. When you do start pushing a bit, practice focusing on the solutions; give your mind something useful to do and it won’t wander to the fear.

I guarantee if you take the time to do this stuff, you’ll get back to where you were, but again, it will take a little time.

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 Tire Pressure

“What tire pressure should I run?”

I get that question all the time.

It really comes down to a few simple things. It’s the way that these things mix together, work against each other, cancel each other out, and so-on-and-so-forth that makes it all very interesting, and thus, a real tough question to answer.

What I’ll try to do here, is explain the main factors (I can’t, of course, hit EVERY factor in the space of this article) that become relevant in the search for proper tire pressure and send you on you’re way to figuring out what is best for you.

One question a lot of students ask is, what is the best method for measuring tire pressure? “Should I measure my tire pressure with a gauge or by feel?”

The answer to this question is … YES!

Use both. Why? Because most small and inexpensive tire gauges, like the kind you will most likely carry with you in your Camelback or tool box, are not very accurate when measured against one another (one may read 25 psi and another 22 psi on the same tire, and that’s a big difference). However, they are usually pretty consistent with themselves (until the batteries start to go dead). As long as you use the same gauge, you should have a pretty consistent reading. So why use your hand with a squeeze of the tire? Because you’re never going to accidentlly leave your hand on the tailgate of your friend’s truck or back at the hotel room. And, when the batteries in the gauge do start to go dead, you’ll know that even though the gauge is reading 38 psi, the tire is really right around 20. Also, when you use a new tire (same or different brand) your hand – gauging by feel – gives you a better idea of how hard you will actually need to hit an obstacle before that obstacle bottoms out on the rim of the wheel (flatting your tire, damaging your rim, or both) than a number on a tire gauge. Then use the gauge to see what pressure your “feel” relates to and you can get consistent on where you want be with your new tire. Like anything else, this takes a little time and experience, but two gauges are better then one… especially if you can never lose one of them.

Gauges on most tire pumps are usually all over the place. I’m not a big fan of tire pump gauges. A good hand held gauge is the way to go.

 

The right tool for the job

Next, pretty much all tires are different brand to brand, size to size, different materials, construction, new to old… There are a lot of variables in tire construction. There are also a lot of different uses and intentions. For instance, some of my students are endurance racers. Most endurance races are held on courses that are not very technically challenging and have a fairly smooth surface. A fast rolling, low profile, super light tire with a pretty high pressure (for minimal rolling resistance) would be a great choice for the intention of being fast and efficient for long periods of time on this type of terrain. If the same rider goes out to Bootleg Canyon (all jagged rock) for a fun weekend with their buddies, I would suggest a tire on the opposite end of the tire-spectrum: a large volume tire with big lugs and with great durability. This tire, when run at low pressure, would give the rider more traction (in this terrain, traction is more important then the low rolling resistance for an endurance race) and give the rider a smoother and faster ride because of its ability to absorb bumps (more on this is a bit). With the first tire, the rider may run something like 45 psi, the second … 25? Big difference… Another example: while 30 psi may be way to much pressure for a 135 lb downhill racer on a 2-ply Downhill tire, 30 psi may be way too little for  a 220 lb “not so smooth” dude on a super light cross country tire and rim.

 

Pressure

Advantages of low pressures are traction and bump compliance. Generally speaking, the lowest tire pressure that you can run without getting a flat will give you the most traction, the most bump compliance, and, thus, the most control. With low tire pressures, tires spread out on the terrain under load and create a larger contact patch – more traction. Also, the tire will absorb bumps – acting like suspension – and help the rider maintain a smoother momentum path over inconsistencies in the trail while maintaining contact with the ground.

Some disadvantages of low tire pressures are that on smooth sections of trail (where searching for traction or bump compliance won’t be priorities) the tires will have a lot of rolling resistance, and, of course, you stand a greater chance of getting flats by either “rolling” your tire off of the rim, or by bottoming the tire out on the rim. Unfortunately, even tubeless tires aren’t a cure-all for this dilemma. In fact, I see just as many flats these days as I did in the days before tubeless because riders still push the limits of what they can run pressure-wise, as they should. Except these days, because bottoming the tire via the impact of an obstacle to the rim is more frequent with tubeless tires, riders often damage their rim in the process. I do like tubeless tire set-ups, but they do have their limits.

The advantages of high tire pressures are low less rolling resistance on smooth surfaces and very little chance of getting flats. The disadvantages: less traction because the tire doesn’t spread out on the surface of the trail (smaller contact patch) or absorb obstacles like it will with lower pressures – it will now deflect off of the obstacles, bouncing, sliding, and deflecting and offering a very a rough and unpredictable ride.

So what tire pressure should you run?

I have two “go to” tire set-ups, and I change them depending on my location and trail conditions. I sometimes change my tire pressure during the ride (I will drop pressure, I almost never add tire pressure, but there are some great hand pumps out there that do allow you to do this practically and quickly – most hand pumps don’t – and without wasting a CO2). I run enough pressure so that I can attack the trail with out getting flats. Also, the weak spot in my riding isn’t my technical ability; it’s my legs and my lungs. So, I’ll give up a little bit of control and traction (and make up for it with technique and by finding the smooth spots on the trail) and benefit from higher pressures and less rolling resistance. If you’re a rider whose fitness is your strength and technical ability is your weakness, you may want to go in the other direction.

Most beginner riders run too much tire pressure and could benefit by dropping it substantially.

How do you find out what works for you? Hopefully this info helps out, but go ride a section of trail with 20 psi in your tires. Now go back and ride the same section of trail with 50 psi in your tires. Now ride with the pressure right in the middle. How did each different run feel? Take notes on all of this, especially as you’re learning. Evaluate what type of rider you are and what terrain you plan on riding.

I also always run a couple/few more psi in the rear than the front. The rear naturally will have a little more weight on it than the front. Also, its easier to lift and maneuver the front wheel, thus, minimize impacts with the front while the rear will probably have to take more of these impacts.

Armed with the above knowledge, hopefully, you’re pointed in the right direction. Oh, and learn how to fix flats before you go too crazy with this…

MTB Coaches–Good vs Bad?

Rant Time!!!!

This has been killing me lately, so why not whine about it publicly and get to off my chest? Haha…

There are ton of mountain bike coaches and coaching organizations out there these days. Everybody and their brother (and sister) seem to be a “certified level blah, blah, blah MTB coach”. As a person who has made his full time living for the past almost ten years as a MTB coach, you can only imagine the opinions that I have on this…

Let me first say that I do believe that its admirable when someone desires to teach a great activity such as mountain biking to others. So more power to anyone who wishes to do this. The bummer is that many of these people who make up this current crop of coaches–and probably more at fault, the organizations who “certify” these coaches–are fully guilty of perpetuating many of the poor, and even dangerous, techniques that have been circulating MTB forever. I’m not seeing the evolution in technique that we should be seeing in the current state of coaching.

We have, and continue to see, the influence of downhill MTB, BMX, and motocross in bike design (my coaching is heavily influenced by these three sports, which, when it comes to skilled riding and training for skilled riding, are light-years ahead of MTB), but where’s the progression in how to ride the bike?

Likewise, I don’t see the consideration of the way the bike is actually designed to work. In fact, many of the techniques that are taught be these organizations–yes, you’ve heard of them; think, self proclaimed, “International Global Standard” of coaching–actually fight the way the bike is designed to work. I definitely don’t see a proper understanding of kinesiology and biology of the of body being brought into MTB coaching by any coaching organization or curriculum (outside of DirtSmart, where this plays a HUGE role in everything I do).

Why? Because most people who coach don’t understand these crucial elements in human movement as they relate to riding the bicycle, and, thus, their necessity in riding the bike correctly. They don’t understand bike design. They’ve never ridden motocross or BMX…or downhill (most) at high levels. They haven’t spent a life that has revolved around going fast on two wheels at the highest levels. They don’t make a living doing this. Its a hobby for them.

Definitely tooting my own horn here, but…

… Racing professionally; consistently racing and riding with some of the best racers and riders on the planet; school; where I’ve chosen to live (and moving around and traveling my entire adult life); toil in virtually every nook and cranny of the bike industry; sacrificing…well, pretty much anything material… It’s all come from, and been filtered through, riding bikes and obtaining knowledge and experience to enable me to ride bikes better and faster.

I do have a PHD in riding stinkin’ mountain bikes… Yeah, I said it!

And, much of that education does come from outside of mountain biking. Hate to say it, but much of inside of mountain biking–where most coaching is drawing from–is stagnant and dogmatic, yet persists as the status quo way to ride the bike.

You gotta know the difference…

Now, I will say, that many of the techniques taught by many coaching organizations will often work for a beginner rider in very easy trail settings (which probably is the bread and butter client/situation for most of these coaches). But, if these are the techniques that the student relies on when the trail gets a little more difficult, the student will be in danger because they simply won’t work well…and that could mean getting hurt.  And, that’s just talking safety; take it further, and there’s no way a rider will get very fast or be very proficient on the bike if their “go-tos” are what what many of these organizations teach as proper technique.

Bad technique is being taught left and right in MTB: “You can’t brake in corners!..”; “Push down on your fork for rebound to help wheelie…”; “Use your front foot as a bracing foot…”; “Weight the handlebars…” (I heard this one today from a guy who is an awesome personal trainer…but, suddenly he’s a bike coach? Huh?)…I could go on forever with this…  Stuff like this is being taught by pretty much every organization out there and will get you killed if you use it when the trail is actually a bit tough.

*** Do I never use the above techniques and many that I could name as dangerous and improper? No. I will use them on occasion, and again, they will work fine in certain settings. However, they are not building blocks to the higher levels of riding (This is a very big part of everything I coach: it all comes from a simple foundation, and you build off of that–even up to the highest levels) and won’t work when things start to get even a bit tough on the trail. It is up to the coach to know and communicate this. Again, many coaches simply don’t have the experience to do this.

Also, I’ll take any coach who actually believes in these techniques as tried and true out to a semi-difficult trail and say, “OK, take this corner without braking.” They won’t and can’t do it. They’ll make the corner (probably), but they will be doing something all together different than what they coach. I’m not saying that they are doing anything malicious or purposefully lying to their students. They are simply ignorant of how things actually work on the bike. And this is natural and fine. I’m positive that I am still ignorant of many things in riding; I must be, because I continue to improve and evolve my coaching and curriculum (and, even though I’m all old and washed up, and maybe not getting faster in terms of raw speed, I do continue to improve in my personal riding with control, efficiency, etc.).

So, am I saying that these people shouldn’t be MTB coaches? Ummmm…No.

They should be able to do whatever they want to do. What I am saying is that the student–the consumer–needs to be aware of what they are getting as a product. Who will be you’re coach? Not the organization, but the individual. What are the coach’s credentials, experience, reviews? Can they ride (Yes, I do believe it is very important that a coach is a very capable rider)?  Have they raced (if you desire to race, probably pretty important your coach has been there), and at what level? Mountain biking is an athetic endeavor. What do they know about the body and how it works in an athletic sense? How do they know this? What do they know about bike set-up and bike design? Training? … Again, I could go on for days…

Chances are, with very rare exception, you won’t be able to find any of this information on particular individual coaches outside of a cute and cleaver little paragraph/bio next a headshot on a website.

And, remember, just because someone was a pro racer, doesn’t mean that they can coach their way out of a wet paper bag. How are they as a coach?

I guess this is why my camps do cost $500 for two days.  And, yes, you can go down to the clinic that your local shop is putting on, and the local pro is going to coach it!..For only $50!!! So, why would you spend the money on that pricey DirtSmart camp?

Well, you can also go down to your local Walmart and get a mountain bike for $200, so why would you spend thousands of dollars at one of those pricey bike shops?

And I’m not saying that all coaches out there, besides me, are “Walmart Coaches”. I’m just saying know what you’re getting into, and–like anything else–you’re going to have to pay a bit for the best product.

Honestly, if you are a straight-up beginner and don’t really intend to even be a “mountain biker”, you probably don’t need high level coaching. But as soon as you intend on riding and progressing–even a little–you’re going to want the best coaching you can get, not only to get more proficient, but to not hurt yourself. And if you want to get fast, to be the best rider that you can be? Like pretty much any other tool that will really see some use, “Buy cheap; buy twice…”

The end…

I love coaching all levels of riders. I get just as much satisfaction and believe that I am equally as successful whether I’m coaching beginners or World Cup downhill racers. My students, of all levels, will attest to this. However, I highly doubt that my World Cup downhill racers would have gotten much out of the example of the the “$50 local shop clinic” that I gave above, and I’m quite sure (positive) that my beginner students would have had a much tougher time progressing as riders with “cheap” instruction.

 

OK, I feel better now…

th

 

 

 

Mountain Bike Skills–Slow Speed Balance

It’s All About the Balance

Some cool stuff going on, right here…

Maga (in the video below) is a previous student who was the classic example of an animal on the road bike and smooth XC stuff, but, fairly new to mountain bikes, she was very timid anytime the trail got even the least bit technical. One of her biggest problems was that she didn’t have the ability to ride the bike slowly and retain balance, even on smooth flat surfaces (this is common to most riders). Anytime things got a little dicey and technical, she instantly put a foot down.

Here she is practicing one of the drills we do in camps (on her town bike on her lunch break–love it!).

This is one of many drills that I show riders to help improve balance on the bike. But it’s also a great drill to help a rider get an awareness of where the rear wheel is at in regards to the trail’s surface. For beginners, understanding where the rear will track, exactly when it will contact an obstacle, etc., becomes very important when the terrain gets tough. For advanced riders, knowing exactly when they may need to lift the rear wheel; where it’s at when manipulating it from side to side; when, and at point, it will leave the ground; become critical–one of the the best ways to land under control is to leave the ground under control, and if you’re not sure how your rear wheel will be affected when it leaves the ground, sooner or later bad things are gonna happen…

 

Wanna Get Good? Learn to Go Slow

Being able to ride slowly, with confidence, and under control, is one of the most important mountain bike skills. Especially for advanced riders in gnarly terrain: Look at the photo below.

Caveman Drop-in

In order to ride this drop, it is crucial that the rider enter it very under control, very slowly, and that means–literally– the speed of a controlled track stand (literally a controlled stop, with both feet on the pedals).

If you can’t do this in the parking lot, you won’t be able to do it on the side of a cliff.

Sorry, Ain’t No Switchback Magic

The same can be said for switchbacks. I get emails at least once a week where dudes state (it’s always dudes) that they are “very good riders” so they don’t need a full camp, but they just want to skip to “swichbacks and riding steep stuff…maybe some jumping…you know, just the advanced stuff…”

Sorry, Bud. The reason you’re having problems with the “advanced stuff” is cause you don’t have the basics down very well at all. Almost without fail, these riders aren’t even aware of what the mandatory basics even are…

I use a ton of drills and exercises in the camps to show riders how to work on, and improve, their balance on the bike. These aren’t only for beginner riders. Think of where high level training is these days: it’s all about proper movements, core stability, BALANCE, etc… The same muscle movements, position, weight placement, etc., that a beginner needs just to feel comfortable in order to ride slowly without having to put a foot down are the same movements (if not the foundation and base) the high level riders need to to use in the nasty stuff. It’s all about the human body working optimally on a bicycle… And, I don’t care how “good” you are; there is always room for improvement.

Sign up for a DirtSmart MTB Skills camp. Stay outta the hospital! Get fast!

5 Tips for Tough Steep Climbs

Often, while mountain biking, we can usually get away with sloppy technique on relatively easy climbs and still make it to the top. However, when things get steep and loose (when traction is at a minimum) and obstacles such as water bars, erosion ruts, baby-head sized rocks, and who-knows-what-else, begin to appear on the trail (these things almost always naturally appear more often when the trail gets steep—dirt doesn’t like to stick to steep inclines, so it erodes, exposing the obstacles), our technique needs to be nearly perfect to top the climbs. Simply pedaling harder – as we all know – won’t get it done!  Also, proper technique will save you huge amounts of energy even on climbs that you may currently may top, but currently waste a bunch of energy in the process because of improper technique.

Tip #1: Scoot forward on the saddle.

Take a look at the photo. Notice how far forward the rider has scooted on his saddle.

Mike_Austin

A very important reason to move this far forward is to put more weight on the front of the bike. Accidental wheelies and cases of the “swervies” (when your front wheel begins to wonder uncontrollably all over the trail, making it impossible to hold your line) occur because there is too much weight on the rear of the bike (not enough on the front). Shifting your weight forward will help to prevent this from happening.

Also, when the trail’s surface is varied, rough, and loose—as it often is on steep climbs—staying “centered” on the bike, with your weight on the bottom bracket, is essential. This allows the bike to pivot around the bottom bracket so that both wheels will roll up and over obstacles. Most riders end up with their weight too far back on the bike while climbing, placing all their weight on the rear wheel. In this case, all of the rider’s weight is forcing the rear wheel into obstacles and the rear wheel will stall when it comes in contact with the obstacle. Scooting forward will help alleviate this by distributing the rider’s weight more forward on the bike, thus, allowing the rear wheel to elevate and roll over the obstacle.

Even slight movements, or shifts, of the hips on the saddle make a huge difference in our ability to climb steeps (contributing massively to weight placement, balance, power delivery). A gentle climb with a small grade? Move forward only slightly – maybe a quarter of an inch. Medium grade? Medium movement – perhaps an inch … Steep as heck? All the way forward – as far as possible.

Tip #2: Chest Down.

Another massively overlooked part of proper body position on steep climbs is the position of your upper body. Get that chest down!!!

Take a look at the video. This is an extremely steep climb that few rider’s make.

At the steepest points, the rider’s chest is literally only a few inches off of the stem of the bike, and, when the front wheel climbs up obstacles elevating the front of the bike even more – the chest will sometimes literally touch the stem. When this happens, the rider should come out of the saddle slightly—or more accurately, keep the weight on the BB, the core will stay stable and balanced traveling in a smooth momentum path up the trail, and the bike will pivot around the BB, pitching backwards and dropping the seat from under the rider’s rear.

Lowering the chest – drastically, in the case of a climb this steep – allows the rider to keep the upper body balanced on top of the lower body (and the BB of the bike).

By lowering her chest, this rider is effectively getting her weight much more over the bottom bracket are of the bike which is crucial for control on steep climbs.By lowering her chest, this rider is effectively getting her weight much more over the bottom bracket area of the bike, which is crucial for control on steep climbs.

 

In fact, in theory, you should be able to “flutter” your fingers on the grips when you’re in balance on the climb. This ensures that your weight is balanced on your lower body and not leaning or hanging on your hands. (I also like to say that you should be balanced in a position so that if the bike where to disappear, you would land on your feet)

This video below shows how not to do it: The rider stays seated, and when the bike pitches backward on the steep section of trail, the rider’s weight ends up too far back on the bike. The chest is high and the front wheel becomes too light, wandering all over the trail. Also, because all of the rider’s weight is on the rear wheel, the bike will not be able to pivot around the bottom bracket and allow the rear wheel to elevate up and over the ledges.

Tip # 3: Slow your pedal cadence.

You’ll need to slow your pedal cadence in order to accelerate the bike. If you’re already pedaling a super high cadence (which is fine for the road or smooth trail, but won’t work on nasty climbs on dirt where the trail’s surface is loose and inconsistent) you simply can’t increase your cadence any faster, and, thus, you can’t accelerate. Acceleration on steep climbs is essential for many reasons. First, simply to gain more momentum. Briefly increasing your momentum will help you blast up rock lodges, roots, etc. Pretty simple… But, acceleration is also an essential element for the following tips.

Tip # 4: Learn proper wheelie technique.

Most riders simply yank up on the bars when they are attempting to wheelie over obstacles on a climb. This improper technique is bad for a number of reasons. One, the rider’s core will have to be lowered and then quickly raised in order to help the arms snatch the front of the bike into the air. Then the core will drop back down. This will inevitably throw the rider’s balance off. You may get lucky with this technique a time or two, but when the core is not a stable and balanced platform, no movements will be very effective. This is basic to human movement. Two, with this common, yet improper wheelie method of yanking on the bars, the front wheel goes straight up into the air and then right back down, yet the bike doesn’t really travel forward or beyond the obstacle.

When this wheelie is done correctly—by accelerating the bike forward by pedaling (think blipping the throttle to wheelie on a motorcycle)—the rider can maintain a balanced and stable core and now the core can travel up the climb in a smooth momentum path. This is essential to maintaining balance and stability of the body. Also, by initiating the wheelie with acceleration, the bike will travel forward as the wheel elevates and effectively move the front of the bike beyond the obstacle.

Tip # 5: Unweight the rear wheel (the simple method)

Many riders sweat the idea of getting the front wheel up and over obstacles on steep climbs. However, the front end of the bike is usually naturally light on steeps and will often easily roll over an obstacle with very little effort (proper wheelie technique). It’s often getting the rear wheel over the obstacle that gives riders the biggest headaches.

There is all kinds of advice on how to lift the rear wheel on climbs. The thing is, you usually don’t have to lift the rear wheel at all. Simply unweighting it will get it up and over all but the nastiest obstacles on climbs. And how do you unweight the rear wheel? Once the front wheel has cleared the obstacle, simply get your butt off the seat and get your chest low before the back tire makes contact with the obstacle.

*** Many riders complain that they lose traction and “spin out” as they pedal over the obstacle after unweighting the rear wheel (as described in the technique above). Yep. This will happen if you apply power where this is no traction (such as roots, rocks, loose gravel, etc.). Again, the trick is to accelerate below the obstacle, and this will allow a very brief pause in power deliver as the wheel elevates over the obstacle. This does take a little energy, but there really is no choice but to work a little in these situations.

IMG_3282 (1) IMG_3283 (2) IMG_3286 (2)

Because of the steep terrain and tight switchback, this rider has very little momentum to help her over the root exiting the switchback. After properly getting the front wheel over–and beyond–the root with a proper pedal wheelie, she then simply raises off of her saddle, unweighting the rear wheel of the bike and redistributing her weight more toward the front of the bike allowing the rear wheel to roll op and over the root.

 

This will effectively shift the rider’s weight from the rear wheel (when the front wheel is properly lightened and has cleared the obstacle) to the front wheel and the bottom bracket of the bike. Getting the chest back down will center the rider’s weight over the bottom bracket and plant the front of the bike on the ground for steering and control. At this point the rider can become seated again, albeit on the front of the seat if the climb is still quite steep—with the chest down— and good climbing position is re-established.

Thanks for checking out the 5 Tips… Check back soon…

MTB Pedals—Clips or Flats? Ride Both!

Still not sure which pedal system is best for you? Confused on why a pedal that you clip into with your cleat/shoe is actually called a “clippless-pedal”?

Here’s some history on where these systems came from, more on the advantages and disadvantages of each system… If you’ve had my instruction previously, you’ve already heard a bunch of this, but there’s definitely some new info here (even for advanced riders)…And, this may be a cool article to share with a buddy who is still up in the air on pedal choices.

First, there is no such thing as a better or worse pedal system…

Of course, both systems have advantages and disadvantages; and, while many of these are quite obvious, there are still many misconceptions about each. If you want to be the best all around MTB rider possible, you’ll have at least working knowledge of both systems. And, it’s my belief, that for many reasons, all beginner riders should ride flat pedals for at least a while, at least to the point where they get comfortable with this pedal system.

So, first, a little history on MTB pedal systems…In the ancient days of mountain biking (you know, like fifteen-twenty years ago), most mountain bikers believed that—when it came to pedals—you had to be “clipped in” to be a real mountain biker. “Clipped-in” means the rider’s shoes had metal cleats attached to the soles, and these cleats actually clipped into the  pedals, securing the shoe to the pedal. This system came from road riding. Mountain bikes, in the early days, were primarily derived form road cycling.

It wasn’t until the influence of downhill riding and racing—which was more akin to motocross and BMX than road cycling—that modern mountain biking started to come into it’s own in terms of equipment: full suspension, disc brakes, real tires…and, yes, flat pedals systems (also referred to as Platform pedals or BMX pedals). With these pedals, there are no cleats to clip into the pedals…just the rider’s shoes placed on the pedal—BMX style. This equipment “revolution” started happening around the mid to late nineties. Previous to this, mountain bikes were essentially road bikes with slightly fatter tires and straight handlebars…a far cry from today’s MTB machines.

Road riders such as Lance Armstrong and Eddy Merckx, among others, popularized the high cadence spin (high RPM’s with the pedals) as the most efficient way to pedal a bicycle on the road. It’s more difficult to spin these high cadences without your feet being attached to the pedals in some manner, hence the retention systems.

Because MTB was derived from road cycling, this high cadence pedaling technique made it’s way over into MTB pretty quickly…and never went away….which is good. Because it is necessary…sometimes. However, many MTB riders don’t take into consideration that riding MTB’s in tough terrain and riding road bikes on paved roads is like apples and oranges. I’ll buy that the most efficient way to pedal a bike on a smooth surface is with your butt on the seat and your feet spinning high cadence circles with the pedals. This is true on the road and on smooth trail with a mountain bike. But this doesn’t cut it in real MTB riding in technically difficult terrain. Proper technique in difficult terrain, when the bike will need to pivot and move around beneath us, requires us to get off the seat—definitely while descending and at least intermittently while climbing difficult terrain. We also need to slow our pedal cadence so that we can accelerate the bike when needed, wheel over obstacles. balance better, clock—or time—our pedals to miss obstacles, unweight the rear of the bike, etc…none of this is necessary for road riding or riding MTB on smooth trail surfaces.

Because of this (and more), many of the perceived advantages of clipping in are negated when the trail gets a little tricky. Really, when it comes to the act of pure pedaling, the only advantage of clipping in is the ability to spin those higher cadences with less effort. All of the skills exclusive to mountain biking listed above (and more), in fact require quite low pedal cadences to be effective. Thus, clipping in isn’t really an advantage in a lot of situations and can often be a hindrance.

*** Here’s a quick explanation of the terms “clip-less” pedals vs Flats, Platforms, and BMX-style pedals: 

OK, so the term “clip-less pedals” doesn’t really make sense. After all, this is the system where a cleat, that is attached to the bottom of your shoe, actually does CLIP INTO your pedal (so why’s it called clip-less, right?!?). The pedal retains this cleat so that your shoe is “attached” to the pedal (you un-attach the shoe from the pedal with a twisting motion of your foot and this allows the pedal to release the cleat). If you’re clipped in, your shoe won’t bounce off or slide around on the pedal. You have the ability to “spin circles” when pedaling as well as have power on the up-stroke of the pedaling cycle, which, depending on who you talk to and (more accurately) where and how you ride, may (or may not) be a big advantage. BMX or Flats or Platform pedals are simply pedals with platforms that you put your foot on. They don’t have a retention system. They do, however, have replaceable pins protruding from the platform that provide very ample traction with the correct shoe/pedal combinations.

Still confused on where the “clip-less” name came from? Of course you are… Here’s how it happened: in the good ol’ days, road bikes didn’t have fairly advanced spring-loaded retention systems on pedals; nor did they have precisely machined cleats that attached to the bottom of $350 carbon fiber shoes…as they do now. In the ol’ days, they had what were called Toe-clips. This was a simple system where simple straps tightened a clip, holding your shoe tightly to the pedal. Eventually, the toe-clips were ditched in favor of the more advance, modern cleat/pedal-retention systems. No more toe-clips meant modern pedals were now labeled as clip-less… and the name stuck.

But back to riding…

Why should beginner riders be on flat pedals, at least at some point, and for at least long enough to feel comfortable riding with them?

First, if you’re new to riding MTB, you’re going to notice that there are all kinds of crazy things out there on the trail to worry about besides fumbling around, trying to clip in and out of your pedals. Trees, rocks, roots, steep ups, steep downs, other riders, dogs, cats…you name it. And, that’s not even to mention the other challenges of riding the bike correctly: proper body position, weight placement (Video), reading the trail properly and picking a good line, proper braking technique, shifting, pedal cadence, perhaps wheeling over a log…You get my drift. All of these challenges and obstacles will be overwhelming at first. Why complicate things further by not being able to readily put a foot down in order to save yourself from hitting the deck?

That’s the number one advantage of flat pedals: you can almost always instantly get a foot (or two) to the ground when needed (no getting stuck in the pedal). And, easily get your foot back on the pedal when needed…

 

Mary, Bad

This rider has made a few mistakes on this climb and has come to a sudden halt. As you can see, she is twisting her right foot to get out of her pedal and get a foot to the ground safely. Often, with clip-less pedals, the twisting motion can take a bit too long–especially for beginner riders–and the rider ends up taking a tumble on the rock because they can’t release their for quickly enough.

 

Not surprisingly, beginner riders (no cycling background at all: no road, triathlon, etc.) don’t have much of an issue starting out with riding flat pedals. Flat pedals—and not being attached to the bike—feel way more natural than being clipped in. These riders are usually terrified at the thought of clipping in. Good for them. The all important basics of MTB will come to them a lot quicker and easier with flat pedals than if they started out with clip-less pedals and they’ll be way safer and more confident on the bike.

The group that suffers the most from the pedal choice/situation/dilema are riders that are new to mountain biking but that have cycling riding experience in the areas of road, triathlon, even true XC  (“cross country”) mountain bike racing (which is seldom involves riding technically difficult terrain). Unlike the first group, who is scared to clip in and attached to the bike—and rightfully so—this group, because of their previous experience in other riding disciplines (where you do clip in and reap the benefits because most of it can easily be done seated and with high pedal cadences), is comfortable being clipped in… and they freak out when they are not attached to the bike. One of the biggest reasons why MTB riders won’t ride flat pedals is because when the bike starts bouncing around, their feet bounce off of the pedals. This is obviously not good. So, they clip in. No more bouncing off the pedals! Problem solved, right? The bummer with this is that the rider wasn’t bouncing off of the pedals because of the lack of a retention system, he was bouncing off of the pedals because of improper technique which will lead to all kinds of other problems down the road. He may getting away with improper technique for the moment, but he essentially put a band-aid on the real problem and is now developing bad technique and bad habits that will eventually catch up with him.

And that’s another advantage of flat pedals. Flats force the rider to do things correctly on the bike: proper body position and weight placement will provide pedal pressure and range of motion in the legs. This will allow the riders feet to “follow” the pedals as the bike moves around under the rider and the rider will not bounce off of the pedals in the rough. Thus, the rider has to maintain this proper riding technique, creating proper riding habits in the process. This proper position and weight placement is the foundation of proper MTB riding. Flat pedals make you do these things correctly.

 

Mary, Good Line copy

While clip-less pedals will definitely aid in keeping a rider’s feet on the pedals in difficult terrain, proper body position and weight placement–as seen here–are crucial and are the main factor in keeping a rider glued to the pedals.

 

How about pulling up on your cleats to “bunny-hop” or unweight the rear wheel? This is Terrible Technique 101. This may work for a bit, and this may be the way your buddies tell you to get the bike off the ground, but—mark my words—you WILL pop out of your cleats at the wrong time and it’s going to hurt really bad…. Lifting the bike properly is about leverage and doing a few simple things correctly. Many pro downhillers ride with flat pedals as well as all BMX’ers. Your cleats are not for bike handling.

Another problem with group that starts MTB riding clipped in? Very often, they never develop the ability to ride the bike at extremely slow speeds. Any rider that has ridden clipped in for any length of time has had the dreaded (and possibly embarrassing) experience of slowing or stopping (or maybe stalling out on a climb) and needing to immediately put a foot down; however, for whatever reason, the rider can’t quite get her foot out of the pedal, and, BAM! She’s toppled over and hit the ground. Usually these falls are simply that: toppling over at slow speeds, not even crashes, really. But, in the wrong situations, this can be extremely dangerous (over a cliff? Into traffic?). And, even just toppling over— especially if its on jagged rocks—is going to hurt. Once a rider has had this experience with clip-less pedals, it’s in the back of their head every time they slow down to extremely slow speeds…so they don’t ride at extremely slow speeds, and if they do, they always take their foot out nice and early.

Unfortunately, being able to ride at extremely slow speeds, with both feet on the pedals, and under control is a must in technical MTB riding [check out this video at the 2:05 mark. Notice how riding slowly is extremely necessary in order to ride these steep trails sections]. Again, on super easy, flat trail, or the road, you can take a foot out early—you don’t need much control at these slow speeds. But this won’t work—and is quite dangerous— in the nasty stuff.

In my instruction clinics, we cover switchbacks extensively. A true switchback is a 180 degree, very tight turn, on a very steep section of trail. These are some of the more difficult features out there. I don’t care who you are or how good you are as a rider, with very few exceptions, switchbacks will need to be taken at very slow speeds. You simply can’t change direction to that degree, with that tight of an arc, unless you are moving very slowly. And, quite often, because of the steepness of the terrain and erosion, there will be rock ledges, tree roots, water-bars, etc. present on the trail’s surface…and the switchback will be on the side of a cliff! The fact of the matter is, if you can’t ride extremely slowly, with confidence, under these conditions…you can’t—or shouldn’t—ride this trail. I consistently get riders that are itching to know what the magic formula is to being successful on switchbacks. Bad news: there isn’t one. Switchbacks require a rider to (often) do many basic things correctly—without the benefit of momentum: nine times out of ten, the rider’s inability to ride slowly and under control is the main problem.

There are many other examples where the ability to ride slowly is a must. Most of these involve clinging to steep, rocky, loose terrain where making mistakes just isn’t an option. Again, if you can’t ride slowly because of bad habits you developed with clip-less pedals, you simply won’t be able to ride these types of trails. And most fun trails will have at least a a bit of this type of terrain.

 

Spank Pedal 1Spank Pedal 25.10Sole

Stay away from cheap, low-quality flat pedals. A quality flat pedal will be thin with a large platform, have a parallelogram shape when viewed from the side (so it spins under your foot when stepped on), and have replaceable pins. These features combined with a shoe that has a flat, low profile, and soft soft rubber sole (5.10, Vans, etc…a decent skate board shoe will work) will provide more than adequate traction on the pedal.

 

What are the advantages of clip-less pedals?

Efficiency at the shoe/pedal interface is one. Shoes that are compatable with clip-less pedals will have a much stiffer sole relative to flat pedal shoes. The cleat on the bottom of these shoes will be made of metal and it will engage in a metal pedal. These are hard surfaces and there will be very little energy loss between shoe/pedal interface. On the contrary, flat pedal shoes are almost always pretty flexible and the soles are made of soft rubber to get a better purchase on the pedal. I can almost always feel a little “squish” of a flat pedal shoe with every pedal stroke, thus, there is a decent lose of energy.

Another advantage is the ability to “spin like a roadie”. As alluded to above, remaining seated on the smooth sections of trail and spinning a high cadence is arguably the most effective way to deal with these trail sections and provide the most efficiency and net speed over larger distances (but not very effective in a short distances, like a sprint…where the rider will almost always be out of the seat for maximum power). And, even on the most technically difficult rides out there—though you’ll need to get out of the seat on the nasty stuff—you’ll very often have a lot of ground to cover that is not technical at all and, thus, falls into this category.

***Note: there are people out there that will state that clipping in has no advantage what-so-ever over flat pedals, even in terms of pure pedaling. They’ll site various graphs and charts and numbers, etc. as proof. I’ll call BS on that. I’ll site road racing as an example: high cadence, seated pedaling, on smooth surfaces, while clipped in… That is what professional road racers do, for the most part. The type of pedaling that I’m referring to in this instance—on a smooth trail—is quite similar to road racing and not to what we would need to do in steep and varied terrain— rough trail. While there definitely are a lot of times when the perceived advantages of clip-less pedals are negated, I believe they do hold a pretty big advantage on smooth sections of trail where the rider can remain seated and utilize an efficient high pedal cadence. If someone tells you that there is no advantage to clipping in, ask them, ‘then why do roadies do it?’

So when and where would you ride flats over clip-less and vice versa?

I’ll use this example. Last summer I rode a super fun trail. It was a long, multi-hour climb out and to the top of a ridge. Then, all the way back to town, the trail descended on the very top of this rocky ridge. This was a few miles in duration, and it was steep, technical riding the whole way back. It was literally a rocky spine with a decent sized steep drop to either side.

I was riding clip-less pedals on that trip. There are a few different types of clip-less pedals, Shimano SPD’s being one of them. I love the feel of SPD’s over any other type of pedal, but one of their drawbacks is that once they get a little dirty—this could be mud, snow, or even a lot of dust, as was the case on this ride after a long day in extremely dry conditions—it can be a little tough getting in and out of the pedal. Not being able to get out of the pedal, when needed, on this trail was not an option. It would mean almost certain injury. It would have been very nice to have flat pedals, and, thus, to be able to abandon ship at will. If I ride that trail again, I’m throwing some flats on!

Anytime you feel a little intimidated by the terrain, flat pedals are a nice go-to just for the safety factor. But, you have to first put the time in to feel comfortable riding them. Once you get comfortable on flats, you’ll be able to go back with just a slight adaptation period.

I’ve had similar experiences in exactly opposite terrain: trails covered in wet slippery leaves and roots on the east coast. These trails were by no means intimidating. But, I knew that there would be a least a few times when I would find myself suddenly losing traction and needing to immediately get a foot down. Sometimes, when things happen real fast, even the split second it takes to release your shoe from the pedal is too much. I would’ve liked to have flat pedals for that ride.

Even at my advanced age, I still do a bit of dirt jumping. I always ride with flats when I dirt jump. The last thing I want, is to be attached to my bike when things go bad in the air.

On trails, I almost exclusively ride clip-less pedals over flats these days. Why? Especially since I’ve been touting flats and kinda dogging and discrediting clip-less in this article? First, keep in mind I raced years and years of professional downhill exclusively on flats (however, I have always clipped in on XC and trail riding). I feel pretty good about my body position and weight placement on the bike, much of which I learned because of the time I spent riding flat pedals. I do enjoy the benefits of clip-less pedals, namely their efficiency.  I also feel real good about being able to get in and out of my clip-less pedals (most of the time). And, finally, when I do ride like a goon and make huge mistakes…instead of blowing off my pedals and crashing, my feet are right where I left them: on the pedals!!!

But, again, riding flat pedals played a huge role in my learning and understanding of proper riding technique. I am very comfortable with either set-up and can easily go back and forth depending on the riding conditions. I highly advise any MTB’er who wishes to become a good technical rider to spend a bunch of time on flats, enough to get comfortable riding them in any terrain. And, I especially encourage the beginners to lay off the clips for a while.

Of course, if you’re a serious XC racer, you’ll probably want to race clipped in, but spend some time on flats to help develop proper technique. There is a learning curve to flats. So, if you’ve never ridden them, don’t throw a pair on your bike right before the big race or a huge ride with your buddies…give yourself some time to figure them out in a very controlled setting.

That’s it for now. Check out www.dirtsmartmtb.com for more on MTB skills instruction and coaching, scheduled clinics, skills videos, articles, blog…

MTB Technique: (DON’T!) Lean Back

Getting Hurt Sucks!

In many sports, if you do things wrong, you’ll simply end hitting a plateau with your skill level, and, well, maybe, just kind of suck for a while… And, often, that’s OK!!! Maybe you’re not the star player on your beer league softball team or you end spending a lot more time looking for your golf balls in the woods. No biggie…It’s just a game. Who cares?

However, with some sports (like mountain biking) there is a pretty good chance of getting injured if you make it a habit of doing things wrong. Proper technique is key to avoiding injury. Proper technique means more control, which directly affects safety, efficiency, and speed. It’s all tied together. It’s all about the human body working optimally, in an athletic sense, with the way the bicycle was designed to work.

There are many reasons why improper techniques and bad habits develop for riders. Often, the way we do things—movement, vision, etc.— are typical movement-habits that we’ve had success with in other athletic activities and we naturally bring them over to MTB… where they may not work so well. Many times, good technique is quite counter intuitive to what most riders believe and also what is perpetuated around riding circles and the internet. In fact, even high-level riders often aren’t aware of what they are actually doing on the bike (bad advice from “good” riders is incredibly common).

So we’re going to take a look at many MTB’ers first deadly sin: leaning back when things get steep and scary.. We’ll get into the reasons why most riders are guilty of this at some point and to some degree, and why this will get you into trouble. And, of course, we’ll address what the proper technique is and why its necessary.

The Oldest (Terrible) Tip in MTB

If you haven’t heard that we need to “Lean Back” on drop-offs, steep downhills, etc., don’t worry, you will. Its one of the oldest tips in mountain biking. We need to “lean back” so that we don’t fly over the handlebars on the steeps, right? Well, I’m here to tell you that one of the best ways to end up going over the bars is too get in the habit of leaning back when things get steep.

Here’s how it works:

When we lean back, we get all of our weight is over the rear wheel. Which means no weight is on the front wheel. So now—because the front wheel is weightless—it will easily roll up and over obstacles, through transitions, etc. So when we hit the transition from steep to level at the bottom of the creek bed, or the big log or rock on the steep downhill, our front wheel will roll right on through or over. So, it works! Sometimes…but, this technique will catch up to you sooner or later, and probably in a bad way.

There’s a lot more to successfully negotiating tricky stuff than just getting the front wheel to safety. When we lean back, big problems occur because of what happens to our rear wheel and our body mass. Because all of our weight is on the rear wheel, all of our force is pushing it into the ground. Because of this, the rear wheel is not going to want to roll up and over obstacles and through transitions. In fact, it will start to get “hung up”, or stall or stop, when it meets an obstacle. However, because of gravity and inertia, our body mass will continue to move forward, even thought the bike is now stalled. And that’s when it happens! Our weight and mass will end up thrown forward onto the bars and onto the front wheel. Now, the front wheel won’t roll over obstacles—it will stop—and we’re taking a painful trip over the bars. By leaning back, we actually ended up getting thrown forward. Classic mistake. In this situation, even if we are able to keep from going over the bars—by sheer strength, luck, whatever—we will have killed our momentum and speed and wasted a ton of energy fighting our body mass and inertia.

Got ROM?

Another problem we run into when we lean back is running out of range of motion (ROM) in our limbs. ROM in our limbs is the natural suspension for our core and head. Maintaining a balanced and stable core and head is essential to any effective movement, balance, vision, etc…all very important when riding a mountain bike in nasty conditions. When we lean back and our arms and legs are straight (very little ROM), we stand a much greater chance of getting jarred and thrown off balance; any bit of movement in the bike—side to side, sliding or bouncing, or falling away from us; like on a drop-offs—will be directly transmitted to our core and head. This is bad because we’ve given up stability and balance and our bodies will always need to fight to right the ship before we can be effective with any movement. In my instruction clinics, I use the example of having an imaginary glass of water on our heads as we descend and this glass of water shouldn’t not only spill or slosh around, but it should be calm and smooth. Your glass of water will be long gone if you start leaning back.

When we lean back on the bike, our arms and legs become straight. We can’t allow for our arms to straighten if they are already straight. So if we lean back before that drop-off, and then the front wheel has to drop two feet, guess what? We’re going to get pulled two feet forward and down because we had no range of motion left in our arms. Now our weight ends up on the front wheel, right where we didn’t want it to be, just like the example above. Again, we ended up being pulled forward because we leaned back. Bad technique 101…

So, What Should We Do?

What is good technique? Well, instead of leaning back on descents, we need to keep our weight and our “line of force” on the bottom bracket of the bike (what your cranks are connected to and rotate around). This means that we aren’t leaning at all. Now, often, even if a good rider is correctly positioned and has proper weight placement over the bottom bracket, it appears as if the rider is “leaning back” because the bike has pivoted and is pitched forward, matching the steepness of the terrain. This is a big reason why riders pass around the advice of leaning back on the steeps: because it looks like the pro rider is leaning back, even though their weight is on the bottom bracket of the bike and they are not leaning back at all. This proper weight placement and line of force allows the bike to pivot around the bottom bracket, allowing both wheels to adequately roll up and over obstacles and not get hung up. This is essential. This is the way the bike was designed to work. This also means smooth momentum paths for the rider (and, of course the rider’s core and head) and efficiency instead of being jarred off balance and wasting energy. This means safety, control, and, yes…speed. Essentially, we will no longer be fighting our own mass and the laws of physics.

In my clinics, another “check” that I use is the question of “if your bike disappears, would you land on your feet?”  The answer should be yes. This means that your weight is on your feet and properly placed on the bike. This is our our proper default position and weight placement when descending. This is definitely not leaning back.

Red LIne,Dak.Ridge Switchback

In this photo, it does appear that the rider is leaning back. However, if we draw a vertical line up from the bottom bracket, it becomes apparent that his weight is indeed on his feet and thus, the BB. If the bike were to disappear, he would land on his feet.

We’ve addressed the negative points that happen when we lean back on the bike, both in terms of how the bike functions and also in the way that our bodies work . We’ve touched upon the benefits of proper weight placement and how it allows the bike to function correctly. Now we’ll hit upon the benefits of proper body position and weight placement, and how this enables our bodies to function optimally while descending.

First, range of motion. I sometimes hear “be one with the bike”. While this may be somewhat of a figure of speech, the fact is, that last thing we want to do is be one with the bike. We need to keep a dynamic relationship with our bikes. Our core and head need to remain stable and calm for the reasons stated above, while allowing the bike to bounce, slide, move side-to-side, pitch forward and back… This means that we need ROM in our limbs, and, usually, the more the better. By getting low on the bike and providing this ROM, we buy ourselves some cheap insurance for when things go wrong. And, they will go a little wrong on drop-offs and steep descents; the traction is usually minimal when things get steep and stuff starts to happen really fast. This is not the time to get thrown off balance and/or thrown off line. By maintaining an athletic position, plenty of ROM, and proper weight placement, our bodies are able to function optimally in this pretty crucial moment.

Jacob_Arkansas

This rider is maintaining an athletic body position and proper weight placement on the bottom bracket of the bike. This allows for adequate Range of Motion in the limbs and enables the bike to pivot and move around the BB, providing a dynamic relationship between the bike and rider. The bike can bounce, slide, move over the trail’s surface yet the rider is able to maintain a balanced and stable core and head.

Our legs offer balance, support, and power for our core, or our body mass. We need to support our core with our legs and this doesn’t happen when we lean back on the bike; when we lean back we’re supporting our mass with our arms. This is not optimal movement and control of the human body. Also, our arms obviously have a very important role to play in riding the bike, but that role should not be to support the mass (that’s a job for our legs) and the fact is, if the arms are busy supporting the body’s mass, they can’t perform the tasks of small, quick, precise manipulations of the bike through the bars. The weight has to be on the legs to free up the arms to do their thing.

Another reason lots of rider lean back when things get scary is simply because they naturally want to stay away from the scary stuff! In skiing this is called “getting into the back seat” and, just like in mountain biking, this natural reaction of self preservation actually results in loss of control. It’s hard to override your natural reactions and maintain proper position, but, in this case, is so important to do so.

Will we occasionally lean back and get into the position of “butt on the tire”? Yes, we will. But only for the right reasons, and we don’t want to make a habit of living there.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. You will see photos of pro riders leaning back (but this should be viewed in the context and intention of the of the pic; often cool photos aim to sell products, not reflect proper riding technique). Armed with this information, you should have some really good reasons to break that bad habit of leaning back and a bunch of good reasons to start doing it right. As always, www.dirtsmartmtb.com for more MTB skills articles and videos, full camp schedule, and a bunch of other good stuff.

Bike Pack Essentials

Most bike shops or riding buddies can clue you in on the basics that should be in your riding pack: A multi-tool (see pics below) to make adjustments to the bike out on the trail; a spare tube to fix a flat tire (flat tires are one of the most common and easily remedied mechanical problems that mountain bikers will encounter on the trail); probably a light jacket just in case the weather turns a bit; maybe a bite to snack on…Pretty simple, right? Also, your car keys, phone, and your hydration liquid of choice, etc…

However, if you are going to carry a pack—which you probably should if you’re going to be riding any distance from you’re car, home, hotel, etc.—there are a few little tid-bits that you probably want to throw in there and these things probably won’t be recommended to you by that local bike shop or your riding buddies. These are all Bike Pack Essentials that I carry in my pack and they fall under the category of “learned this the hard way” because I’ve been on a ride or two when I really needed them…but, of course, didn’t have them with me at the time.

Before we get into the contents, let’s start with the preferred size of your pack.

Three packs from EVOC (www.evocusa.com). On the left, the big dog with a capacity of 30 liters. On the right, the 10 liter (and my go-to for most rides). And in front, the ultra-hip, Hip-Pack...

Three packs from EVOC (www.evocusa.com). On the left, the big dog with a capacity of 30 liters. On the right, the 10 liter (and my go-to for most rides). And in front, the ultra-hip, Hip-Pack…

 

There have been many times that I have taken off on a ride without a pack. I have, however, had the very basics (phone, keys, multi-tool, spare tube) stuffed in my pockets of my shorts (zippered pockets, of course. Lost smart phones or car keys will put a damper on the good times you had on your ride). On those rides, I’d have a water bottle with me, in the H20 cage, on the bike. On these pack-less rides, I’d be absolutely positive that the weather wasn’t going to go bad on me. I would never be any more than a few minutes walk from wherever I need to be if something did come up, mechanically, that I could’t repair. And, from a safety perspective, there were almost definitely going to be plenty of people around.

So, on that type of ride: short ride, close to safety, no weather…OK, no pack…stuff a couple things in your pockets… But, Fashion Police be damned, this is a great ride for the Hip-Pack! (foreground in the photo). Throwing a bunch of expensive and important stuff in non-zippered pockets isn’t such a great idea for obvious reasons. And, stuffed cargo pockets (with shredded layers, warm hat, etc.), especially if they are on your thighs, means that the weight is going to have to go up and down with every pedal stroke. I don’t like that.

A hip-pack keeps your valuables secure and carries the weight of the contents on your lower lumbar, which is also the center of mass of your body. This will be the calmest and most efficient place to carry it.

And, heck, if Day-Glo colors and Skinny-Pants came back into fashion, then Hip-Packs have to be right around the corner, right?

The pack that is the next size up in the photo is a 10 liter pack (on the right). This is my go-to for most mountain bike riding and the size of pack that I suggest most riders buy first. There are many packs that are smaller in size than this (5 or 6 liters, roughly), but all they can really carry is your water and those very basics mentioned above. If you plan on really riding, you’re going to get into rides where you’ll need to shed layers, carry extra layers, and have space to put them. With a 5 – 6 liter pack, this is already too much stuff to fit in there. That’s why I jump up to the 10-ish liter right away. It’ll house all the stuff that will be addressed in this article while still not being too big, bulky, and overkill.

The final pack in the photo is a 30 liter pack (on the left). A pack of this size is a necessity if you’re carrying a sleeping bag, lugging food and camping gear, maybe a pro camera set-up…But it’ll be overkill for the majority of rides.

Again, the 10-ish liter size is a great size for an adequate and versatile, all-arounder pack.

So let’s start getting into the contents…

Most people are aware that a light jacket is a great idea. But I want to go a step further and suggest having a light jacket that will also keep you dry. If you can stay dry, you can probably stay at least relatively warm. If you’re soaked to the bone because your jacket wasn’t waterproof or water-resistant enough…well, you probably won’t be at all warm. So look for a decent waterproof or very water-resistant jacket that will pack well. I also always carry a moisture wicking hat and usually some warmer gloves. Staying warm while riding in a light rain isn’t very hard to do, even if you are a little damp. But, if someone gets hurt, if you get lost, if you have a major mechanical breakdown that can’t be repaired…and then the weather changes and you’re out for an extended period of time…that’s when a little extra protection from the elements will come in real handy.

H20-proof/resistant jacket that WILL keep you dry. Warm, moisture-wicking hat and gloves... Most peeps pack the jacket; Trust me, you'll want the hat and gloves at some point.

H20-proof/resistant jacket that WILL keep you dry. Warm, moisture-wicking hat and gloves… Most peeps pack the jacket; Trust me, you’ll want the hat and gloves at some point.

Next (and, of course, in the learned-this-the-hard-way catogory), is stuff that will give you the ability to repair a flat beyond just that of putting a fresh tube in the tire.

Most riders know that flat tires are pretty much inevitable…even with today’s much improved tubeless tire systems. So, most riders do carry a spare tube (hopefully) with them and have the knowledge to actually be able to install it to repair the flat (again, hopefully). But what happens when you flat your spare and your buddy didn’t bring his? (on long rides away from civilization, two spare tubes may not be a bad idea)

Patch Kit!

Patch kits are small and easy to carry and can be found in any bike shop. And, WILL come in handy at some point. It’s a pretty simple process to patch a tube and you’ll be glad you have one in your pack when you need it.

Flat repairs on the trail aren’t always about throwing a fresh tube in a flat tire, however. I see a lot of flats these days because of damage to the tire, particularly a slice or hole that is large enough so that the sealant of the tire (in modern tubeless systems) is unable to seal the puncture. In this case, the pressure of an installed tube (the usual flat repair method), when it is inflated, will simply force the tube out of the hole, the tube will pop, and you’ll be walking.

There are numerous methods to possibly salvage your expensive tire when you get home, but out on the trail, things can be a bit tougher. Turns out, a paper bill folded over, and placed over the hole, on the inside of the tire, will work great for a tire patch. Two will work better. And a roll of Gorilla Tape will work in a pinch for damaged tire beads, holding the make shift bill-patch in place, etc.

 

Photo 3

Gorilla tape, patch kit, paper bill$…multiple flat, real world tire repair kit…

Gorilla Tape also comes in handy with fix-anything-McGuyver-style repairs. As do Zip-ties… Cracked cable housing? Sliced brake line? Broken shoe buckle? Possibly—if necessary—even making a a split or—god forbid— a tourniquet… Again, not much space is taken up and you’ll be glad you have these things when you need them.

Strong tape, various tip-ties... Watch a couple episodes of Macgyver and get the fix-anything vibe.

Strong tape, various tip-ties… Watch a couple episodes of Macgyver and get the fix-anything vibe.

Most riders know that a good multi-tool is a must. But, A CHAIN TOOL IS A MUST, also (many multi-tools do include chain tools). If something goes slightly—even majorly—out of adjustment on your bike, you can usually still nurse it home, covering decent ground, albeit a bit slower. But with a broken chain, and no way to fix it, you’re going to be pushing on all but the downhills. I’m also blown away by the amount of bamboozled riders that I find on the side of the trail, broken chain, chain tool in hand…but clueless as to how to actually use the thing. Make sure that you have a chain tool in your pack (whether on your multi-tool or not) AND you know how to use it. Any bike shop should have plenty of excess lengths of chain lying around that they will gladly donate to you so you can hone your chain repair skills. A good shop will actually show you how it’s done (Youtube.com will, if your shop won’t).

Chain tool included on a multi-tool. But ,pretty useless if you don't know how to use it!

Chain tool included on a multi-tool. But, pretty useless if you don’t know how to use it!

 

This also brings us to the proper way to fix a chain, and that is with either a SRAM Power Link or a Shimano chain pin. A Power Link should work with both SRAM and Shimano chains, but the pins are designed to work with Shimano chains, so I prefer to use pins on Shimano chains. It’ll be necessary to remove a potion of the damaged chain (with your chain tool) in order to properly repair with either system. Also, you always want to push a chain pin through the links from the inside to the outside of the bike as well as always having the wider link being the “pulling” length for more strength. This gets a little technical (do a little research), but, again, these are things you want to be aware of when you have to make that repair on the trail. And, be prepared to do it when you’re a little lost, it’s getting dark, it’s raining, and you can barely feel your fingers because you didn’t pack your warm gloves!!!  😉

Shimano chain pins and a SRAM Power Link... essential for proper on-trail chain repair.

Shimano chain pins and a SRAM Power Link… essential for proper on-trail chain repair.

A shift cable. A shift cable is small and light, easy to carry, and pretty easy to install. Inevitably, you or one of your riding pals will break a cable, or, more likely, fray one to the point where the bike will be almost impossible to shift. If you still have a bunch of distance to cover, especially in difficult terrain, getting the bike back to operational with proper shifting, could be really important.

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Shift cable…

Spare derailleur hanger. Your derailleur hanger is that piece of metal that your derailleur threads into. It is designed to bend or break before your expensive derailleur does when the derailleur is impacted in a fall, by a trailside obstacle, etc. Thus, it’s a fairly malleable and weak piece of your bike and easily damaged. When this happens, your bike won’t shift well, if at all.  A broken or severely damaged derailleur hanger on a long ride is no bueno… Thus, having a spare in your pack is a good idea. Most bikes have derailleur hangers that are specific to models so make sure you get the right one.

These are derailleur hangers. There are many different versions... make sure you have the correct spare for your bike

These are derailleur hangers. There are many different versions… make sure you have the correct spare for your bike

Last thing: Spare cleat bolts. If you ride with clip-less pedals, you have cleats on the bottom of your shoes. These cleats are attached with two bolts so that they don’t twist when you twist your foot to get out of the pedal. If you lose one of those bolts, allowing the cleat to twist relative to you shoe instead of relative to the pedal (relative to the pedal is the motion necessary so that the cleat will disengage from the pedal), you won’t be able to get out of your pedal, can’t put your foot down, etc. This can be very dangerous. Cleat bolts should be a installed with blue Loc-tite, preventing them from loosening up…but this doesn’t always happen. Again, a small part to carry, and an easy remedy to a potentially dangerous predicament.

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Cleat bolts… If you ride clips pedals, you’ll want to have at least one spare in your pack.

Last, last thing: some type of first aid kit and some first aid skills. I’m not going to go super in-depth with this one, but if you intend to have fun outdoors, I highly recommend that you have at least basic first aid skills and the necessary equipment to implement them.

That’s it for now. Check out www.dirtsmartmtb.com for more on DirtSmart MTB Skills Coaching and Training and scheduled clinics and camps.

How Tire Tread Works

How Tire Tread Works

What slows down and stops your bike? Your brakes? Nope…your tires tires stop your bike! What makes your bike turn? Leaning the bike and a bit of steering with the bars right? Well, actually it’s the contact patch of your tires on the trail surface that ultimately changes your bike’s direction.

When it comes to MTB equipment, tires are extremely important. Yet they are pretty over looked by many riders. There are a lot of aspects of tires that need to be taken into consideration if you’re serious about getting it right; tire pressure; volume; casings,… but today we’re going to talk about tire tread and how it works with the surface of the trail.

Tire Tread for Soft, Loose Surfaces

There are two ways in which your tires can get traction. One, the rubber of the tire simply contacts the ground surface (like on pavement or a hard-packed trail), or two, the tread of the tires (or lugs or knobs) dig into the surface of the trail when it is soft (loose gravel, sand, mud, etc.). This is where different types of tread for different types of conditions come into play.

But how does this work? First, imagine trying to stab a screwdriver into the grass on your front lawn. If the ground is fairly soft, the screwdriver will stab right in. Now, imagine trying to do the same thing with the end of a baseball bat. Probably isn’t going to happen right? The bat is too blunt and large to penetrate the surface. Lugs on tires work in a similar manner. A stiffer and thinner lug will stab into the soft, loose trail and “claw into” the ground while a shorter, fatter lug probably won’t, but instead will “float” on top of the surface (sometimes this is desirable—like with fat bikes in deep snow—but usually this simply means no traction and slipping and sliding around). Also, in order for the lugs to stab into the ground, there needs to be some space between the lugs, so the material can move out of the way as the lug stabs in.

Mud tires, or spikes, are on the extreme side of a loose terrain tire. They have, literally, little rubber spikes for lugs. These lugs will stab and claw into the ground on loose surfaces and the adequate space between the lugs will allow the tire to “clear” mud and debris easily.

 

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 Mud “spikes”. Notice the space between the lugs

 

The downside of tires that do a great job in the loose stuff? They can be fairly terrible on hard packed trail surfaces, rock, pavement, etc. Why? Because when the trail surface is hard and impenetrable, traction comes from contacting the rubber of the tire with the trail’s surface, not stabbing into it. Spikes and thin lugs that are designed for stabbing into loose terrain will provide very little surface area for contact on the hard surface. Also, the lugs are usually long and thin and will “roll over”, or bend, under the weight of the rider and bike. This means little to no traction.

Tire Tread for Hard-packed Surfaces

In the case of a hard trail surface—if you’re looking for traction—the more rubber that can touch the surface of the trail, the better.

Tires for hard-packed surfaces are the types of tires that are sold on XC race bikes. These are the tires of choice for non-technical, smooth, fast, hard-packed surfaces. They will almost always be lower volume (volume is essentially the width and size of the tire), with light casings (how thick and tough the tire will be: light means fast, but also means thin and more susceptible to damage).

These tires will have low profile (short) and tightly spaced lugs. The priority of these tires is usually very little rolling resistance and just enough tread to get a bit of traction when necessary. The pattern of the center lugs usually will provide a near constant contact with the trail’s surface. This allows the tire to move along with very little vibration or “buzz” and helps provide low rolling resistance.

 

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A low profile, fast rolling design (Great for hard-pack…)

 

The downside? No ability to dig into loose terrain: the lugs aren’t large enough and are also too tightly spaced to allow the material to move out of the way. And, because of the lighter casings and lower volumes, these tires will have to be run at higher pressures to prevent flats, damaged rims, cut tires, etc. providing less ability for the tire to dampen bumps and conform to the trail for traction.

These tires will be bad news in loose terrain: they will float and slide on gravel as if it were a bunch of marbles instead of being able to dig in and find purchase; because of their necessary higher pressures, they’ll deflect and bounce off of obstacles instead of absorbing them.

And the Winner is?

Unfortunately, no tire is great—or even good—everywhere. What will work awesome in the blown out loose moon-dust and gravel of the Rocky Mountains will be slow, sluggish and sketchy on east coast hard-pack; what will have you smashing your buddies on those lung-busting fire road climbs could put you in the weeds on the way back down if you’re not careful!

I usually use tires that work great in Colorado; large volume tires with large, well spaced lugs that move material and dig in, but also support and don’t roll over on off-camber rock. The problem is that they feel like they are filled with molasses when I’m back east coaching on fast, smooth trails. And, lighter, faster rolling tires, that fly on hard-packed trails east of the Mississippi can be somewhat of a death-wish back home in the gnarlier stuff.

And, with today’s tubeless tire systems, it’s a hassle to swap out tires every week.

What’s the answer? Aside form multiple wheel-sets mounted with different tires for different conditions (that’d be nice!), there really isn’t an answer. Investigate, research, ride… I have a couple of different tire combos that I use and they differ at different time’s of the year.

What’s your priority? Rolling resistance or traction? And, traction on what type of surface?

Hopefully this article shedded a little light on the subject of tire tread and pointed a few of you in the right direction. In the DirtSmart Skills Camps, I have a bike set-up and equipment segment and we get way deep into tire choice, tire pressures, volumes, casings, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MTB Coaching is Too Expensive!

One of the biggest reasons why riders decline to take MTB coaching/instruction is the price… MTB coaching is too expensive!

So, OK, I’ll readily admit that quality coaching isn’t cheap. I charge $500 for a two-day clinic. That is some serious scratch.

But…what did your bike cost? Plus all your gear: riding get-ups, shoes, helmet, pack, rack on your car, couple pairs of cool shades… maybe your new set of carbon wheels… And, what’s your insurance deductable for an ER room visit? (And—trust me—there’s always something ridiculously expensive, that isn’t covered, in such visits). Also, how much money are you losing in missing work—disability insurance or not… What’s the cost of family members and significant others worrying about you both in getting injured and also every time you go out on the bike after you’ve been patched up and heal up?

Have you ever taken a day of quality instruction in, say, golf or ski lessons? Scuba classes? Avalanche training? Or, how about a weekend seminar for work? What does something like that run?

Hmmmm… five-hundo is almost looking cheap!

 

Here’s an email from a previous student that I just received today:

 

Hey Andy,

 I had another giggle moment at Palos yesterday.

 You probably rode “Badass Hill” while you were here. It’s a stretch of Bullfrog trail that is pretty long, pretty steep, somewhat rooty, and sweeps in a long turn. But mainly, it’s full of cobbles. Yesterday I was riding with a group of riders, all of whom are better than I am. Naturally they had pulled ahead. So, to try and keep up, I unwisely decided to bomb Badass.

 About halfway down I was on the far edge left as the trail was sweeping right when my brain realized that I was going MUCH too fast. But, on that surface, there was not much slowing down. And as soon as I looked at the trees just off my left elbow I started going toward them….

 And then it all kicked in; I dropped heels, got low, looked at that sweet spot down the trail where I wanted to end up, dragged a bit of back brake and rode it out. My GPS said I was doing 19.3 mph; it would have been a very bad fall. And yeah, I was laughing like I did on Gravity Cavity.

 So I can truly say that the coaching, and practicing what I was taught, almost certainly kept me out of the hospital.

 Thanks!

 

The above rider is a recreational enthusiast who very much enjoys riding his bike. He’s not serious racer, he doesn’t ride at a super high level. But he get’s out there and has fun, get’s his fitness on, pushes himself a bit… (Sound familiar?)

As most of you know, MTB has a steep learning curve. And, falling on rocks at 19.3 mph usually doesn’t end too well. To get up and walk away from a crash of that nature (road-rash, cuts and bruises, mangled bike, rattled confidence, and shattered ego aside)…well, you’re gonna feel a little lucky, and righty so…

The above email illustrates one very important reason why pretty much any rider that throws a leg over the bike should almost definitely take some quality MTB coaching/instruction: safety!

But MTB coaching is too expensive!

 

Proper technique—while it will make you much faster—isn’t necessarily about speed: it’s very much about just being safe! Is that worth $500? Do you owe that to yourself and others around you?

Maybe you just ride at a beginner or novice level. You don’t race or compete. You’re just going to take it easy out there, so you don’t need to bother with coaching. That’s for racers, right? (Heck, why bother wearing a helmet? They’re like a hundred bucks!)

Well, I have news for you: you’re riding at a beginner or novice level not because you lack the fitness or time on the bike, but, ultimately, because you’re doing a lot of things (most things) wrong when to comes to technique. If you were doing them right, you wouldn’t be riding at that level anymore.

Unfortunately, when it comes to MTB’ing, bad technique doesn’t only mean going slow, it also means lack of control; lack of comfort and confidence; and finally, being unsafe…to yourself and others! YOU WILL get yourself into situations that you won’t be able to get yourself out of with poor technique.

Proper MTB riding is simple when it’s broken down to its basic components, but until we get into the highest levels of riding, almost everybody is doing most of it wrong (and, even the top pros on the planet seek out and benefit from coaching). The best, quickest, and most effective way to learn to do it right: Good Coaching!!! The alternative: The School of Hard Knocks, trial and error, years and years and years of learning the hard way… (Let’s face it; the internet and your riding buddies haven’t been much help!)

Almost all riders have pretty terrible technique by default. There are normal and common reasons for this. In the situation described in the above email, the rider would almost definitely have done almost everything differently had he not previously had quality MTB coaching: proper braking, proper trail-vision, proper body position and weight distribution…all of these things are very counterintuitive. And, it would take a lifetime of trial and error and learning-the-hard-way (and lots of hospital bills) before a rider would be able to react properly and make the proper decisions and adjustments in order to not end up seeing the inside of the ER room in that situation.

The other really cool thing: the exact techniques that this rider used to preserve his hide, to not crash, to remain safe…are the exact things one would do if they were a serious racer, trying to go as fast as possible.

safety = control and confidence = smooth and efficient = fast

Again, riding is simple once it is broken down to it’s very basics: whether you’re looking for more comfort and control on the bike, or you’re trying to shave seconds off your race time…the techniques are virtually the same. The difference is usually just a matter of more difficult terrain and higher consequences.

Take riding waaaay better out of the equation… And leave out the having-more-fun part… Leave out the More Confidence, crushing your buddies, meeting your competition goals (if you have them)… being able to go anywhere and ride the local trails competently…

Leave all that out and think about simply being much safer and having a way lower probability of getting seriously injured. Is that worth five hundred dollars? I’m pretty much positive, that with rare exception, any rider that has been seriously injured would gladly hit the rewind button and go back and pay five hundred bucks in order to have learned how to do it right…

What do you think the rider who wrote the email would say? Was it worth it?

 

Sign up for a scheduled clinic or contact us about getting one in your area. Check our coaching philosophy and what to expect in DirtSmart camp/clinic. Do your riding buddies a favor and share this article with them before they learn the hard way!