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.]


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


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:


. . . 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.


Not much throw


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.