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.
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.
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.
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.
Once again you’ve provided really strong advice. When I first started riding over scary drop-offs I did in fact always get my weight over the rear wheel, and although I never went over the bars, I also never knew what was going to happen at the bottom of the obstacle. I would often either slide out or run into a tree off of the trail. Now I don’t even think about getting behind my seat. By staying balanced on the bike, the seat moves forward in front of me on its own when it needs to, and I stay in control and can literally stop on a dime if I need to once clearing a drop-off.
Thanks, Thomas. So much of riding is just about letting the body and the bike do what they do well. But, of course, we have to know what this is and why it works the way it does first. Also, vision is arguably the most part of riding. Most riders never look past the drop-off/jump, so they have no idea what to expect when they land. Knowing what to do with all the momentum you gain after a drop, and where to take it, is crucial. Of course, you have to be under control when you land to be able to do this. god stuff…thanks.