Andy’s Take On Some Great Counter Intuitive MTB Riding Advice

“Gotta go slow to go fast!”  (this for all riders, especially those more concerned with control than speed, please read on!)

The above saying has been floating around racing circles since probably forever. On this website, one of the latest updates contains a video of last year’s U.S. Open Downhill Race. In it, race winner, and super-fast rider and all-around nice guy, Andrew Neethling, stated that it was essential for him to really slow down in sections of the course in order to get the win. Former top U.S. World Cup Downhiller, the legendary Shawn Palmer, who was known for his checker-or-the-wrecker, on the edge style (both on and off the bike), was also known to throw that saying around on more then one occasion.

So here are two guys that pay (or used to pay) their rent by going faster – not by slowing down – telling us we need to slow down to go fast? What gives?

In the following, we’ll explore what the saying actually means and how it can help not only racers, but also recreational riders ride more efficiently, more in control, safer, and, faster.

Let’s first take a look at what the saying is actually implying, and let’s say that for this discussion, we’re talking about riding at speeds that are typical of descending on a MTB (not seated climbing-type speeds). “Go slow to go fast” could easily be translated into managing one’s speed. Or, better yet, managing one’s momentum (different then speed). In other words, we need to use momentum as a tool to help us get over obstacles or go faster and use less energy to do these things, but, at the same time, we can’t let this momentum affect us negatively by pulling us off the trail, over the bars, into trees, etc. When Andrew Neethling won the U.S. Open, he sure as heck didn’t want to come to a dead stop when he needed to slow down, he wanted to maintain as much momentum as possible, but not so much that it forced him into a costly mistake.

Think about this: every time we descend on the bike, its an exercise in momentum management. Every corner we take, every rock or root we drop off, etc. Every time we almost get thrown over the handlebars by improperly negotiating an obstacle, its because we screwed up on managing our momentum. Momentum is what is carrying us over the rocks, obstacles, whatever, and allowing us to generate speed, yet it is also what is forcing us into mistakes.

So I find it kind of amazing that very few riders look at riding a section of trail in terms of momentum management. I get riders who tell me all the time that in order to improve on the bike, they need to “get better at drops” or “ need to learn to corner” or “need to get in shape” … but I’ve never heard, “I need to get better at managing my momentum.”

I believe that one of the reasons conservative, recreational riders often don’t benefit from the “gotta go slow to go fast” idea (or as we’ve defined it here, “gotta manage your momentum”) is because they’re not concerned with going “fast” so they don’t believe the that concept applies to them. When I mention going-slow-to-go-fast in my camps, without fail, the self-deprecating talk starts to flow like water, “Oh, I know all about going slow … ha. ha. ha.” or “You don’t have to worry about the ‘fast’ part with me … heh. heh.” But it seems that it is usually this type of rider that pays the biggest price for improper momentum management – whether that means big crashes because of too much momentum or the inability to clean a relatively easy obstacle because of too little. Every rider generates speed and momentum and, thus, needs to be conscious of these things and the effect that they have on their riding.

Racers, on the other hand, are often so concerned with raw speed (which they often inaccurately equate to less time between point-A and point-B) that they fail to consider that momentum is actually the motor that is carrying them down the hill and too much or too little at any given moment, can be detrimental to their success. Downhill tracks consistently have lines and obstacles where a rider can generate massive amounts of momentum (and gain time) if he were only to slow down (cut momentum) briefly in order reap the huge benefits further down the course.

Coach Gene Hamilton demonstrating how to maintain momentum over a rock in Fruita

This is great skill to acquire and, when done properly, one of the safest, smoothest, most efficient, fastest, and most fun ways you could ever ride your mountain bike.

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2 replies
  1. WAKi says:

    Very interesting perspective! I have to take it into account next time I do some trail section practice.

    I am having this big trouble with a theory growing in my head about relation bike weight/ momentum. It seems to me that too light bike,(especially too light wheels) for certain purpose are actualy bad for speed. I mean they become a disadvantage on the trail as they don’t carry momentum over obstacles well enough, just as too heavy bike carries too much. I have this theory that everyone depending on his/her own skill level has a thin red line drawn in different places on bike weight scale.

    Anything you could resonate on that one?

    Reply
  2. Andy says:

    WAKi,

    I understand what you’re saying and believe that there is some, if not quite a bit, of truth to that. However, remember that the largest chunk of our mass (bike and body included) is our torso and head. If this mass can travel in a smooth, straight line, then our bike (and wheels) will follow. If your wheels are having trouble rolling over an obstacle, chances are too much of your mass is pushing down, into that obstacle – regardless of the weight of the wheels (size of wheels would, however, have a huge effect on this). Also, we need to find a way to not hit the obstacle so directly, we need to “skim” over the top of the obstacle, having the wheel hit it at much lower angle of incidence. This is all part of proper technique and line selection. I feel that there are other factors that have a much larger effect on how well your wheel will roll over an obstacle then the weight of the actual wheel: often heavier wheels are on bikes that are more suited to smashing into larger obstacles. The amount of suspension and the tune of the suspension will affect this. The geometry of the frame will affect this. I know with certain bikes, like a true downhill bike, I will “plow” into some obstacles knowing that the bike will roll right over them with no problem, I wouldn’t do the same thing on my XC bike, but this is because of the above mentioned factors and not the weight of the wheels or the bike. A heavier wheel will also have more straight line stability then a lighter wheel, but again, properly tuned suspension and adequate frame geometry should be able to get stable ride out of even the lightest of wheels.

    I think that if we’re looking to the bike’s weight and momentum (wheels or otherwise) to get us over obstacles, we’re kind of looking at it backwards – we need to look at our body’s momentum and position first. If our body position and momentum is correct, we can get over almost anything regardless of the bike.

    So that being said, I, ninety-nine percent of the time want the lightest equipment I can get, as long as it doesn’t break and has the tunability and and angles (geometry) that I need. This is true for my downhill bike, my XC bike, or my beach-cruiser.

    Reply

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