How to Descend a Steep Section, Mountain Bike Body Position

BetterRide head coach Andy Winohradsky explaining in further depth why being centered is so important, even on a steep hill. In Andy’s words:

In this update, I’ll explain proper weight placement while descending steep terrain, why this is so important and how it relates to controlling your bicycle, and I’ll also dispel one of the most infamous myths about body position and weight placement while descending.

It is EXTEMELY IMPORTANT that you remain centered and balanced on the bicycle in steep terrain, and this means having ALL of your weight on our feet. Not 50% on your hands, and 50% on your feet, not 70/30 … ALL of your weight needs to be on your feet***. The best way that I’ve heard it explained is like this: if the bike disappears, do you land on your feet? Keeping your weight on your feet is the only way to keep your body centered and balanced on the bike. This also keeps your weight over the bottom bracket of the bicycle which is essential in employing the bike’s handling characteristics.

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky on steep, sharp turn

In the photo, I am definitely not leaning forward on the bike. Because the bike is pitched forward with the of the angle of the terrain, the my hips (the body’s center of mass) are above the rear tire, but, my weight is still on my feet – despite my relationship to the bicycle – and directly over the bottom bracket. If my bike disappears, I will land on my feet!!!

Now we’ll talk about why it is so important to maintain this position.

The particular section of trail in the photo is a nasty little spot on one of the most difficult trails on Colorado’s front range. Though it looks like it could qualify as a switchback and does require some of the technique similar to that of negotiating switchbacks (switchbacks are tough and require proper technique in order to consistently pull them off), from a technique standpoint, it is simply more of a very steep and short rock slab with a ninety degree left turn at the bottom (the trail runs along the left that fence). Speed control is essential. While many riders can drop into a near-vertical cliff face, hold on for dear life, and ride in a straight line, scared to death and completely out of control, until the trail levels out (providing that it does), the sharp turn at the bottom of this one forces a rider to control his or her speed with proper braking. This “move” in the photo is performed at about 2-3 mph, slower then a normal walking speed. In this case, a quite advanced degree of front brake control is necessary and this is impossible to execute this without proper body position.

If the rider’s weight is too far back on the bike and there is not enough weight on the front wheel the front wheel will lock up and skid (perhaps this has happened to you – scary, huh?!). At this point the rider has a few choices: release the front brake and accelerate rapidly with no hope of making the sharp turn at the bottom, skid the front wheel to an inedible crash, or, (the correct choice) – and this one better happen instantaneously and perfectly – shift weight properly onto feet, regain control, control speed …

If the riders weight is too far forward, it will be impossible to apply the front brake without taking a trip over-the-bars, thus, no speed control and no chance of making the sharp left.

The rear brake, though still useful for controlling the bike in various ways that we won’t discuss right now, is pretty much useless when it comes to slowing or stopping the bike on terrain that is this steep.

Another reason that you need to maintain this body position with your weight on the pedals on steep terrain is because – though you don’t want this to happen – there’s a very good chance that your bike will slide or skid a little bit (sometimes a lot!). If you are not centered and balanced on the bicycle, you are out of position and will not be able to effectively control the slide. The tiniest mistake can lead to big problems on steep terrain if it is not immediately and effectively dealt with, and this means having rock solid, near perfect technique in these conditions.

There are other reasons why you need to keep your weight on your feet when descending: among them, your upper body simply isn’t strong enough to support your body weight for any length of time and the balance sensors of you body reside in your ankles – let your body do the things its good at doing!

Now to dispel one of the oldest, most wide-spread, and straight-up dangerous myths/advice about riding a MTB down steep technical terrain. The Myth? Lean back when things get steep.

Lets define leaning like this: an object, other then your legs, is supporting your body while your feet are still on the ground – I can lean against a wall or I could lean my body away from a fence but hold myself up by grasping the fence with my hands. In either case, if you remove the object (wall or fence), I fall down.

When we talk about leaning back on our bicycle, the handlebars are supporting our body. If the bike disappears (the handlebars disappear) we won’t land on our feet … we will land on our butts.

We’ve already determined that if a rider is “leaning back” it will be impossible to use the front brake effectively (very little weight on front wheel), and, thus, impossible to control his or her speed. It will also be extremely difficult to control sliding or other drastic movement of the bicycle because the rider is not in a balanced and neutral position.

The funny(?) thing is, riders lean back because they don’t want to go over the handlebars while descending steep terrain, when actually, leaning back WILL CAUSE a rider to go over the handlebars in many cases.

Here’s how it works:

In the photo, the my front wheel is approximately two feet lower then my rear wheel. Because I am maintaining proper position, my arms – though out-stretched – are still not straight, allowing the front wheel to drop even lower (if it were necessary) before the bars would get so low in relation to the rest of my body and bike, that in order to maintain contact with the handlebars, I would actually be pulled forward, out of position. In this scenario, I would no longer be able to keep my weight on my feet and it would shift on to my hands … and I’d be in big trouble.

What happens when a rider leans back is they hang their butt of the back of the bike and support their weight with out-stretched, straight arms. They are already at the END OF THEIR RANGE OF MOTION when the front wheel needs to drop two feet. When the wheel drops, their body must get pulled, or yanked forward (or “bucked” forward, as its often called) because their arms are already straight. Their weight gets thrown onto their hands, they can’t control their speed, and when a rider is this out of position, contact with even the smallest of obstacles can be detrimental. (see Gene’s video explanation of this in this post:

http://betterride.net/blog/2010/mountain-bike-desending-body-position-101-video-demonstration/

Obviously, there is a lot more to descending steep terrain then simply keeping your weight on your feet:

proper use of vision, bike set-up, proper braking techniques … the list goes on and on … All these things – and then some – are essential to successfully navigating steep descents.

But now, hopefully, I shed a little light on where you want your weight to be and why (and where you don’t want it to be and why) when the going gets steep …

*** Of course, there are techniques where you will make weight shifts and/or manipulate the bicycle in order to negotiate obstacles where your body weight is temporarily off of your feet. You WILL be temporarily out of position while performing these techniques, and you will need to return to your centered and balanced position on the bike before you actually contact the obstacle that you’re negotiating – we won’t address those techniques right now.

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10 replies
  1. Jeffrey Galceran says:

    This is so true! I found myself doing the oh shi_ over my bars twice this past week while trying to negotiate some steep switch backs that had a deep rut washed out from recent rains at each turn. Both times I was leaning way back without my weight 100% centered on my pedals. I found that my front wheel stuck in the rut on both occasions instead of rolling smoothly through it. This led to my doing the human sling shot several yards over my bars out in front of my bike both times. Thankfully I survived with minor scrapes, a blow to my ego and a stupid grin on my face.

    Reply
  2. Dan Vu says:

    I had to read to see if you are promoting that position or not. That’s the position I use when I’m about to drop my front wheel down something steep and my rear hasn’t gone over the edge yet. He seems to have an exaggerated position in that pic.

    I sort of like to maintain a position where my chin is over the headset cap on my fork’s steerer and my hips are centered over the BB (perpendicular to sea level). It doesn’t look like he can make that sharp 90* left turn from that position too easily. I’d have my hips a bit closer to the saddle, personally, especially if my bike was equipped with a seat dropper with it in the lowered state.

    I used to use that position as a “panic move” getting behind the saddle and hitting the brakes or whatever, but as I became experienced, I find that just getting tucked in low and centered gets you through just as well, but also lets you ride on since you’re in better position to react to upcoming stuff beyond. I think getting low when you’re braking hard is a better habit to get into over getting low and back and bracing your feet behind the pedals like Lee McCormack demonstrates.

    I’m no pro, but I am a fast learner and a skeptic. Would my methods basically be a case of “different strokes for different folks” or would you think my methods and skepticism are off?

    Reply
  3. Dan Vu says:

    Correction to my previous comment, first paragraph, second sentence:

    That’s the position I’m in after I just dropped my front wheel down something steep and my rear hasn’t yet followed off the edge yet.

    Reply
  4. Andy says:

    Dan,

    I think we’re talking about the same thing here: I am in a position where my front wheel has dropped down a fair amount of terrain and my rear wheel hasn’t yet. And, “tucked in and low” is the exact position that I am in. There may also be a little issue with the wide angle of the camera making it look like I have my weight back (I don’t).

    In the article, it states, ” … if my bike disappears, I will land on my feet … ” This is the case, even at the exact second the photo was shot. Its mandatory to be have my weight on my feet in this section of trail. Because the bike is pitched so far forward, my butt is over the rear tire, but still, my weight is on my feet (the text next to the photo states this).

    I was in the position that you describe in your comment (chin over headset, hips over bb) before I made the turn down the switch back and before the trail got extremely steep. As the trail steepened, I let the front of the bike dip away from me but I remain balanced with all my weight on my feet (like in the photo). If I maintain the exact same relationship with the bike (chin over HS, hips over bb) as the bike pitched forward, I would then be way too far forward with all my weight on my hands making any control nearly impossible.

    If you look at the photo, my mass IS OVER the bb and perpendicular to sea level (my hips may be a tad back because they are countering my out-stretched upper body). If my hips were any closer to the seat, I would be too far forward.

    As far as making the turn at the bottom, by the time I get there, I will be returning to a more centered position (because the trail will be less steep there) on the bicycle. The bike will level out, and – with my weight still entirely on my feet – my hips will naturally be more above the seat instead of the rear tire.

    The most important thing is staying balanced over the BB. This means you have to have a dynamic relationship between your body and the bicycle: at times my chin is over the HS, at times its over the top-tube; at times my hips are over the seat, at times they’re over the rear tire. BUT, I’m always balanced with my weight on my feet and over the BB. To keep a static relationship (chin always over headset) would mean that unless you were always on flat ground, you would consistently be out of balance on any inconsistent terrain.

    Reply
  5. Bob says:

    Thank you for this article. I read it last night as I knew I was doing something wrong after two endo’s in the past month (not to mention a lot of wrestling with the bike to keep it upright at other times). On my group ride today with my buddies I focused on staying centered and was amazed at the control and stability it gave me. I am very thankful for this advice. Today was the best ride I’ve had in the three years I’ve been mountain biking!

    Reply

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