The Foundation of Mountain Biking

Written by: Head Coach Andy Winohradsky

Riding mountain bikes in technically demanding conditions is by no means easy. However, if we take the movements of the rider’s body on the bike, along with the mechanics of the bicycle itself, and strip everything down to the most basic elements, the task of riding can usually be seen as relatively simple.

Likewise, when riding, if we simply allow our bodies to work the way that they function best, allow our bikes to work the way that they are designed to, and effectively manage our momentum down the trail instead of forcing things; fighting the laws of physics… Well, most of us would be riding like darn-near-champions!

Riding works like many things in life that at first seem complicated and overwhelming: once we break down the complications and see something at its basic bits and pieces, things start to make sense.

Unfortunately, a lot of riders shoot themselves in their proverbial and collective foot/feet by complicating things with misinformation and subsequent bad technique.  Often, learning to ride the bike properly is as much about UN-learning bad habits and “getting out of your own way” as it is about acquiring new skills. This is one of those times: by understanding the way things work (balance) and simply allowing them to do so (with good position on the bike), we’ll be able to use one of our most important tools to its fullest potential.

In this article we’ll get into how body position on the bike affects our sense of balance and how when we’re in proper position, we can allow this very important sense of balance to shine like a diamond.  Also, we’ll see how when our position on the bike is incorrect, it can make our sense of balance quite ineffective.

The first thing that I’d like to address is how our sense of balance actually works.  Of course, my intent is to relate this information to mountain biking, not to reach the deepest depths and specifics and intricacies of human anatomy and physiology.  So, if that’s an argument that you’d like to have, please save it for another time.  (Preferably a time when you and I are sat behind a couple of cold beers that you have purchased.)

The first element of our balance system is made up of motor and sensory receptors known as proprioceptors.  There are many types of proprioceptors, but basically, the receptors that are afferent (going to the brain) are transmitters within our muscles, joint cavities, tendon/muscle junctures, etc, that sense where our bodies are in space.  Some sense the angle of extension or flexion within our joints; some sense the amount of force or the rate of force being applied in a stretching muscle.  The messages that these receptors send, when combined, and “computed”, with the other elements of our balance system by our brain and “reflex centers”, then send out messages to muscles in the body to make adjustments, counter-act, readjust, etc, to make sure that the movements of the body are actually effective and controlling the movement of the body in the manner desired.  This is obviously an extremely important chunk of riding the bicycle.

The next part of our balance system is the vestibular system that resides in our inner ears.  This system senses movements in the forms of acceleration, deceleration, rotational movement, the force of gravity, etc, via the movement (or non-movement) of fluid in various cavities.

The third part of balance is our vision.  This makes sense because effective balance depends upon determining where our bodies are in space. A large part of vision is about determining what and where “space” actually is.  The vestibular system also monitors head movement to ensure proper vision.

What about body position?  There are many, many reasons why we need to maintain proper body position on the bike and maintaining proper balance is only one of them.  We can’t go into all of them here.  I like to say that body position is the “foundation” of riding.  Nothing else can be built until the foundation is laid down.  Just like building an actual structure, if the foundation is not built properly, you WILL run into problems later on.

Now here’s where things get really… simple?  Yes, simple. When we break things down, the human body, from a motion standpoint, really only performs combinations of a few basic movements.  All of these movements originate at our core (trunk of your body…the thing that your arms and legs connect to).  In recent years, much of training for athletics has moved from throwing around super heavy weights and getting as “strong” as possible to, first and foremost, focusing on the ability to stabilize the core and effectively use strength, power and fitness.  This makes a ton of sense: without a strong and balanced core from which all body movement originates, you’re dead in the water.  (If Lou Ferrigno has crappy balance, he’s going to stink up the local MTB trails because even though he has incredible-hulk-power, he won’t be able to effectively apply it to handling the bike.)

So, we need to maintain a position on the bike that allows our body to maintain balance of the core.  (I say “allow” because we can’t voluntarily control our sense of balance).  This position is what I call the “athletic position of the human body” and it can be seen in the photo below (you will also see this in pretty much all other sports: a tennis player waiting to return a serve, a baseball shortstop, a football linebacker…).  Notice that the appendages of the rider are roughly halfway through their range of motion: halfway through a squat with the legs; halfway through a push-up with the arms; the back is flat and almost parallel with the trail surface; the rider’s butt is sticking out and so is his chest; and the chin is up with the head level.

What this position does (among many other things) is effectively create suspension for the core and allows it to maintain a SMOOTH MOMENTUM PATH down the trail by not being subjected to the harsh forces and abrupt movements of the bike.  And this gives the balance system a great platform from which to do its job.  It should be obvious that the rider’s limbs are in a position to absorb shock, or forces that move the bike toward the body, but equally as important (because the rider’s limbs are approximately halfway through there range of motion), the rider also has the ability to allow the bike to drop away from him or allow the bike to slide or lean from side to side (move in any direction), without upsetting the smooth momentum path or upsetting the BALANCE of the core.  This is absolutely essential.  There IS NOT a top bike handler on the planet that doesn’t do an excellent job of this.  Look to any photograph, video, whatever, that features top bike handlers and you will see that this is the neutral position for all of these athletes when dealing with technical riding.

In the above position, the rider is able to allow his sense of balance, proprioception, etc, to instantly make the adjustments necessary to generate and apply the necessary forces to his bike.  The rider has range of motion in any direction with all four limbs and the core is balanced.  If the core is bouncing around and continually being knocked out of balance, the body has to first balance the core before adequate forces can be generated (which takes way too long).  This happens when riders ride with straight arms and/or legs: in this case, there is only one direction that the bike can move without upsetting the balance and trajectory of their core and that is straight into them.  Movement of the bike in ANY other direction will alter the momentum path of the core, and upset the balance of the rider.

Unfortunately, most riders do ride with straight arms and legs, way too high on the bike.  Most are often in a perpetual state of being knocked around and out of balance, never able to pro-act or react to the situation, but instead, along for the ride (for better or worse!), hanging on with a white-knuckle, death grip, out of control, and hoping for the best until the trail smooths out.

Let’s take things further and talk about the rider’s head.  It’s safe to say that some pretty important things happen in the head when riding a bike.  With very little exception, whatever motion occurs at the core of the body will also be felt in the head.  Take a second and do this: jerk your head in a certain direction and then abruptly stop it.  Notice how it takes a second for you to get your bearings back?  That is because it takes the vestibular system in your ears some time to figure things out and then reset.  Really, this system only works if it can compare movement to static inertia (or movement in a constant direction vs. erratic movement).  If you can’t keep your head still, then you can’t provide this system with a basis from which to work and you’ve given up one of your most necessary tools in riding the bike.  Proper position suspends the core, which supports the head, which allows the vestibular system to work effectively.  Again, watch some videos of the top gravity riders; their heads are incredibly calm.

And how about the vision aspect?  Ever get what I call “eyeball jiggle”?  This occurs when your head is getting jostled around so erratically and forcefully that it seems almost as if your eyeballs are going to jiggle right out of your skull.   Your vestibular system, which sends messages to your eyes to compensate for some head movement (much like image-stabilization in a camera) is being overloaded by excessive motion.  Needless to say, your vision, which has a huge affect on your sense of balance, is pretty much useless at this point, and again, you’ll find yourself “just along for the ride” with very little control, hanging on for dear life, and hoping to survive.

To wrap all of this up, our sense of balance is a very powerful tool, and though it may seem complicated in its entirety, it’s a combination of various, fairly easy to understand systems within the human body.  Though we can’t control our sense of balance the way we can voluntarily move an arm or leg or pedal harder (we can’t really “balance harder”), we can use proper body position to assure that this system is working efficiently and effectively.  Thus, proper body position drastically affects how well you can use your sense of balance to control the bike on the trail.

Though we did not thoroughly cover body position in this article, for now, use what we did learn about proper body position to “suspend the core” and allow that balance system do its thing!

 

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18 replies
  1. Thomas Royer says:

    Hello Andy,

    Great article and overall explanation of what we learned in class. I think I needed that reiteration.
    its been a year since I’ve taken your class (cincinnati…guy who gave you some music) and it has seemed to have “clicked” and I’ve been riding different without really realizing it. I can attack trails that I would have been worried about what’s coming up next or those rocks seem hairy. Mostly I feel like if they (the rocks) are in the trail then ill be able to navigate without a problem. Thanks for being a teacher that explained things like my brain needed.
    I have since upgraded my Pivot Mach 4 with a Rockshox Reverb (I got it really cheap, not with the other students) and some Chris King Stans Arch EX wheels with (fun bolts) as well as some Schwalbe Nobby Nic snakeskin 2.25 EVO. These upgrades have undoubtedly made me just worry about myself and the task at hand and not my equipment.
    There is some great music you need to check out… TRIOSCAPES Separate Realities…(jazz/metal) unbelievable
    Go CHIEFS WE ARE GOING TO WIN OUR DIVISION!
    Go LIONS

    You were a great coach

    Thomas Royer

    Reply
  2. Charlie Bisbee says:

    Hi Andy,
    I just took a betterride course and the instructor taught us when going down hill to get our weight on the pedals with our legs straight, our but up and back parallel to the ground…
    The question I have is that you describe the legs in the ideal position as being bent at the knee half way and I got the impression they should be straight to the point you felt it in your hamstrings.
    Can you clear up this issue for me.

    Thanks
    Charlie

    Reply
  3. Andy says:

    Hey Thomas,

    Great to hear from you and glad you enjoyed the article.

    Yeah, many times it is necessary to revisit things that we’ve heard and learned in the past and “refresh” ourselves. And, I often find that there are many twists and intricacies with the learning process. If we keep an open mind when we go back and refresh on “something we already know”, we almost always will pick up on something new and helpful, even if it is a small detail (heck, we’re a different person–or rider–approaching from a different place then we were the first time around!). This could apply to the physical side of things or even the mental side.

    And thanks a ton for the tunes last summer! Made that drive home much more enjoyable. I’ll check out the new stuff!

    Andy

    Reply
  4. Larry Grella "the Legend" says:

    Congrats on a great article, I too consistently see riders out of balance. Too high of a seat position acts like a pogo stick as soon as there is an obstacle under-wheel. My newest revelation, and with this I hope to change some thoughts in the sport, is the following. Your first point of balance is your connection on the bike, if you are not balanced on your feet, you are immediately off-balance. After watching downhillers, BMXers, and anyone that rides a flat pedal will show you, balance is secured when your mid-foot is over the pedal spindle. I have worked with balancing feet for close to 20 years, and now know that most riding clipless, have been balancing on their tip-toes. Todays shoe manufacturers are placing the cleat mounting location too far forward on the shoe, especially road shoes, which does not promote good balance. Most shop employees are taught to find the 1st Met-head (big joint) and place the cleat and pedal spindle somewhere in relation to that. The ability to balance on this part of your foot is near impossible, and consistently pitches you forward towards the bar. In fact, the end of the the lever arm is on the other side of your foot. The ultimate measurement and cleat placement should be under the 5th met-head, aiding power transfer, but especially aligning you in a powerful and balanced stance. Moving ahead of this natural lever arm moves you onto the most unstable part of your foot, and onto what I refer to as never-never land. In fact, when you are neutrally aligned the 1st met becomes mobil, therefore moving away as you try to apply power. I am truly hoping this starts to make sense to the right people, whether the shoe manufacturers, and/or the fitters and shop personnel.

    Reply
  5. Larry Grella "the Legend" says:

    When I say under the 5th met-head I am still talking about the center of the foot, but just on the same plane. Mounting the cleat further back on the shoe normally requires lowering your saddle about the same amount as you moved the cleat back. Immediately you’ll notice it will be easier to balance standing, and you may even find more places in the pedal revolution to apply power. Riders that typically have trouble standing through the rough stuff, now can with ease and confidence.

    Reply
  6. Wacek says:

    Hi, good article, but I need to ask a question here regarding staying “neutral” and balanced. Isn’t one of the main components of the position to have the CoG of the whole body above the BB? Or to get deeper into detail, in line with BB and vector of the force pushing our body into it (like: oh I’ll brake hard now, I better move myself a bit down and rearward, so my CoG will go into BB not over it) So no matter whether going up or down in “neutral stance” you can nearly let go off the bars? Heavy feet, light hands? (Lee McCormack) I have a mantra that I’ve built by reading Lee’s and Gene’s blog: Chin Up, Elbows out, straight back, heels down – light hands check! Off course staying dynamic on the bike

    Should I better stop repeating it? :D

    Reply
  7. Andy says:

    Hey WACEK,

    Absolutely! I like to think of it like there is always a vector running through the COG of and through the BB of the bike.

    For instance, a big reason to keep your heels low when braking is because there will naturally need to be a bit of a weight shift toward the rear of the bike to keep the forces of your mass (COG) pushing through the BB because the bike is stopping and the body wants to keep moving. Notice how I did not say LEAN back. In theory, you should always be balanced on your feet (driving the forces through the BB) and be able to let go of the bars. This also means that your pedals will always be perpendicular to the direction that you are applying force.

    This is also a reason that I really don’t like the idea teaching riders to keep a particular body part over a particular part of the bike (i.e. “chin over stem” or “butt over tire”) because we need to stay balanced on our feet and pushing through the BB at (almost) all times, and thus, create that DYNAMIC relationship with our bike.

    Reply
  8. Wacek says:

    Thanks for the reply Andy! I actualy found a drill for it, or at least a check of how good one is at that neutral stance, a bit strange but still! Night riding with head lamp in rough terrain is a good one, especially on terrain with lots of steps and small drop offs. Head lamp does not allow you to see the drop until the very last moment, it also makes most of stones in rockgardens feel smaller than they really are. It doesn’t matter whether it is a trail you know or not. So the only way of dealing well with it is to stay neutral and relaxed.

    Thanks again! Your and Genes articles improved my riding a lot in last 2 years, I wish I lived on your side of the Atlantic Ocean to take clinics with you ;)

    Reply
  9. Janet says:

    Hi…I’ve been working on this position (like Wacek above, I learned that initially from a book) & it definitely helps my feeling of stability. One thing it hasn’t helped, though, is on a long descent my back (left) quad is always burning. I’ve asked other ‘rookie’ mtb’ers and they have the same feeling, yet in asking a few experienced riders they don’t feel one quad burning over the other. Do you think it’s that they’re stronger / more conditioned? Or that their weight is more evenly balanced then ours, and we’re putting too much weight back (and not actually in the ‘correct’ position). Along those lines, on a descent should weight be distributed evenly to both legs, or will there naturally be more weight on the back leg, the amount depending upon the gradient?

    Thanks! I’m taking the clinic shortly, but would like to continue working on this in the meantime.

    Reply
  10. Andy says:

    Janet,

    If that back quad is burning, that means you’re doing it right!!!

    If your upper body is fatiguing, or if you’re getting “arm pump”, that means you’re doing it wrong. I ride a ton, and on long descents my back quad burns more then my front (I ride right foot forward, also). Yes, we should have our weight distributed evenly over both feet, but thing about it: there is a greater degree of bend in the back leg then in the front, especially on really steep stuff. That contributes to the addition burn. Keep it up!

    Andy

    Reply
  11. Fran says:

    Andy,
    When it’s loose and steep what do you recommend for body position?
    I never thought of driving the heels down…I guess just applying pressure.

    I’m trying to gain more confidence in these sections :)

    My brother and I were riding wet roots and rocks today…so e sections effect me though and I question the commitment as some sections are longer and steeper

    When u back to coaching??

    Reply
  12. Dave says:

    Great article! I have a question re body position for strong climbs, specifically in terms of lower back positioning. For the most power/least fatigue during climbs or over long rides, is there any guidance regarding a rounded back, flat back or some variation so that your core is in the ideal and strongest position? This is a separate question from how upright or low you are on the bike. Probably a whole separate article but thought I’d ask now anyway. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      Hi Dave,

      Great question. You want to hinge from the hips with a flat back. This keeps you in an athletic position for handling, power and breathing. Many cyclists round their backs (compromising handling, power and breathing) as they lack the hip mobility and/or their hamstrings are too tight to hinge correctly (I struggle with this too, but with a lot of work my hamstrings and hips are opening up and allowing me to do this better!)

      Create your best ride yet,

      Gene

      Reply
  13. Jack says:

    nice article! question i have. i been doing this and getting results. riding like the photo. i been keeping my weight on the pedals. feeling trail through them.niether weighting handle bars or pulling on them. things i thought would get me didnt with bent arms and legs.happened to the bike but not me.. ok my question. i usually go into attack by dropping seat and then standing straight and then bending. but is that a bad habbit?

    Reply
  14. Gene says:

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks! Dropping the seat is good, standing straight is not good. You know how your suspension has “sag” to keep the wheels on the ground when you go off small imperfections in the trail? Well we need to keep or knees bend to produce that sag in our bodies so we can do the same (reach down and reconnect with the ground instantly) off bigger imperfections (think a one foot or less ledge in the trail).

    Create your best ride yet,

    Gene

    Reply
    • Gene says:

      “No stand up”? You must stand up when descending! Did someone tell you to stay seated? How could you absorb shock if you are seated?

      Reply
  15. Jack says:

    no sir gene thats not what i meant. im sorry.. i meant standing up straight for a a half second befor i bend elbows and knees correctly.naw gene youre mini course got me standing more correct.i been standing for 16 months but always had a baboon pushup worth of weight on the handlebars.cost me 4 high speed shoulder smackdowns this year. now i weight the pedals and focus on it.. so say i am sitting, a descent is ahead. i drop my auto seat down,stand up straight and then imeadiatly i go down with half bent limbs and weight on pedals. i was thinking maybe i dont need the stand up straight thing. you know just go to the correct position after i squash the seat down?…good news! my boss is letting me come to charlotte!!I am pumped! if i can get a better ride from your mini course i cant wait for camp! that will re-wire me real good! heck it will gimme a reason to stay in shape instead of eating everything!!

    Reply

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