Mountain Bikers, Smooth it Out!

Mountain Bikers, Smooth it Out!

“Smooth it out” was what my teammate Kain Leonard used to say to me before every downhill race. This meant, “Don’t take the smooth lines fast, take the fast lines smooth!” Even if your focus is control, safety and/or being more efficient this applies to you too!

As I often state in my camps, smooth equals fast and smooth equals efficient. It also gives us more control, allows us to run lower tire pressure without flatting and beats up or bike and body less. Being smooth is a win, win, win, win situation (except for bike shops, they will be bummed that you aren’t coming in for repairs as much).

Kain Leonard smoothing it out in Crested Butte!

Kain Leonard smoothing it out in Crested Butte! Photo courtesy of Mark Ewing, Evolution Bike Park

Does that trail feel rough? Many mountain bikers, especially those whose first bike was a full suspension bike ride “Stiff” and are relying on their suspension not their bodies to absorb shock. This not only makes for a rough ride but a less enjoyable and less safe ride too. Notice how much Kain is absorbing shock with his arms and legs in the photo above. His handlebars are almost hitting him in his face! That’s probably 30 inches of suspension travel!

Now, the idea of learning to ride on a hardtail will make you a better rider is simply not true, learning to ride on a hardtail is more dangerous (beginners to pros simply have less control on a hardtail as suspension’s goal isn’t to absorb shock (but it is an added bonus), suspension’s goal is to increase the rider’s control by keeping the wheels on the ground giving us more traction and stability) and hardly confidence inspiring.

Hardtails also teach us to take inefficient “hardtail lines” (taking the smooth line fast instead of taking the fast line smooth) and cause us to fear small obstacles that we would hardly notice on a full suspension bike. Once you are a somewhat skilled rider hardtails are great for helping us learn how to be smooth.

I received the following question from a student on this very topic and I thought I would share it and my answer with you.

“Hey Gene,

I am stoked on the skills that I learned at your camp. After just a few weeks of deliberate practice, I could feel them taking over during a race this past weekend. I utilized some other tips that you shared, like setting a precedent for riding a course fast during practice. Awesome advice! Although I think that I am visualizing the course too slow afterwards.

During the race, I ran single ply tires (I normally don’t, but I thought the course would be more tame). I rear flatted several times in practice and during my race run with near 35psi! I am considering my equipment choice, but wondered about a comment that you made to me at the camp.

On the first day of the camp, you had given everyone an individualized purpose on Girlscout and you told me to “stay light”. I wasn’t quite sure what to do exactly. I know riders who ride HEAVY and know what not to do, but was wondering if you were referring to pumping or something else.

Is there a drill for riding light or something I should focus on when riding light?

Thanks for the awesome camp and your insight on this topic.



Hi Ian,

Great to hear (except for the flats). By stay light I mean use your body, not your bike to smooth out the trail. Use manuals, weight shifts, unweight your bike, bump jump obstacles, be dynamic (relax your arms and legs and use them as shock absorbers to soak up bumps instead of plowing into them).

I don’t have a drill for this but you made me think of one. Find a rough section of trail at least 20 yards long with a variety of 1-7″ obstacles, then time yourself coasting through (at race pace) with stiff arms and legs, then with relaxed arms and legs, then focusing on manualing everything you can (with weight shifts to unweight your rear wheel) then bump jumping everything.

Then study the trail and figure out which method works best on each obstacle and/or each “section” (example: manual the first log, then bump jump those roots getting backside on the last one, bump that last root then bump jump off the next rock clearing the following 7 rocks and 2 roots then pump the last two smooth, roller shaped rocks). Then time that, then switch it up bump jump, manual and pump in different places and time that. This will teach you two BIG things: 1. How to be smooth and ride light and 2. What technique is best over different sized, shaped and spaced obstacles.

I actually saw two factory Giant downhill racers (Jared Rando and Amiel Cavalier?) doing this for over half an hour on a really rough, barely downhill section of track at Angel Fire 6-8 years ago. In my opinion it was the most important part of the track because if you made a mistake and lost a little speed there was no way to regain that speed as it was flat and too rough to pedal. Did I mention that they took first and second place in that race?!

Mountain bikers, Smooth it out!

Amiel Cavalier taking the fast line smooth!

Added content for you as you may not have taken a BetterRide camp. Mountain biking is a very dynamic sport. The trail is constantly changing (pitch changes, traction changes, smoothness changes, camber changes, etc) which means there is not one, ideal position on bike, you will be constantly making small to large adjustments with your body to stay in balance and in control.

There is a centered and neutral position that we are constantly returning to get ready for the next change (see this article and videos on that:  ) but, to be smooth you will often briefly be in a non-neutral position (arms full extended or fully compressed) as you will see in video.

When I say, “take the fast lines smooth” I mean there is often a faster, straighter line than the smooth line. This line might be really rough though, so, you will need to “float over” that roughness using bump jumps, weight shifts, manuals and simply weighting your suspension on the smooth sections right before it gets rough (pushing down on the pedals by straightening your legs a bit) and letting the suspension extend and “unweight” (by lifting your legs towards your chest) over the rough sections.

A great example of this are tree roots, often as you pass a tree the “smooth line” is going around the roots, which can triple the distance you travel as you make an arc around the roots. The “fast line” would be jumping straight over those roots or simply unweighting over those roots.

Test out these techniques and practice “Smoothing It Out”.


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