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:

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.

Great New Mountain Bike Skills Video! Can you clear the Rock?

In my quest to create a series of mountain biking “competencies” (tests to show if you have mastered a skill) here is a wheelie and weight shift competency (see post titled: Ways to test your mountain biking skill and monitor progress in mtb skill).

Here is a great video of clearing a rock using two basic skills, a wheelie and weight shift. This is the exact same skill to get over a small curb correctly just done on a larger obstacle. Remember, always use “baby steps” when progressing a skill! It is much better to gain confidence through a series of victories than risk injury and/or a big failure that can set you back mentally.

If you can clear a 36″ rock with 12″ square edge at the bottom you have mastered the wheelie and weight shift (although there are definitely larger rocks on some trails if you can clear a 36″ rock you have the skill for a much bigger rock, you just need to work your way up).

Great student write up on both his BetterRide Camp and his experience with James Wilson’s Strength and Mobility programs

Great student write up on both his BetterRide Camp and his experience with James Wilson’s Strength and Mobility programs. check it out:

Ways to test your mountain biking skill and monitor progress in mtb skill

Recently, Gene (owner and founder of Betterride) and myself were discussing what are known as “Indicators” in sports outside of MTB. An example of an indicator is the following: in downhill ski racing, there are certain skills that an athlete must demonstrate, under certain conditions, in an allocated amount of time, in order to be perceived as proficient in this specific skill-set. If the athlete is able to adequately demonstrate these skills, under the prescribed conditions, it “indicates” that the athlete is competent with this skill-set. This often means that the athlete shows promise at the next level of competition, or perhaps will be shown consideration in being accepted for certain teams or training programs, etc. If the athlete can not accomplish the above, well, hopefully they get another chance to improve and get another shot, but ultimately, it “indicates” that the athlete is not ready for the next step.

Another fairly well-known example of indicators occurs in sports such as professional or collegiate football: times in the forty-yard sprint, amount and reps of weight lifted, times in agility drills … these are all indicators of an athlete’s probable performance at the next level. If an athlete’s numbers aren’t favorable, unfortunately, it will be extremely difficult for him to get to that next level.

In the following, I will introduce a few indicators to you that can be powerful tools to help improve your riding. The first example deals with skills that are probably beyond the reach of the average rider who hasn’t received proper instruction, the second two examples can probably be employed immediately. All are methods to measure our riding and show us where we may be riding well and also where we need improvement. OBVIOUSLY, I DON’T HAVE THE TIME OR SPACE, IN A FEW PARA GRAPHS, TO GO INTO FULL DETAIL ABOUT THE TECHNIQUE(S) OF THE ACTUAL SKILL-SETS (this would take, literally, about a day of on-the-bike instruction). What I wish to do is merely introduce some specific methods to gauge our riding.

Here is the first example of indicator related to MTB. This indicator is a “no-handed pedal-wheelie” DON”T WORRY – its not as difficult as it sounds. All of these techniques are comprised of basic, riding-fundametals, and are actually quite simple when broken down. But again, without proper instruction this “indicator” will not be possible to all but the most elite riders – so don’t get frustrated if you can’t immediately pull it off the next time you hop on your bike. (However, every single student I have ever taught came away from the class with the skills intact to either perform – or with a small amount of practice, perform – this technique. AND, many of these riders were true beginners with very little athletic ability gained from other sports while growing up.)

A “pedal-wheelie” is a technique where a rider, while carrying very little momentum (usually on a climb), must lift his or her front wheel over an obstacle, while maintaining – or even increasing – momentum (hence, the necessity to pedal while wheeling). Contrary to the beliefs of many riders, a proper, controlled, and efficient wheelie is not accomplished by simply yanking up on the handlebars. If the technique(s) for the pedal-wheelie are performed correctly, no pulling on the handlebars is necessary, and, thus, this wheelie can be accomplished without the use of the riders hands or arms, making this wheelie more efficient and keeping the rider in balance. This is an “Indicator” that the rider is proficient at the skills necessary to perform a correct pedal-wheelie.

Notice Gene is not gripping the bars, he not pulling with his arms.

As mentioned, the no-handed pedal-wheelie, as an indicator, takes some education and practice of the actual skill-set before it is really useful. The following, however, are two closely related indicators that you can play around with on your next ride.

These techniques deal with maintaining proper body position while descending on your bike (i.e: a decent amount of speed over varied terrain – technical descending). The first indicator focuses on our hips. This area is the center of mass of our bodies. “We” don’t go anywhere without our hips, and, “we” go in any direction that our hips are going. This is fundamental to any athletic endeavor, in any sport, involving the human body. So it makes sense that we better pay close attention to any movement, forces, etc, that this area of the body encounters or is subjected to. Simply put, if we could view an imaginary line that our hips would create as we descend a technical section of trail, that line needs to be as smooth and as straight as possible. As I encourage all my students to do, jump on the ol’ internet and watch some of the top bike handlers in the world, World Cup-level downhill racers, negotiate some of the nastiest terrain a person could ever ride a bicycle down – look at that imaginary line that the rider’s hips create – while the bicycle itself may be violently bouncing up and down and side to side, and subsequently, the rider’s legs and arms are doing the same (maintaining contact with the bike) I guarantee that if that rider is riding under control, the line that the rider’s hips create will be incredibly smooth and consistent.

We need to ride our MTB’s smoothly, efficiently, in balance, and under control whether we’re trying to win a World Championship, whether we’re trying to keep up with our buddies on the weekend ride, or whether we’re simply trying to avoid falling down … and if our hips – our center of mass – is bouncing all over the place, this is impossible. If our center of mass is bouncing all over the place, we will effectively be fighting the trail, fighting our bike, and fighting our bodies to get things under control and be able to maintain balance – the very opposite of smoothness and in-control.

The next indicator involves our head. Obviously, a lot of important things happen in the head! Vision (sort of complex and almost un-arguably the most important aspect of riding a MTB), our balance (inner ears), our thought processes … and, similar to our hips, our head is a big chunk of mass carrying momentum down the hill but with a much higher center of gravity. In between – connecting – our head and our hips is our torso, also a large portion of our body’s mass.

This indicator involves an imaginary glass of water sitting on top of your helmet. Not only do I not want to spill the glass of water, but I want it to remain still, without a ripple. Again, look to the top riders in the world, and look at that imaginary glass of H2O. It is very possible to keep that water nice and calm, even in the most gnarly conditions imaginable, and these great riders are evidence of this.

Spilling the imaginary H2O glass is obviously bad news, but even a slight jiggle is enough to put us temporarily out of control. If our head is bouncing around, our ability to correctly use our vision is severely diminished, and our balance is out of commission – we’re basically along for the ride, ballistic – until we can regain our proper position on the bike. Take a second and go ahead and give your head a very brief and slight, but pretty violent shake – just as you’d experience on the trail. As stated, you’ll feel your use of vision and balance become nearly non-existent; you’ll feel tension in your body, this tension results in rigidity (the opposite of looseness and suppleness – what we need in order to maintain balance); you’ll feel fear, which in turn produces more tension … see where this is going? And that was a very brief jiggle of your noggin. Also, from the start of the “jiggle” until the end of it, and then until your senses straightened themselves out and you regained control and proper riding position, took what? Half a second, minimum? A second and a half? That may as well be an eternity out on the trail, and if this takes place at the wrong time … bad things.

Did you notice Ross’s hips and head were still while his arms and legs did all the work? He smoothed out a rough descent!

I feel that because of the above reasons, the “imaginary glass of water” is one of the most useful indicators that we can use when it comes to gauging our riding position. It is also fairly easy to monitor, as you instantly can feel the effects of improper body position as that glass of H2O is spilling, and often you can actually see you helmet jiggle around – even slightly – if you’re riding incorrectly.

So now you have two “indicators” to work with in your riding, one at each end of your torso – which contains the majority of your body’s mass and, thus, the majority of your momentum (this is very important – see my last post, on this website that deals with momentum). While the techniques required to become proficient at the related skill-sets are by no means easy to learn, once again, they are simple and basic movements consistent with all athletics concerning the human body.

While none of us ride perfect all the time, these indicators are powerful tools to help us monitor extremely important areas of our bodies in regards to effectively riding the bike.

Have Fun! Learn to ride at your best, take a camp!