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!

 

What Gives National Champ Jackie Harmony an Edge

I could not be more happy for 2012 U.S. National Downhill Champion and BetterRide athlete Jackie Harmony! Jackie has conquered downhill mountain biking on the National level and is not stopping there. Read on to hear what has given her such an edge this season.

Aaron Gwin and Jackie Harmony

The Mental State

By Jackie Harmony

My downhill mountain bike racing career started with the idea of riding my bike all over the place and meeting all the cool people along the way. However, throughout the past 10 years of racing, I’ve begun to understand in great detail the entirety of what I have chosen to do and what it takes to compete at the highest level of the game.  From what I gather, there are three major roles in becoming the ultimate athlete and they are your physical state, emotional state and mental state. I first learned of these major roles through Gene Hamilton and his BetterRide Camps.  His many years of racing and research are passed on through his coaching and I took it all in.  I have read the books he has recommended and continuously take part in all that he has to offer.

The mental state is what I have been working on for the last couple of years now and have become a pro at controlling my mental state.  This past weekend during National Champs is the best example of how I have complete control of my mental state.  Some things that I have found to help me be mentally prepared and fully present are:

  • My diet –  I pay full attention to how I feel with what I put into my body.  I know what type of fuel my brain and body needs to feel strong and powerful.
  • Meditation –  I have found that breathing correctly allows my brain to calm down, close off all thoughts and clear my mind.
  • Imagery –  Seeing myself ride the entire course, including knowing my shift points, brake points and body movements.
  • Let it be – Some things are out of my control and I need to accept them for what they are. If the track conditions are changing then I will have to adapt and not be upset with rain, mud, dust, wind, etc.

By controlling my mental state, I have found my true self and in doing so I was able to be completely present at all times.  I can now shut the door on the little voice who likes to give me so many options and negative thoughts that really tears me down.  I know for a fact that I am an excellent rider and I know now that I am an excellent racer, because I have created the best run every time, every practice run and every time I ride my bike.

Is Your Bike Loud?

Is your mountain bike loud?

A year and a half ago I was sitting on top of Bootleg Canyon watching the start of the pro downhill race (before my start). The fourth or fifth rider to start was a kid I am fortunate enough to coach named Mitch Ropelato. After Mitch disappeared from sight the racer next to me exclaimed, “wow, I wish my bike was that quiet!”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his bike is that quiet, it is the rider that is making it loud. While all bikes (especially downhill bikes on tracks as rough as Bootleg Canyon) make some noise (a little chain slap, the tires hitting rocks, rocks thrown from the tires hitting the frame, etc) when they are ridden well that noise should be at a minimum.

How to use bike noise to improve your mountain bike riding:

Something we really stress in our skills progression is being smooth. We stress this because, the smoother you are the more in control, efficient and faster you are! Your bike provides you with great feedback on being smooth. If your bike is making a lot of noise (loud chain slap, loud pings and noises coming from your frame, suspension and/or tires) as you ride you aren’t being as smooth as you could be. Use this feedback to remind yourself to relax, breathe and flow with the trail instead of fighting it! Don’t just rely on your suspension, use your arms, legs and especially your ankles to smooth out the trail.

 

Greg Minnaar looking smooth!

If you get a chance to watch (and listen) to a great mountain bike rider like Mitch or Greg Minnaar pay attention to how smooth and quiet they are on their bikes. They are excellent examples of economy as they smoothly flow down the trail, often taking rougher/faster lines, but taking those lines cleanly. Often, they are so smooth they look slow as they aren’t getting thrown around by the trail.

This ties in with the article on Mountain Bike Rides That Feel Fast but Are Actually Slow!

http://betterride.net/?p=2827

 

 

 

 

Mountain Bike Rides that Feel Fast but are Actually Slow!

If it looks fast or feels fast it is probably slow! How to go faster while riding safer and more efficiently.

Ever have that descent on your mountain bike where you felt like you were flat hauling?! At the bottom you were thinking (or telling a riding buddy), “wow, I nearly hit two trees, a big rock and that huge stump! I was flying!”. Believe it or not, despite feeling like you were right on the edge of your skill limits that was probably not near as fast as you could ride that descent (with your current skill).

I first stumbled upon this phenomenon as a snowboard racer. I had a super fast training run and asked my coach, “Nick did you see that run? What was my time, that was my fastest run yet!” Nick replied, “that was 30.2, your fastest run so far was a 29.1!” I was shocked and thought Nick was lying and trying make me mad to motivate me to go faster. A few runs later I had what felt like a technically perfect run but it felt kind of slow. “Nick, did you see that run? My hips, knees, and shoulders were perfect! I know it was slow but did you see my form?!” Nick’s reply, “slow?! That was a 28.3, you fastest run yet!”. I was really confused and didn’t really understand why the run that felt fast was slow and the run that felt slow was fast. It wasn’t until about 10 years later as mountain bike racer that I figured it out. It all had to do with vision and technique.

With good technique and looking as far ahead as you should riding will feel slow as you stay in you comfort zone and have plenty of time to pro-act to the trail. With poor technique and not looking far enough ahead you have to quickly react to the trail. This does a couple of things to you. First, it feels fast as heck as you are making one neck saving move after another (and probably pin-balling all over the trail, not exactly taking the most efficient line) all these reactions cause the body to go into the fight or flight mode which jacks up your adrenaline and tenses you up. This combined with not looking far enough ahead makes it feel like you are flying when in reality you are not going as fast you could be and not taking good lines down the trail. Ever look down at the dashed white lines when you are doing 75 miles an hour in your car? It feels like you are going 200! Then look up at a mountain a few miles away, it feels like you are crawling. Well the same thing happens on the trail! If you look at rock four feet in front on you, you are going to be there (at the rock) in a fraction of a second, if you see the rock when it is twenty-forty feet in front of you you have plenty of time to go around the rock and you stay calm and relaxed.

So, learn to look much further ahead down that trail! This will make riding much more fun, faster and safer!

This video reminded me of that. Notice how tense you get when the helmet cam is pointed down (you don’t know what the trail is going to do next) and how you almost breathe a sigh of relief when the rider looks further down the trail (and you know what the trail is going to throw at him).