Is More Power Making You Mountain Bike Slower?!

One of the Huge, Little Things When Mountain Bike Riding!

While riding some steep technical climbs today I realized an interesting skill that I use quite often on my mountain bike yet have trouble with on my dirt bike (which has a lot of power!).  Although I am a professional mountain bike racer I am an intermediate (at best) motorcycle rider but both sports require a lot of skill when climbing steep and loose trails.

More power! Isn’t that what us men are always searching for?! The more power I have the faster I climb (and sprint!), right? Well, not so fast power boy. Often power can be our biggest weakness. Sometimes we power through sections on power alone, so we make the section but we weren’t particularly efficient and we got lucky, we could not consistently rely on power alone to make that section. Other times power is what slows us down or stops us. Loose and/or technical sections (especially climbs and switchbacks) require precision. The precision I am talking about isn’t line choice precision (which at .5-2 miles an hour is much more important than it is when going faster but not the topic of this post) but what in motorcycling is called throttle control, for mountain biking we will call it power control.

I was climbing a tight, steep, loose and way off camber switchback today. At about the 3/4 point around I almost came to a complete stop on nearly the top of the “berm” (banked part of the turn). Years ago I would of just put all of my power into at this point and would of had a 50/50 chance of making it. I might have flew through, might have spun the rear tire and stalled or slid out. Today, I realized I was slightly off balance (a little leaned down the hill) and because of the off camber and loose conditions I could not power through. So I stalled, shifted my weight up the hill a bit and then eased on the pedal pressure and crawled through the switchback, but I made it! This was situation where patience and a couple of key core skills (trackstanding, body position, switchback line choice and vision) really paid off.

This switchback was approximately number 10 of at least thirty switchbacks in about 25 straight minutes of granny gear climbing. It really got me thinking about power control (and how bad I am at it on my motorcycle!) and I started really paying attention to this seemingly little detail for the rest of the climb. I was blown away but how much modulation I used in my power out put for the rest of the climb! One of the big goals of climbing that we teach is to apply constant, steady power to the rear tire (not sudden surges that can break the tire free) but I never realized that on some climbs (like this one) it isn’t steady. It is carefully modulated power, accelerating or increasing power as much as I could with breaking loose, slowing or backing off the power when necessary then increasing power again.

This precision of power output  is easy to explain but it takes years of deliberate practice (not just random riding but really focusing on the skill) to master. It is mastered when you can subconsciously adjust you power output so that you can make all but the trickiest steep climbs and switchbacks. Which like so many skills means you will never master it! One day you clean all the switchbacks the next ride you miss one or two.

The fact that you can constantly improve with deliberate practice and drills but never completely master (where no matter how challenging the trail you never make a mistake) mountain biking is what keeps me riding! The challenge is always there no matter how good you get!

So go out and practice your power output and if you don’t have the core skills wired (remember, we do a lot of things wrong because they are intuitive, humans intuitively move away from danger, which on mountain bikes, skis and snowboards means we instinctively move or lean back away from the downhill. While instinctive it puts us in an out of balance, non-neutral, out of control position in all of those sports*) make the best invest you will eve make in your riding and lean the core skills (and dills to master those core skills) in one of our three day skills progression camps.

*Please checkout this article on intuition and instinct. http://betterride.net/blog/2011/why-our-instinicts/

Top 4 Exercises for Better Body Position w/video

Great exercises from James Wilson!

Top 4 Exercises for Better Body Position

One of the most important movement skills for any mountain biker to posses is the basic “hip hinge”. This is your ability to bend at the hips and not at the lower back and it is directly related to your ability to get into good body position on the bike. Without this movement skill you will always struggle to find balance and flow on the trail.

However, it can very tough to learn this movement skill on the bike if you don’t already posses it off the bike. This is where smart strength training comes into play – by using strength training as a basic means of “skills training” you can re-train and strengthen your movement skills which will make it much easier to apply on the bike.

The following 4 exercises are a great way to teach yourself a good hip hinge movement pattern, strengthen it and then make it powerful. Remember that the goal is not to get through all 4 exercises the first time you try this routine – stop when you find the exercise that offers you a challenge and spend time getting it down before moving on to the next step. If you don’t prioritize movement quality then you’ll never be able to learn how to do it better.

- Ball Popper X 6 reps: This strange looking exercise is the first step to learning how to bend at the hips instead of at the lower back and ankles. You should feel as if you can really apply a lot of pressure to the stability ball between your butt and the wall before moving to the next step.

- Touch the Wall Deadlifts X 8 reps: Now that you now how to drive your hips backwards instead of just sinking down you can start to pattern the actual movement. By standing in front of a wall and bending over until you touch it you force yourself to learn the hip hinge since the wall won’t get any closer without the right movement strategy.

- Deadlifts X 5 reps: Once you have control of the hip hinge with your bodyweight, it is time to add some load and “cement” it. Everything that you have learned in the first two steps should be applied here – don’t change how you move now that you are using load. Remember to load the hips at the bottom before standing up, drive your heels into the ground to start the movement and then squeeze your thighs together at the top to ensure proper technique.

- Swings X 10-20 reps: The swing is simply a dynamic deadlift so if you don’t have strong command of the previous three exercises then you will really struggle with this one. However, few exercises are as valuable for teaching you how to absorb impacts with your legs while maintaining strong body position and how to power movement with your hips and not your legs and arms.

No matter where you are on this exercise continuum, practicing the appropriate level of exercise for you will go a long way to helping you gain better command of this all important movement pattern. Without it you will struggle to apply all other techniques to your bike and quickly hit the ceiling on how fast you can go while maintaining balance and control. Add these exercises into your training routine and you’ll see a marked increase in your balance and flow on the trail.

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MTB Strength Training Systems is the world leader in integrated performance training programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. As the strength and conditioning coach for the Yeti World Cup Team and 3 National Championships, his programs have been proven at the highest levels. As a regular contributor to several popular magazines and websites, James has helped thousands of riders just like you improve their speed, endurance and skills on the trail. Visit www.bikejames.com to sign up for the free Trail Rider Fundamentals Video Mini-Course

Stop being a Mountain Bike Bigot!

In 12 years of coaching mtb skills I still cannot get over how closed minded mountain bikers can be! “Oh, he is a single speeder, they always…”, “damn downhiller’s with 8″ of travel, of course they can ride that section, no skill, the bike does all the work, bet he can’t climb to save his life”, “look at that idiot on that fully rigid bike doesn’t he know…”, etc. Well, we are doing the exact same sport! Riding bicycles off road and guess what? The Core, Fundamental Skills are All The Same no matter what kind of mtb you are riding!

Cornering on a downhill bike is fundamentally the same as cornering on a full rigid bike. There are some advanced skills you can add with 8″ of  suspension travel and cornering on a fully rigid bike is harder (because no matter how smooth you are you will have less traction on a rigid bike) but the fundamental, most important skills are the same.

This is true with jumping, climbing technical sections, descending technical sections, riding a bike!

Why is this important to you? Because if you want to improve you can learn a lot from riders that are different from you. The skill it takes for Greg Minnaar and Mitch Ropelato to corner so well is the exact same skill all mountain bikers need, regardless of the bike they are on or the label they give themselves. Think about it, if the best downhill racers in the world need those skills to corner a bike that has way better traction* than most non-downhill bikes, those skills must be extra important on a “xc” bike. So an “xc” rider can learn from the watching a rider like Steve Peat corner even though Steve is on a different mountain bike.

*Downhill bikes have longer travel/better working suspension (which keeps the tires on the ground better than non-dh bikes), downhill bikes have wider tires with likely less air pressure (producing a bigger contact patch), softer rubber compound tires (which grip way better than harder rubber but roll slower, wear out quicker and cost more) and more tread patterns designed for hooking up on the surface they are riding (providing more traction than a general purpose tread pattern).

So open your mind and stop labeling people/riders/things. You can learn from our examples/videos/coaching even if the example we us is on a much different bike that yours.  We are fortunate enough to coach many of the best races in the world in all disciplines of mtb racing and we teach them all the same core skills (although in our downhill camps we don’t teach climbing skills as climbing on a 40lb bike isn’t much fun!). Yes, we taught singlespeed World Champions Ross Schnell and Sue Haywood the exact same cornering skills in the camps they took from us as we taught World Cup downhill racers Mitch Ropelato and Jackie Harmony in their downhill camps.

This Email from a BetterRide MTB Skills Student may Make You Mad!

A warning to you, if you have a big ego you might not want to read this. I heard from many people the Whiskey Off-road had super technical sections and half the field or more walked a lot of the course. Well Elaine and many of my students rode right by the walkers. They weren’t more daring, just simply in balance and in control, way to go Elaine!
Elaine’s email:
Hi Gene,

My husband, Zac, and I took your DH camp at Bootleg back in March and wanted to give you an update. I had been working on the skills on my local XC trails (Fantasy Island and Starr Pass). I figured otherwise if I only practiced on DH runs I’d hardly get any practice in.

Earlier this year I did the Whiskey off-road in Prescott. I was doing the 25 miler for fun, as I had never done it before. Took my camera along to take pics during the ride and everything. At the pre-race meeting they said we would have 2 really long downhills to ride in amongst all the climbing. So I was really looking forward to that! The trail was super crowded and I stood in line on the climbs for about 15 min before the stream of people got going again. Good thing I was only doing the event for fun and wasn’t racing and worried about a time.
I got to the first downhill and it was awesome! This was the first time I had to practice the new body position I learned in camp. No more stretching out over the rear tire. I had the elbows out, back flat, chest down and even though it felt a little strange because I was still getting used to it, I told myself to trust it and stay in that position. The trail was very loose with scree, but my rear tire was planted. Everyone in front of me was steering around the water bars and I was going straight over, passing when I could. I was watching the XC riders in front of me and it was scary. They were twitchy and all over the place and I just stayed in my body position, at some points at almost a track stand while I waited for them to get over an obstacle.

At one point the trail opened up onto a ridge down the mountain. Everyone in front of me was walking but I stuck to my guns and started down the hill. I called out to those down below “rider up” and they moved off the line as I rode down. Everyone was standing with their bikes as they hiked down and I rode by, and it felt like I was in my own personal World Cup and they were spectators on the side of the trail. It was awesome! I totally cleaned the DH and felt like a rockstar as the other riders watched.

Anyways, that has been my highlight moment so far. We have a couple of trips planned this year up to Sunrise and a week at AngelFire, so I’ll be practicing more skills.

Hope all is well with you!

Take care,

Elaine

If you want to ride like Elaine or simply improve your mountain bike riding, invest in yourself instead of your bike and sign up for a camp today.