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.

MTB Tires Really Effect Your Ride, Control and Confidence!

Wow, I have posted on the importance of good tires before, but after a weekend on a rental bike with tires very similar to the ones used by many of our xc racing students I have to discuss this again! I had not been on tires like this in years so I forgot how bad they really are! Is lower rolling resistance worth losing 25-50% of your control? On fast, non-technical race courses it may be, but at the Jungle Habit and Ringwood, NJ trails this weekend it was not worth it.

These WTB Tires rolled fast but did not get much grip!

The small (in height and thickness) knobs provided little rolling resistance, but squirmed on rocks (because they flexed, a lot) and didn’t climb or corner well. I would only use these tires on a bike path (or maybe an easy xc race trail involving no skill).

If you are looking for a confidence inspiring tire that will hook up, study what the best downhill racers are using in your area and buy similar tires (if you are worried about weight get the single ply versions, if you hate flatting, like increased control and don’t mind extra weight (double the tire weight) use downhill, double ply tires.  Tall knobs work well on softer surfaces like the loomy trails in the Pacific Northwest and in mud. The more hard packed the surface (as in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and much of California) a medium to low height knob with a lot of surface area (blocky knobs instead of skinny knobs) as these tires will put more rubber on the ground (as the surface is too hard for the knobs to push into the ground) and the big surface area keeps the knobs from flexing (flexing makes the tires squirm). My personal favorite tire for Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California is the Maxxis High Roller.

 

The High Roller!

Notice how thick the knobs are! These tires are also Greg Minnaar’s favorite tires. Greg says that they roll fast for an aggressive tire and they are very predictable. Specialized, Kenda and Schwalbe all make excellent tires, do your research and find the ones made for your trail conditions.

Tires also come in different rubber hardness, the harder the rubber the faster they roll and the longer they last. The softer the rubber the better traction they have but they roll slower and where quicker. Many manufacturers offer dual and triple compound tires where the center, rolling knobs that get the most wear are a harder compound than the cornering knobs (which get less use but are vital to cornering control). Tire hardness is measured in Durometer, the higher the number the harder the rubber. Most tires range in Durometer from 42 to 70. 70 durometer tires feel almost like plastic and slide easily, but roll fast. 42 durometer tires are favored by downhill racers but wear really quickly and roll slow, most tires will fall in between. Better, more expensive tires often will have a dual compound of around 55 for the center knobs and 45 for the side. Dual and triple compound tires are my favorite for xc use as they hook up almost as well as a downhill tire, but roll a little faster and last longer.

Tire pressure also greatly effects your ride. Lower pressure hooks up better, smooths out the trail a bit and rolls faster than higher pressure so go lower. For more info on tires check out my older post on this:

http://betterride.net/blog/2010/another-thing-you-can-buy-and-instantly-have-more-bike-control/

Does Your Mountain Bike Feel Good? Why Test Riding MTB’s is a Waste of Time!

Does your mountain bike feel good?  Testing riding mtn bikes is a waste of time! Now that I have your attention this post is also about how to test ride a mountain bike and make the most of it.

This is one of the most amusing concepts I have ever come across. So often I hear/read riders talking about how good their bike feels. Sometimes I hear racers talking about how they tuned their suspension until it felt good. Often they talk about how they love their bike (because it feels good) and recommend their exact bike to friends based on their feelings. Sometimes they will put down another bike saying they test rode it (for all of five minutes in a parking lot) and it felt weird, slow, twitchy, tall, etc. and they say stay away from that bike. How knowledgeable on mountain bike handling is your friend? How many bikes has he ridden (for more than an hour) so can he really give a good opinion? Does he ride with proper body position and technique?  Don’t believe the hype!

Why is this amusing? For many reasons! First, you know what feels good? What you are used to. Change always feels weird! If I took your bike and rolled the bars just one degree forward without telling you you would say that your bike suddenly feels weird! If I did that plus added 15 pounds of pressure to the tires, stiffened the rear shock, softened your fork and moved your seat .5 inch forward on the rails you would say your bike feels really weird! So when you test ride a bike with different geometry or that is set up different than your bike (wider/skinner bars, longer/shorter stem, steeper/slacker head angle, higher/lower bars, etc.) it is going to feel weird. Conversely, when you test ride a bike with the same geometry that is set up exactly like yours it is going to feel great.

When the Giant Glory downhill bike first came out I was one of the first people in the US to ride it (a writer from the New York Times writing an article about my camps was loaned one) and it was set up perfect for me (the writer and I weighed the same and were almost the same height). I thought it was a great bike and was surprised eight months later when two of my teammates test rode it at Interbike and said it stunk. I immediately went to the Giant tent to test ride the bike they had demoed to see what was up. Halfway down my first run on Snake Back (one of the same runs I tested the bike on seven months earlier) I was questioning my judgment as the bike wasn’t performing well. The suspension didn’t feel nearly active enough for the rough terrain but the rebound and sag felt about right. I pulled over to adjust the suspension and realized that it was way under-sprung for a large (and it takes a lot of time to switch out a coil spring) so the mechanic had cranked the compression damping on both the rear shock and front fork to stiffen it up for riders my and my teammates’ weight. I turned the compression damping way back on both shocks and rode the next section of Snake Back, and although the suspension was way to soft the bike rode much better. I told my teammates to try it again and they were surprised at what a difference that made. Imagine what we would have thought of the bike if we had the time to put the right spring on the fork and rear shock! Imagine if we had a whole day of tuning it and riding it instead of one run!

Joey Schusler railing a turn at Bootleg Canyon, March 2007 Camp

Weird can often end up being better once you get used to it or understand why/how to use your new setup. A great example of this is “dropper” seat posts. No one can argue that descending with your seat at the height that is perfect for power production when climbing is as good, safe or as efficient as lowering your seat, you simply can not stay in a neutral and balanced position with your seat that high. Despite knowing and understanding this the first time you descend with your seat lowered it feels weird, because you are used to the seat giving you feedback by tapping against your thigh, now it either doesn’t do that or does it in a different spot.

You know what else feels really good? The ride of a Cadillac! Now I wouldn’t want to take a Cadillac off-road or race it on the road, but wow, it feels great. Ever ridden in a high performance car like a Porsche? High performance cars feel really harsh, kind of like riding a fully rigid mountain bike, but boy do they handle well. So feeling “good” doesn’t always translate in to performing well. I want my bike to perform well so I have made changes to my bikes to make them climb, descend and corner at their best (more on this in a future article).

After 24 years of riding mountain bikes, 14 years of studying bike handling and coaching skills to riders from advanced beginners to the best pros in the world and 17 years of racing the pro class I still can’t tell much about a bike from a parking lot test ride (except obvious things like steep head angle or feels short for a large, etc.). Even on trail it is tough for me to really get the feel for a mountain bike, unless I take the time to set it up similarly to my bike. Even then, what if the bike I am testing is revolutionary? A revolutionary bike is going to feel weird, I might not like it…. at first.

Have an open mind when test riding bikes. Set the bike up similar to your bike and really give it some time before passing judgment!

Stay tuned for my article on suspension tuning!