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First BetterRide MTB Skills Camp in Indianapolis a Huge Success

Our First BetterRide MTB Skills Camp in Indianapolis was a huge success!

Five lucky students spend the weekend with Coach Chip, had a great time and came away much better riders.

 

Chip Coaching a Student In Our Switchback Drill

“Indianapolis was a great clinic with great people and a fun location. Probably one of the best statements I have ever heard in a clinic was a student that said the following when we stopped for a learning moment. She stated “this is the first time while riding my mountain bike, that I was thinking more about my technique instead of worrying about crashing my mountain bike”. I think that is a perfect testament to the Betterride Core Skills Clinic. In three days we can take a mountain biker and get them to start thinking about how they ride their bike instead of worrying about crashing their mountain bike.”

BetterRide certified coach Chip MacLaren

Happy mtb camp Students with coach Chip

 

What Is It With Some Mountain Bike Riders Today?!

What is it with some mountain bikers these days? In the early days of mountain bike riding only intrepid people who were self-reliant and had a sense of adventure got into mountain biking. Now people full of fear are entering the sport (and we are trying helping them overcome those fears) and after a year or so of riding they are changing the sport. They are trying to make the trails easier to ride, “All trails should be able to be ridden by all riders.”, was posted on one of our facebook posts this spring. Another rider wrote, “if the trail has advanced features (like roots and rocks) it should be signed and have a “squirrel catcher (mtb speak for a tough move that only someone skilled enough to ride the trail can do, keeping the “squirrels” from venturing further) ” on all entrances to the trail so only experts ride it.” He went on to say, “in reality all trails should have easier go-around options on the tough sections”. What on earth makes someone feel this way?!  Many of these trails are 20-50 years old and they are way out in the woods. Who exactly is going to spend their days fixing these trails that aren’t broken? How do you make a go-around when there if a cliff going up on one side of you and cliff going down on the other?  You know what we called those trails in 1993 while riding on our fully rigid mountain bikes? “Trails”, we didn’t call them beginner, intermediate or expert, we just called them trails. You know what we did if we got to a section we could not ride? We tried it once or twice and if we failed to clear it we simply walked over it and then continued our ride. We called these sections “challenges” or “hike a bikes” they were simply part of being out on a narrow trail 10-500 miles from town. We didn’t get angry at the trail when we couldn’t make something, we didn’t call our local trail sanitizers and say, “please come make a go-around for the rock on Seven Bridges trail” and have them come out and take every “challenge” out of the trail. We laughed, yelled or screamed but we were smart enough to get off and walk before putting ourselves in danger (and sometimes our egos were bigger than our skills and we got hurt, mountain biking can be dangerous when you exceed your skill level!) we used “common sense”. Sometimes we even turned around, “that trail is too tough!” was heard more than once. Then a friend would ride it and tell us how great it was and we would give it another try.

Again, we love helping riders improve and some of our students are much better riders and racers than we are and some aren’t as good, who cares, it isn’t a contest, it is mountain biking. Doesn’t “mountain biking” make you think of nature while “road biking” conjures up images of pavement? Is nature safe and manicured or is nature harsh and rough?  Believe me famous mountain biking destinations like, Moab, Bootleg Canyon, Durango, Sedona, Squamish and Whistler are harsh and rough in places.  Doesn’t “mountain biking” sound tougher than “road biking”? Are mountains smooth and soft or jagged and gnarly? Don’t get me wrong, I love the sweet beginner trails that are being built. Many of them flow so well even “expert riders” enjoy them. Keep building sweet beginner trails, they help grow the sport and get more people riding “mountain bikes”. Even people who formerly thought mountain biking was dangerous and not for them are starting to ride. This is great, except, mountain biking is dangerous, it involves riding a bike in the mountains (remember, mountain are jagged and gnarly)! Many trails, especially older and harder to reach trails are not manicured, they are wild. All mountain bikers can ride these trails just the less skilled are going to walk many sections. At that point they can choose to not ride that trail again or challenge themselves to improve, not dumb down the trail! I would love to be able to score a goal playing ice hockey but they are not going to make the hockey goals as big as soccer goals so I can do it! They are going to make me earn my goal scoring skills, the same way they did, with good coaching and lots of deliberate practice! Heck, I might even feel good about myself. I might feel like I faced a challenge and overcame it! Aren’t growth, learning and pushing your personal limits things that make you feel good? Ski racers didn’t dumb down the slopes, they educated themselves, trained hard and they actually ice down their race courses to make them harder! There are still beginner trails for their fans, foes, friends and family but there are trails them too!

When did we get so soft? We meaning the “US”, have you ever ridden in Canada? In Quebec and British Colombia the local trails are so hard many pro cross country racers from the US could not ride them. You know what they call these super hard trails in Canada, “trails”. They rode some of these trails 20 years ago on hardtails and they ride them now on their full-suspension bikes. Some trails were built more recently and are even harder, designed to challenge riders on their “cheater” 4-6” travel bikes.  In Canada (like in the US in the early 1990s) they know some sections are harder than others so they walk the hard sections until they learn to ride them. That is part of mountain biking.

Get out and ride and challenge yourself to improve!

 

How To Use MTB Gear Selection to Save Energy and Go Faster

There is a lot of miss information on gear selection and cadence for mountain biking and I would like to clear some things up for you.

As for cadence we are mountain biking, not road riding! This means we have a lot more variables to deal with (than road riders), roots, rocks, loose conditions, etc often requiring us to use a slow cadence to maintain traction and balance. While Lance Armstrong popularized the idea of spinning an easy gear I have never seen a study that proves this is the most economical way to climb for all body types and it can be every hard to maintain control on trail why spinning a high rpm. Many of the best mountain bikers (Tinker Juarez comes to mind) and even some road racers (Jan Ullrich) push really hard gears. So use a cadence that is comfortable for you, taking into account your fitness, power to weight ratio, traction and balance demands.

Always while riding adjust your gearing to the speed you are going!

When going from a downhill to uphill do not shift into an easier gear before necessary as you will lose precious momentum while coasting (unable to pedal) uphill and often lose your balance (by pedaling with no resistance throwing your weight forward).  This means if you are in your hardest gear at the bottom of a hill stay in that gear as you start climbing to keep your momentum up! Then, shift as needed (do not shift under power, do a “soft pedal” (a full revolution with no power to the rear wheel) when shifting on a climb) maintaining your momentum!  By only shifting when needed you can often maintain a much higher pace while using less energy on a climb (see previous article on going faster with less energy).

To accelerate a bike we need to be an an easy gear, not a gear we are straining to push. As you are slowing to enter a corner (where you will be coasting through) shift into a gear to match your speed on the exit of the corner (this takes some practice to learn what gear feels good at what speed).

Power modulation is also important! Sudden surges in power can cause wheel spin (wasting energy and possibly loosing balance/control) while climbing as can just plain applying too much power for the conditions. I often see super powerful riders crank uphills at speeds I am envious of but I can hear their rear slipping, if they backed off on power just a little bit they would climb just as fast or faster using less energy! Have you ever spun out on slippery root while climbing? Next time trying slowly increasing your power for a pedal stroke or three before the root then doing a “soft pedal” over the root and getting back on the power once passed the root. In short, producing a lot of power is great but relying on power instead of finesse wastes energy and often causes you to stall or crash.

MTB Skills Tip w/ Pic, Technical Climbing w/Andy Winohradsky

Great advice on climbing from BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky!

In the following, I will address proper body position and its importance while ascending steep and technical climbs and also debunk a couple of infamous myths regarding climbing on your MTB.

While we can get away with sloppy technique on relatively easy climbs and still make it to the top, when things get steep and loose (when traction is at a minimum) and obstacles such as water bars, erosion ruts, baby-head sized rocks, and who-knows-what-else, begin to appear on the trail (these things almost always appear more often when the trail gets steep because trail damage from the elements – especially water, and, therefore water control measures – become more prevalent on steep terrain), our technique needs to be nearly perfect to top the climbs. Simply pedaling harder – as we all know – won’t get it done!

Losing traction, “bogging out”, doing accidental wheelies, and/or getting a case of the “swirvies”, are all common causes of riders not making it to the top of technical descents. My guess is you’ve experienced all of the above issues when trying to ascend steep terrain (I think we all have!). While other aspects of riding technique such as proper use of vision (extremely important), proper gear selection (very often overlooked – even by “good” riders), and others, are essential in order to make it to the top, proper body position will do a ton to help alleviate the above “climb killers”.

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky climbing the Steeps!

First, let’s talk (type) about weight-shifts. Look at the rider in the photo (that’s me). Notice how far forward I have scooted on my saddle. Is that comfortable? Nope! However, very rarely will you need to move this far forward for an extended period of time (Most saddle companies do make saddles built with things such as the “enhanced climbing nose” to make being in this position as comfy as possible. If it is too painful to move this far forward with your current saddle, look into a different one. Your grundal will thank you!)

Why move this far forward? A couple reasons: if your bike is set-up correctly for you on flat ground and you feel like you’re in a good position to comfortably and effectively apply power to the pedals, what happens when your front wheel is elevated perhaps a foot, like in the photo? Your hips (your center of mass and source of balance and power) have now moved rearward in their relationship with your feet (your effective applications of power). Moving forward – shifting your weight forward – helps you maintain your “power position” as much as possible when the front of the bike becomes elevated, enabling you to continue to effectively apply power to the ground when things get steep. Another very important reason that I move this far forward on the saddle: I put more weight on the front of the bike. Accidental wheelies and cases of the “swervies” (when your front wheel begins to wonder uncontrollably all over the trail, making it impossible to hold your line) occur because there is too much weight on the rear of the bike (not enough on the front). Shifting your weight forward will help to prevent these things from happening.

Remember: the hips are the center of mass of the human body. Even slight movements, or shifts, of the hips make a huge difference in our ability to ride the bike (contributing massively to weight placement, balance, power delivery). I am almost constantly making weight shifts – moving my hips fore and aft – on the saddle when ascending. A gentle climb with a small grade? I move forward only slightly – maybe a quarter of an inch. Medium grade? Medium movement – perhaps an inch … Steep as heck? All the way forward – as far as possible.

Another massively overlooked part of proper body position on steep climbs is the position of your upper body. Get that chest down!!! Look at the photo. My chin is literally only a few inches off of the stem, and, when the front wheel climbs up the rock that it is touching – elevating the front of the bike even more – my chin will almost be touching the stem. My upper body CAN NOT rise as the front of the bike rises, or – assuming I am in perfect balance before the angle of the bike changes – I will no longer be balanced on the bike, I will be falling off the back of the bike, and I will have to “hang” on the handlebars, effectively pulling back on them (because of gravity, my body wants to fall off the back of the bike). Of course, I still will need to pedal to maintain momentum, but because I will be “hanging” off the back of the bike and pulling on the handle bars, the bike will want to move out from under my body (rear wheel still moving uphill because of pedaling, handlebars wanting to fall off the back of the bike with my body), and – Bam! I’m doing an accidental wheelie or the front of the bike becomes so light that its swerving all over the trail. Either way, I have to cut my power, and that’s it – I’ve stalled out, “bogged down” – I’m done, and my climbing is over. I didn’t make it … that has happened to everyone.

Lowering the chest – drastically, in the case of a climb this steep – allows me to keep my upper body balanced on top of my lower body. I don’t want to lean forward with weight on my handle bars, nor do I want to “hang” off the back off the bike. In fact, in theory, I should be able to “flutter” my fingers on the grips when I’m in balance on the climb. This ensures that my weight is balanced on my lower body and not leaning or hanging on my hands.

Also, on a climb this steep, I will accelerate the bike (as much as possible) in order to have as much momentum as possible to help me get up the steepest part of the climb, or over obstacles such as the curb-type rock-ledge that my front tire is touching in the photo. This means that an even lower position of the upper body is needed during the acceleration in order to maintain fore and aft balance.

Your weight shift (fore and aft on the saddle), and lowering your upper body are both mandatory in ascending steep, nasty climbs – to do one or the other is simply not enough. They also work together, but in an inverse relationship: often you do need to keep a fair amount of weight on the rear tire to maintain traction over slippery rocks, water bars, etc, so you can’t slide as far forward on the saddle as you would like to; you must compensate for this by lowering your chest even more in order to stay balanced on the bike and not fall of the back of the saddle. Also, if you can exaggerate your movement forward on the saddle, you won’t have to drop your chest quite as low. If its super-duper steep, however, I’m probably all the way forward on the saddle and as low as possible with my upper body. (On a 29er the same concepts apply but do to the longer chainstay and longer tire contact patch you don’t need to do the weight shifts to the same extreme.)

What about standing in this situation? I may stand slightly and briefly in order to make extreme weight-shifts or grossly accelerate the bike. But often, when I stand, I’m expending a lot of energy, and I’m usually making up for a mistake that I made – damage control, if you will. Also, if you look at my position in the photo, I will only lift my butt a couple inches, maximum, off of the saddle when I stand, and then return to the saddle. Its still mandatory to maintain this position, even if I do come off of the saddle briefly.

Note from Gene on standing: Standing can provide more power and actually be efficient but on a technical climb it is very hard to stay centered and you will often shift forward just enough to un-weight the rear tire and spin out when you stand.

Since I’ve mentioned pulling or “hanging” on the handlebars, I feel that its necessary to debunk a popular myth about climbing on mountain bikes. Perhaps we’ve heard that we should “pull” on the handlebars with each pedal stoke? This advice comes from way back in the day and from road cyclists. While this technique may provide some additional leverage and miniscule amounts of additional power on the road (which is paved with excellent traction). Its a kiss of death to a mountain biker. Road riders don’t have the problem of doing wheelies on climbs because of the construction of the road bike and because the climbs simply aren’t very steep compared to MTB trails. The only time I “pull” on the bars on a MTB while ascending is to make a weight shift forward with my body. And in this case, I’m pulling my body forward, establishing a balanced position, and then I refrain from pulling until I make another adjustment. I don’t continuously pull on the handlebars with each pedal stoke for reasons explained above.

Perhaps we’ve also heard that we want to climb with our elbows in. Look at the photo. My elbows are fairly elevated. While I AM powering the bike with my lower body, the difficulty of the terrain necessitates constant weight shifts and adjustments in order to keep the bike moving (the handlebars are used to manipulate the bicycle into a position so that it can be powered and controlled primarily with the lower body). Most of these adjustments require a substantial amount of effort. Do this: stand straddling your bicycle. Now pretend that you want to pull both of your grips, outward and off of your handlebars simultaneously. Where are your elbows positioned? Now, pretend that you want to push those bars suddenly and violently through the floor. And finally, pretend that you want to dead-lift those handlebars through the ceiling. In all of these positions – where you wish to apply the maximum amount of power possible – your elbows will be up and out. Imagine trying to accomplish these tasks with your elbows in! We will give up massive amounts of control and power if we try ride technical terrain with our elbows in (if the trail is smooth and easy, fine, put your elbows wherever you’re most comfortable).

Its safe to say that climbing steep and technical terrain such as the stuff in the photo, requires far more dynamic technique and movement then climbing paved climbs with perfect traction (that’s not to say that one is more difficult – or painful – than the other!). Therefore, a lot of that old advice that may work on the road or an extremely smooth trail, isn’t applicable to riding a MTB in the nasty stuff. Apples and oranges …

Try this out for yourself: find a steep trail with consistent grade and get into the proper ascending position described above. Apply the power. That should feel pretty good, now, suddenly do everything wrong: scoot back on your saddle and sit bolt up-right! You’ll notice that your power – and therefore your speed and momentum – will drastically decrease.

If these tips help you imagine what an actual 3 day skills camp would do for you! Tips are great but they are only scratching the surface, there is a lot more to climbing. As you know, nobody ever mastered a sport from tips. Nothing beats well designed coaching with feedback from passionate and experienced coaches.