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mountain bike cornering

Mountain Bike Cornering, Part 1

Mountain Bike Cornering, Part 1

I received a great question from a BetterRide mountain bike camp student today: “Since braking IN a corner is BAD, is it better to err on the side of braking TOO MUCH prior to entering the corner or err on the side of possibly having to brake during the corner? I find that I’m unsure as to how much speed I need to carry. My old habits would incline me to brake a little before and a little during the corner, but now I’m wondering if it’s best to err on the side of entering the corner too slow and never having to brake in the middle of cornering.”

The short answer, it is much better to brake TOO MUCH on the entrance than to tap your brakes in a corner!

Why this is true and why is it the second most important “skill” in cornering? (the number one skill in cornering is vision! more on that in a future article) Because it will allow you to have much more control in the corner, stay relaxed and exit with more speed! The goal of cornering is to produce as much exit speed as your skills allow. This isn’t just for racing, it is for all mountain bike riders, more exit speed will not only make you faster it will save a lot of energy too!

mountain bike cornering

Student George Fuller working on cornering our Hurricane, UT camp.

How braking in a Straight Line before a corner increases exit speed for mountain bike cornering:

When ever you are braking to slow down (versus braking to purposely get the rear wheel to slide) you brake in a STRAIGHT line! Tires can’t multitask very well and asking them to slow you down and change direction at the same time doesn’t give them enough traction to do either well. A few days before one of our camps with World Champ Greg Minnaar at Bootleg Canyon there was a Canadian coach coaching a provincial team and he had a braking drill set up that went straight for a few feet then had a dog leg in it. I heard him say to his athletes, “Anyone can brake in a straight line, that’s easy, braking and changing direction is much harder.” It took a lot of will power to not shout back, “yeah, but why would you want to!” as braking and changing direction is not a good skill. When Greg got into town and I told him about that his reply was, “how did that guy become a coach? That is a terrible thing to teach and practice.” In addition to decreasing your traction braking in a corner causes a few other problems, it decreases your lean angle by standing your bike up and makes the fork dive changing your head angle and throwing your weight forward. Always cut speed in a straight line!

By braking before the corner and coasting through the corner you have great traction, a consistent head angle, consistent weight placement and the correct lean angle. In addition the corner will be much calmer and relaxing without so much going on, making it feel slower and easier than braking in the corner.

mountain bike cornering

Greg Minnaar off the brakes and cornering like the champ he is! BetterRide Downhill Mountain Bike Camp 2007

So we have more traction, are calmer, in better body position and relaxed but we haven’t gotten to the biggest benefit of finishing our braking before the corner, a longer ramp to accelerate down! Most corners that you are carrying enough speed into for technique to be important are downhill corners, they lose three or more feet of altitude from beginning to end. For example: You have a corner that loses 10 feet of altitude (it starts at 1,510 feet above sea level and ends at 1,500 feet above sea level) and the pitch of the corner is steep enough that your speed increases by 25% for every five feet you descend. Your instinct is to go fast! So you enter that corner at 20 mph while your buddy enters that corner at 10 mph, and you are thinking, “sweet, my buddy is a wuss and I just put 10-15 feet on him at the entrance to the corner” (which you did). Then just before the half-way point of the corner you realize you are going way to fast and brake hard and slow to 10 mph and then let go of your brakes at the half-way point  (magically, at 25 miles an hour you slow to 10 mph in the middle of a corner without sliding out or crashing in just a foot or two of distance, more realistically you would end braking almost to the exit of the corner). So now you are at the middle of the corner doing 10 miles an hour (and your adrenaline is spiked, your eyes are as big as tennis balls and you are super tense because your nearly crashed) but you are still 10-15 feet ahead of your buddy and you have a five foot ramp to accelerate down through the exit of the corner (so in this example you exit at 10 mph times 1.25 or 12.5 mph). Your buddy mean while has accelerated from 10 to 12.5 mph at the halfway point of the corner, is totally relaxed and smiling knowing he is going to increase his speed by 25% again from the center of the corner to the exit. So your buddy exits the corner at 15.6 mph (12.5 x 1.25). For argument sake let’s say you still exited the corner a few feet in front of your buddy but, your buddy is going 3.1 mph faster than you and there is a long flat straight away after the corner (or an uphill!), who is going to get to the end of the straightaway quicker? Who is going to use less energy on that straightaway ? Obviously your buddy is!

There is an old motorcycle/car racing expression, “sometimes, you have to go slow to go fast”, and it doubly true for mountain bikers as you don’t have an untiring engine to make up for your mistakes.

A great way to prove this to yourself (which is really important, though you may believe me your subconscious still has it doubts) is the “French Cornering Drill”, so named because Marla Streb told me she learned it from some French downhill racers. The drill is quite simple, find a corner where right after the exit the trail goes uphill and see how far you can coast up the hill after the corner, the further you coast the more exit speed you had! First go in hot (at your normal, too fast for the corner pace if you are like me) coast out of the corner and draw a line in the sand where you coasted to. Then come in hot, brake really hard on the straight before the corner (slow down to total wussy pace) and see how far you coast. Then keep coming in a hair faster until you are going as fast as you can go without braking in the corner. You will be amazed at how much more exit speed you have (how much further you coast) when you come in at the correct speed for your skills in that corner! Do this drill today!

Lastly, remember, mountain biking is an offensive sport, there is really true in corners! We want to always enter a corner with a positive goal, “blast this corner”, “rail this corner” not a defensive goal, “gosh, I hope I make it”, “don’t crash here”, etc.

Save Hundreds of Dollars a Year on MTB Parts and …

… Have Way More Fun! Are you MTB trail aware? (stop clipping pedals/derailleurs!) MTB parts are expensive! Have you ever clipped a pedal on a rock or root? Have you ever smashed your derailleur into something on trail? These are two common and expensive problems that I hear about a lot.

Clipping pedals is more common today than in the past because to make mountain bikes handle better designers try and keep the bottom bracket as low as possible. The goal is to lower your center of gravity (one reason Porsche 911s corner better than 4runners). This comes at a price though, the lower your BB the more likely you are to clip your pedals on rocks, roots and the “high side” of a bench cut trail. Rear derailleurs have always stuck out a little and they are behind you so they are tough to watch out for.  These design features can lead to broken MTB parts and ruined rides but both are easily avoided with practice. I call this skill being “trail aware”. The first step is realizing the trail at ground level is much different and usually much narrower than at handlebar level. Just because your 820mm SMAC Moto Bars made it through doesn’t mean your pedals will make it through! To avoid clipping your pedals you need to be aware of the rocks, roots and changing contour of the trail, WHILE looking ahead!  You do this by spotting the objects that you might clip a pedal on when they are 3-5 seconds away then using your peripheral vision to keep track of them. Often all it takes is a well-timed lean, wiggle or raising one pedal to avoid clipping an object. The nice thing about your peripheral vision is it has a faster reaction time than our “dead on vision” it simply gets the body to take action without thought (meaning that well-timed lean, wiggle or raising one pedal happens automatically). This is counter-intuitive as your brain is usually screaming “look out for that rock” causing you to stare at and then run into it! By doing the counter intuitive thing, looking past the obstacle you will automatically avoid hitting it.

MTB Parts

All kinds of pedal and derailleur grabbing obstacles to stare at on the typical mtb trail.

To take advantage of your peripheral vision you must be looking ahead and you must be aware of the height and width of your pedals. This is really interesting when you have more than one bike as pedal height and width can vary greatly from bike to bike! To become more aware of the height and width of your pedals practice riding through cones, soda cans or 12 pack containers spaced about a foot apart (while looking passed your objects). Just a few minutes of this each day for 3-5 days and you will have a much better idea of how high an object you can clear and how wide a path you need to squeeze the pedals through. This will also greatly decrease your fear of the unknown when riding as there is is less “unknown”!

Avoiding clipping your rear derailleur is a little tougher, as it is behind you and takes a different path down the trail than your front wheel. Like an 18 wheeler your rear wheel takes a path inside of your front wheel when turning or cornering (the tighter the turn the more inside your rear wheel tracks). Use the same soda cans or cones you used in the drill above and this time try to turn around a single can with your front wheel going outside (around the can) while your rear wheel goes inside (or behind) the can. Practice these both to the left and to the right and you will start to develop a “sense” of where your bike is in relation to objects on the trail. This really comes in handy on switchbacks where often there is a rock that you have to have the front wheel go around but the rear wheel must go inside the rock (because if your rear wheel doesn’t go inside the rock it will hit the rock and stall you out). Other times you will realize that you have choice but to hit the rock with your rear wheel but you know it is going to hit so you can time a weight shift so the rear wheel doesn’t hang up on the rock.

Remember, knowledge is worthless without action! If you read this and think, “cool, I’ll do that on my next ride”, you won’t. If you don’t practice this using the drills above you will revert to what you have always done (both the good things you always do and the bad things).

Great form

Setting Up to Rail a Corner On Your Mountain Bike

Setting up to rail a corner on your mountain bike! Interesting braking and cornering question asked by one of our students:

“Just a quick follow up question.  I have been having a problem getting out of position before cornering, primarily caused by hard braking (especially if there is rough terrain before the corner or if I come in too hot).  As I brake, my body gets behind the center and lower as well, and by the time I start entering the corner, I am out of the “attack” position.  My front wheel feels light, and it becomes difficult to get in the correct cornering body position.

If you have suggestions as to how to properly transition from braking into cornering (especially under hard braking), I would appreciate it.”

Interesting question, this is a common problem with riders of all experience levels. I spent a lot of time working on the same issue a few years ago and still practice braking a couple of times a week for this reason. The problem stems from getting back while you brake, getting low is good but we need to stay  centered so when we release the brakes and the bike accelerates we are centered and ready to attack the corner. Although we stress a centered braking position in our skills progressions I was taught the old school, “get way back while you brake” and it is plain instinctual to move away from danger. Staying centered while braking took me a while to master and if I stop practicing it I find myself reverting to scooting back as I brake. Scooting back does help the rear brake a bit but actually hurts the effectiveness of the much more powerful front brake.   Getting back also puts you out of balance and makes it hard to corner correctly.  A great on trail drill is to focus on staying centered as you brake for a corner. Use A LOT of front brake, only brake in a straight line before the corner and then let off and attack the corner.

 

Rail a Corner on your mountain bike

BetterRide student Matt showing proper body position (centered and neutral) for descending and braking.

Stay centered and you will brake more effectively. When working with World Champion Greg Minnaar he really stresses this. It sounds scary but once you do it you realize two things: 1. you can brake in a much shorter distance with more control (less front wheel slide) 2. you are in a much better position to corner when you let off the brakes. This is another reason to practice the braking drills from the camp you took with us.

One of our fastest students, Cody Kelly (who won the Sea Otter Dual Slalom this year) told me that he now wears out two sets of front brake pads for every set of rear pads! That should be every riders goal! The steeper and/or looser the terrain the more you have to rely on your front brake.

As always it comes down to doing drills to master skills then practicing with purpose and a focus on quality! Have you practiced the braking drill from our mini-course recently?

Pro Tip:  Now that you are in the right body position where and how you do you braking is very important. ALWAYS brake in a straight line! In other words, finish your braking before you start your corner! Your tires can’t multitask, asking them to slow you down in one direction while asking them to change direction at the same time is a recipe for disaster. Have you noticed all those braking bumps on the entrance to the corner? Well, why are you riding in them? Usually there is a nice smooth section of trail just to the outside of those braking bumps, use the smooth part of the trail!

Create a railed corner (or two)! Stay tuned for next weeks article on line choice for cornering!

Stop being one with your bike!

Stop Being One With Your Bike! (Mountain Bike Better Today.)

Stop Being One With Your Bike! Mountain Bike Better Today.

The most common mistake I see riders making is being one with their bikes. You don’t want to do what your bike is doing! Ever get “eyeball jiggle” (when your eyes are bouncing and you can’t focus on the trail)? Ever feel like the trail is bucking you or that you handlebars are being yanked out of your hands? These are all symptoms of being one with your bike. Mentally you may want to be one with your bike but not physically! Watch a skilled rider go through a rough section of trail, their bike is all over the place (wheels bouncing, rear end kicking up, frame jerking up, down and sideways) but their chest and head are barely moving! This is because they are letting the bike move beneath them, being “separate” from their bike.

What causes you to be one with your bike (other than bad advice)? Fear, your instinct to move away from danger, riding above your skill level (riding a trail you are not confident to ride or riding faster than you are comfortable), lack of knowledge of proper body position (or knowledge of proper body position but not using proper body position because you haven’t ingrained proper body position with deliberate practice) all lead to being stiff and one with your bike. This leads to locked arms, stiff legs, possibly squeezing the seat with your thighs and bouncing all over the trail.

How do you fix this? Relax! Muscle tension causes your body to be stiff making it hard to absorb shock and let the bike move beneath you. The best mountain bike suspension ever made is your body! Your legs and arms have way more than 8” of suspension travel and that travel is instantaneous and well dampened (no need to adjust compression or rebound). So relax and use your body! How do you relax? Smile, smiling releases endorphins which relax us! Ride with a loose grip on the bars, death griping the bars effectively locks your arms with muscle tension (muscle tension also robs you of energy). Ride trails you can confidently ride! Riding trails that scare you will not make you better! Scary trails will make you feel less confident and lucky, when not confident you resort to survival instincts (like braking in a corner when going to fast or straightening out your arms while shifting your weight back when scared), not proper skills. Here is a photo of Ned, one of our students “driving his bike past a rider relying on instincts and being “one with his bike”. Notice how Ned is separate from his bike, centered and neutral.

Stop being one with your bike! Mountain bike better today

Ned “driving” his bike, separated, balanced and ready for what ever the trail throws at him.

Next, bend those elbows and knees to put you in a neutral position. Suspension has “sag” for a reason, your fork and rear suspension (if you have suspension) move both up and down to keep your wheels on the ground. You need to do the same! With straight arms and legs you can absorb upward forces but you will get yanked down small ledges as you “plop” down instead of gently rolling down. An excellent way to feel this and a drill to help ingrain this is: Find a set of stairs that you can comfortably roll down (not scary to you!). Roll down those stair with your arms straight, squeezing the seat your thighs while death griping the bars. Then roll down those stairs a second time smiling with your knees bent, elbows bent into a half push up position, knees bent, a loose grip on the bars and a lowered seat. You will be amazed at the difference! Once you feel how much better it is to be relaxed and supple practice this on stairs, rock ledges, bumpy sections of trail, etc. Really focus on one aspect of this (loose grip or knees bent or smiling or elbows bent, etc.) and practice until you can’t get it wrong! Remember, “Amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong! Here is a great shot of Austin with knees and elbows bent, separate from his bike and completely in control!

Stop being one with your bike!

BetterRide student Austin Gooder riding with great form in Downeville

For more on body position and video showing both poor, “one with your bike” position and good separate from your bike position check out this blog post: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/mountain-bike-desending-body-position-101-video-demonstration/

I hope this has helped. Now put down your computer and go practice!