This is the most amazing run I have ever seen! Danny Hart wins by 11.6 seconds (World Championships are usually won by less than half a second, last year 11.6 back from winning would of been 14th place! not second!) and even throws in a sick whip near the finish! Awe inspiring!
You are here: Home / how to descend on a mountain bike
As a matter of fact our instincts fail us in most sports. Why, because fear and self preservation are much bigger motivators than logic and reason! You will always instinctively move away from danger, if your computer suddenly burst into flames would you stay right where you are or jump back away from it? Intuition also fails us in sports as we tend to use it instead of logic and reason. In other words what feels good often isn’t correct and most people tend to learn by doing what feels good, they don’t spend hours studying how to stay in balance and in control.
Moving your rear end way back on a descent feels good, you are moving away from danger! Skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers instinctively do this yet it puts them in an out of balance, non-neutral (once shifted/leaned back we can only move or react in one direction, forward) out of control position. Despite all the logic that says we should be centered without practicing staying centered and neutral we will naturally creep back on descents. Getting riders to stop leaning back into the “safety position” is one of the skills ski and snowboard coaches work on the most. Especially in skiing where you actually want your weight pushing against the tongues of your boots which not intuitive at all!
Leaning into a turn also feels natural but again puts you off balance (you weight is no longer above your bike pushing down on the tires) and makes you likely to slide out. We are not on 350 pound motorcycles on swept pavement with 12″ wide sticky tires! Leaning works on street bikes but is a recipe for sliding out on a mountain bike. Ever have your front wheel slide in a high speed corner? Fast corners tend to be downhill and we accelerate through them. The steeper the corner and/or the higher the speed the more your instincts want to get back off the rear of your bike which un-weights the front wheel (if you also lean with your bike this really increases the odds of having the front wheel slide).
Looking straight down at the trail to avoid rocks feels good and makes sense, “I have to see the rock to avoid it, don’t I?” Yes, it helps to see the rock but not stare at it when it is 5-10 feet away, by then (or sooner, when the rock is 15-30 feet away) we need to be looking past it. Wow, is that hard to do! Even after spending 40 minutes explaining to our students how their vision works and doing 5 different drills that prove to the students that they don’t need to look down they tell us it is still hard to look ahead (and many of these students are pro racers who have been riding for 10-20 years!), especially hard to look past rocks. That is why we have drills, to master our vision, logic alone is not powerful enough to overcome fear and the survival instinct, to overcome fear you need a lot of proof and practice over a long period of time.
Experiment, go ride a trail with rocky sections and see if you are looking past rocks when they 15-30 feet ahead of you. If you catch yourself looking only 3-5 feet in front of you you are not looking ahead correctly, causing you to, tense up, go slower, react and mirco-manage the trail and likely stall out. Watch videos of the best racers in the world like Greg Minnaar, Aaron Gwin and Steve Peat, you will notice that they are always looking 20-100 feet ahead and never glancing down. This is much easier said than done!
Other times instincts hurt our riding and endanger us:
Ever put your foot down in a corner?! Putting you foot down inside of you puts you off balance and makes you more likely to slide out yet we all do it. Even world champ Greg Minnaar does it occasionally, because it is instinctive, but Greg will be the first to say that putting your foot down is a bad idea!
Ever skid your rear tire because you are not using enough front brake? Again, until you master that front brake you will always be a little timid to use it to its full potential. Fear is powerful.
Ever get the death grip (a very tight grip) on your bars? This just makes everything worse as you stiffen up and ride really rough but when at all scared (I don’t mean terrified, just a little concerned for you safety) riders instinctively do this (I know I do!) despite knowing that it is wrong.
This is the reason all top athletes have skills coaches (ever see an Olympic skier, tennis player, golfer, martial artist, wrestler, etc. without a coach/es? Nope, can’t master or reach you personal best at any sport without first understanding the fundamental skills and then doing drills to master those skills), I can’t think of a single sport that is intuitive and instinctual. Heck, even runners have stride coaches, what could be more “natural” for us than running? (well, if you ever see me run you will understand the need for stride coaches!)
If you are tired of letting your instincts rule your riding and put you in out of control and out of balance positions, looking only a few feet in front of you in technical sections (even though you know to look ahead) and want to start riding smoother, safer and faster invest in your skills and take a mountain bike camp from us that is guaranteed (or your money back) to greatly improve your riding.
BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky’s take on long travel “trail” mountain bikes:
Recently, a friend of mine rode one of the latest “longer travel” trail bikes (around 160 mm of rear wheel travel) and was blown away by the bikes capabilities on the trail. He couldn’t come up with a reason why he shouldn’t have one and he asked me what I thought.
I told him that I may not be the best guy to talk to when trying to make the decision on whether or not to buy a new bike – of course you need one of those! Who doesn’t!
But he asked me another very interesting question about having a “bigger” (more travel, slacker angles, heavier – more “all-mountain” or “free-ride”) bike versus a “smaller” (lighter, less travel, steeper angles – more XC race oriented) bike, and which would be the best bike for skill progression.
I think that most riders believe that the smaller bike would be. It would require more skill to ride: it would force better line choices, near perfect riding position, etc, and therefore, make a rider learn proper technique. While with the big bike, one could simply plough into obstacles, and the bike would do all the work – no skill required!
But I actually feel that the opposite is true: the bigger bike is more likely to give the rider the tools necessary to learn proper technique while the smaller bike may actually inhibit the learning process.
First, we don’t learn very well when we’re scared or in “survival mode”. With many bikes that are very much on the XC racing side of the spectrum, the combination of things like tire choice, stem length, the geometry of the frame, the rigidity and strength of the parts (or lack thereof) – especially having the seat jacked up to the climbing height when descending (no adjustable height seat post) – can all add up to a pretty dicey ride when trying to negotiate difficult terrain. Will the thing climb like a rocket ship? Yep, probably will. But as soon as these bikes get pointed downhill or into tough terrain, a lot of riders end up in the “just-try-not-to-crash-mode”. And this is obviously not a very good environment for learning and applying new techniques.
On the other hand, the bigger bike will instill confidence. The rider will now have a controlled setting of sorts, and have the ability to focus on specific aspects of riding instead of simply “just-trying-not-to-crash”.
More importantly, the larger bike allows for higher speeds in the tough sections, thus, allowing the rider the opportunity to process the trail at these higher speeds and get accustomed to them. This is huge.
Anyone who has ever taken BetterRide instruction comes away with a new understanding and respect for how important vision is on the bicycle. We spend a lot of time on vision, breaking down the techniques for using vision on the bike, how and why they are necessary. We stress that if you can only learn one chunk of the instruction of the three-day camp, make it vision because it is the most important thing when riding the bike.
Though very few do it properly, most riders do understand the importance of seeing the good lines and putting the bike in the right place on the trail. This aspect of vision is obviously very important (and kind of complex and counter-intuitive). But there is way more to vision and bike riding then just that.
Of our five senses, vision is giving us nearly all of the information about what is happening with our ride. If I am scared, it is because I see obstacles that Iook intimidating or maybe because I’m going – what I perceive to be – too fast. The way we see the trail and its perceived dangers affects us psychologically and this determines the decisions that we will make.
Again, a bigger bike gives you the opportunity to learn how to see and process the trail at higher speeds. You become comfortable at these speeds and therefore confident. Now you are able to work on techniques and learn skills and apply them at speeds and in terrain that would be very difficult to do with a smaller bike.
Yes, you will eventually find your limits on the bigger bike. And, yes, you do have to pedal the thing to the top (usually). But now, even if you do go back to that svelte XC race machine after being on the big dog, you now have the ability to process at those higher speeds. Speeds that used to be intimidating, no longer are. Of course you will have to slow down for stuff on the small bike that you didn’t have to slow down for on the big bike, but now that decision is more academic and not driven by fear and intimidation.
A few “for instances”:
Speeds on my XC/trail bike don’t seem fast because I’m used to the speeds of a downhill bike. Obstacles on an XC trail aren’t intimidating because I’m used to the obstacles on DH track.
Most of us have probably heard the story of someone’s buddy, who is a dirt bike rider and went on a MTB ride for the first time in his life, and was extremely fast on the descents – right away! Well, this person is used to processing the trail at dirt bike speeds (that are usually much greater then MTB speeds). He’s not intimidated, he’s seeing good lines; he’s doing this part of riding – the most important part – very well.
The above is also a big reason why many pro downhillers ride a lot of motocross in the off-season.
And, if we put an average DH racer on an XC bike and point her downhill, she’ll ride the wheels off the thing, only slowing because of the perceived limitations that the bike imposes on her – but not because of perceived limitations of her skill!
So, if you were on the fence about getting into a longer travel trail machine, jump off and grab that credit card! Not only will you have a blast, but also you’ll own a great new tool for developing skills that will transfer over to you XC race bike very nicely!
For Gene article on finding a confidence inspiring bike click this link: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/the-ideal-confidence-inspiring-mountain-bike/
BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky discusses protective gear for mountain biking:
Summertime is in full swing and that means its downhilling season! Even if you’re a not full DH racer, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve at least entertained the idea of going to a resort; renting, borrowing (or buying…he he), a DH bike, and having a day of chairlift accessed good times. If not, I highly encourage you to do so.
However, there can be a little trepidation with the whole downhilling thing, and rightly so. Downhilling can be dangerous (just like regular trail riding), but there are a few things we can do to minimize those dangers. First and foremost: wear protective gear.
Lately, I’ve gotten a few questions from riders fairly new to the downhilling game about what gear to wear, how much, “do I really need a full-face helmet …”, etc.
So I’ll try to shed some light on the whole body armor thing, but let me first say that all this gear is made for a reason, and WHEN you crash, you’ll be glad you had it on (or wish you did!).
… And, yes, you do NEEEED a full-face helmet!
Here’s an email from a Betterride student after, I believe, his first day of DH:
…That said, managed to time some rollers perfectly wrongly and slammed into the front
face on one after a jump. Ended up about 20ft from the impact point. Could get up
and continue but pretty badly scratched on the shoulder, back, arm, with impact
bruises on ribs (front and back somehow).
Interestingly, from the state of the (previously very new looking) camelback it took
a lot of the sting out of the fall.
Very very glad I was wearing something on my back (the camelback), along with elbow
and knees(which were without a scratch)
Was wearing a full face helmet (thank god).
It was a lot of fun, and managed to walk away with some good stories and wounds for
my 5 year old to look at but wanted to say to this group that if you are thinking
about doing it wear as much protection as you can get.
Many of the people doing it were wearing full armor, as well as Leatt neck braces.
Sadly some people were doing it very poorly protected, with some idiot boyfriends
taking girls up with their walmart hardtails with no elbow or knee protection. They
were going down very slowly but it was still dumb.
Given my sore neck last night and today I can tell I had some whip lash from the fall.
I have now bought a full face helmet, neck brace and full armor. Even if I only do
it occasionally then I want to be much better protected than I was.
Pretty typical story: had a great time AND took a pretty good fall that reminded him of the serious nature of riding bikes down mountains. Sounded pretty happy that he had the camelback on, huh?
I don’t want to spoil anybody’s good time, but … you will crash! Think about this: if you go downhilling, you are going to push it a bit! So, sooner or later, you will fall! It just makes sense to have the gear on when this happens.
I had a little tumble the other day on my XC bike. I was descending, pushing pretty hard and caught my front brake lever on a large branch that was obscured by smaller branches that by themselves, wouldn’t have posed any problems. The hidden big branch, however, locked up my front wheel at the perfectly wrong time, giving me an instant front-end washout, to catch, to high-side! As I was flying through the air, I remember thinking (its amazing how much actually goes through your mind as you’re eating it), “at least this isn’t happening on a fast part of the trail…” I also saw where I was going to land and thought, “well, I should be alright, but this is gonna suck!”
That last statement was accurate.
So … a fairly slow speed crash (nothing compared to downhilling speeds)
and a week later I still have a numb and swollen elbow, both knees
scratched up and sore, a pretty sore shoulder, and maybe re-broke my
broken toe that I keep re-braking. Fortunately, I was able to keep my
face and head off of the ground.
If I had body armor on, I would have been fine.
Now, I’m not going to wear full body armor when I’m riding XC (which isn’t necessarily a good idea), but my point is that the mechanics of a crash 4 or 5 times the speed of my rather slow one – which is probable when DH’ing – would have almost certainly meant a real injury – not just scrapes and bruises – without the proper protection.
Here’s my gear list when I get on a DH bike
- Full-face helmet. DO NOT go DH’ing without one. There are various arguments and theories about what type of construction/certifications are the most protective, but … use a good one. A quality helmet will have a shell that has a quality chin-bar/mouth guard, not a cheap plastic one that, literally, can be broken with your hands. I use a full motocross, D.O.T. certified helmet when I race and ride hard. In the photo, I have my Bell Moto 9 (moto helmet) and a Troy Lee Designs D2 (bicycle specific).
- Knee pads. Use something with a least a little bit of plastic to protect your knees and dissipate the impact of a sharp object. I prefer quite a bit of plastic around my knees. In the photo, there’s a 661, Kyle Strait kneepad that is great for pedaling efficiency and very comfortable. I use these for super-d racing. The other one is made by Fly Racing and is hinged so that your knee is never exposed to danger. Notice all the plastic surrounding the knee with the Fly (and the deep gouges and scratches). Which one would you rather have on in a crash?
- Upper body armor. Remember the “…very, very glad I was wearing something on my back …” part of the email? Many downhillers don’t wear any type of upper body armor, which doesn’t make much sense. If your trying to make a living at sport and every hundredth of a second counts … well, it still doesn’t make much sense. My body armor is fairly minimal, but it does offer spine protection and chest protection via pretty burly plastic. Once I’m riding, I can’t tell I have it on. I can’t really understand why those pro-racer kids – out there battling for 20th place in a local race – can’t be bothered with a two pound piece of equipment that very possibly could save their life.
- Goggles, not sunglasses. They stay in place, keep dust out of your eyes, and offer WAY MORE protection.
- Elbow pads. Mine are, again, quite minimal, without any padding. So a crash will hurt, but the idea is that the plastic will dissipate the force of a sharp object on impact.
- Gloves. I use the thinnest, single layer palms I can find so I can really feel the bike, but I always use them. One time I was on the chairlift with a buddy of mine while practicing at a race and we were talking about gloves. He was saying how he couldn’t be bothered with them anymore and that they didn’t really help protect you anyway. I begged to differ. On that run, he crashed and ended up “de-gloving” the skin off the palm of his hand (like you’d peel the skin off of a hunk of chicken). Didn’t cut himself or hit a sharp object, just broke his fall at a pretty good clip and viola, no hand-skin! He didn’t get to race that day.
- Shoes. My 5.10 Minnars are a DH specific shoe with some good padding and reinforcement in key areas. I wish I had these on when I smacked my foot into the ground during my little crash last week. They also have a lot of rubber on the sole (unlike a lot of MTB shoes). This means more traction on pedals, and if necessary, the ground. (See article on shoes and pedals on this site for more in-depth info)
So there you have it. I’ve been DH’ing for a long time and I really wouldn’t feel comfortable riding with any less gear then the stuff I listed above. Have fun, be safe!
Of course learning the in balance and in control mountain bike techniques we teach in our camps would also go a long way to keep you safe. Less falls equal less injuries!
- Joe on Mountain Bike Cockpit Setup For Better Handling, Bike Industry Slowly Catching On! (Lucky You!)
- Gene on Has IMBA Lost its Soul?
- Mark Andrews on Mountain Bike Cornering Foot Position Part 2
- Griff Wigley on Has IMBA Lost its Soul?
- Lon on Can a Mountain Bike Stem Be Too Short? What About Frame Size?
Ride Better Today
Subscribe to our BetterRide Newsletter for your FREE online course & FREE monthly riding tips!
We respect your privacy and HATE SPAM as much as you do. So, we promise to never sell or distribute your e-mail address to anyone.