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BetterRide MTB Head Coach Andy Get’s Tech on Clipless Pedals & Shoes

Recently, on this site, I’ve been writing about pedals – both “flat” or “platform” pedals (BMX style), and “clipless” pedals (which, oddly enough, are the kind your shoe actually clips into).

I’ve explained some of the technical points of FLAT pedals and shoes, and how to get the most out of this type of set-up. I’ve gone over some of the not-so-obvious advantages and disadvantages of each type of pedal and shoe combination. Now I’ll talk about the technical side of CLIPLESS pedals, a few different types of pedal and shoe combinations within the clipless genre, and a couple tricks to get the best performance out of your clipless shoe/pedal interface.

Again, and as I stated previously, there is no “better” choice when it comes to clipless vs flat pedals. Both have advantages and disadvantages with more overlap then most riders are aware of (especially if that rider has never taken the time to learn to ride the other system). If you learn to ride both types of pedal systems, it will benefit you greatly! (Look to previous posts for further explanations of this.)

So, we have MAINLY two different types of clipless pedals. The first has spring loaded bars that spread apart when under pressure from the cleat on the bottom of our shoe, and then the cleat snaps in between these bars. The bars then hold the cleat in place, and we’re “clipped-in”. Some pedal companies that use this system are Time and Crank Brothers. Some benefits of this system over the other is that its great for clearing mud and debris, therefore it functions well even in nasty weather conditions. It also takes up a bit less space (then the other system) and, thus, provides more ground clearance from obstacles on the trail. I believe this system also holds the title as the lightest system available. Some of the disadvantages of this system (depending on who you talk to) is that the bars can bend fairly easily when they come into contact with rocks, etc, on the trail. When this happens, its difficult to get into and out of the pedal, and chances are, its time for some new pedals. Another disadvantage is these pedals are either non-adjustable as far as spring tension is concerned, or have limited adjustability (I’m almost positive on this point – I may be wrong). Most riders that ride this system don’t mind the limited adjustability, saying that it feels just right anyway, and swear by it. As always, try them out before you by a pair. I’ve ridden this set-up in the past, and really enjoyed it.

CrankBros EggBeater pedal

 

The other type of system is essentially a Shimano SPD system. In my experience, I feel that they have more adjustability in spring tension and a different “feel” in terms of “float” (how far you can twist your foot before the cleat disengages with the pedal) and entry. Shimano also has different cleats: single release and multi-release as well as at least one wild-card cleat that was designed for a very limited type of pedal and is nearly impossible to use with any of their other pedals. I’m not exactly positive what Shimano’s story is on their cleat/pedal recommendations, so all I’ll say on the subject is do your research and try before you buy. But, obviously, they’re a great set-up when you get it right. The SPD’s can get finicky in a hurry in bad weather conditions. Any little bit of mud or debris can ball up the system pretty quickly and make it nearly impossible to get into and out of the pedals. To help alleviate this, start out with a clean pedal. Pay special attention to cleaning those babies out when you wash your bike. Also, the correct amount and type of lubricant will do wonders for SPD pedal performance: a very light, “dry” lubricant is great in dry and dusty conditions, and use something heavier when its wet (removing it, of course, before your next ride in the dust). Riders and mechanics have been know to spray their pedals and cleats with silicone spray (along with the rest of the bike – keep it off the brakes and brake pads!!!), when they know they will encounter wet conditions to help the systems shed the mud.

Shimano 424 w_platform pedal

At one end of the spectrum of clipless pedals, we have a pedal that has very little material and is extremely light in weight, such as the Crank Brothers Eggbeater shown in the photo. When this type of pedal is used with an extremely stiff and light – nearly XC specific – shoe, it makes for an extremely light and efficient shoe/pedal combination. If I were to race an XC race that wasn’t technically difficult; where power, light weight, and efficiency were way more important then bike handling skills (say, Leadville 100), I would prefer this type of set-up.

I ride with a DH-type clipless set-up, however. The difference in the pedals is that the DH set-up has a platform that surrounds the pedal (see photo), and the DH oriented shoe – though, quite a bit heavier (and more protective) – flexes substantially more then the XC set-up. This allows the shoe to flex enough to come into contact with the platform – while still being clipped-in – allowing for added pedal pressure and leverage to control the bicycle. PEDAL PRESSURE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WHEN IT COMES TO APPLING POWER, BALANCE, AND CONTROL TO THE BIKE. I actually wear-out the soles of my shoes on the inside and outside of the cleat where my shoe flexes and the sole contacts the pedal platform.

5.10 Shoes, Minnaar Rubber Sole

Another great thing about the DH set-up is the large amount of rubber on the sole of the shoe compared to the XC’s hard plastic. This is great because things don’t always go as planned when riding in technically challenging conditions and every once in a while, we have to clip out, put a foot down, and then still have to ride the bike – whether we want to or not! (maybe down a steep, rocky drop) – without having the time to clip back in. With the flexible DH shoe and its rubber-y sole, combined with the large plastic platform of the pedal, I still have pretty good control with my foot on the pedal even if I’m not clipped-in (though, I would very much prefer to be …). Try this with the hard plastic-on-metal of the XC set-up, and you may as well be on a skating rink!

Great for xc racing but not much else

Also, often, we may have to suddenly clip-out and put a foot down on whatever is immediately available, say, a rock or a log – and, often, we only have one chance and not much time to do this right! If we miss our footing – say our shoe can’t get traction because its sole is made of hard plastic – which doesn’t stick very well to slick rocks or wood – we may end up tumbling down the mountain! That’s one more good reason to have some rubber on the bottom of your shoe!

 

And, sometimes riding mountain bikes requires not only riding the bike – but carrying the bike! Sometimes up rocky cliffs – for hundreds of feet! Or through dense forests … or rivers … in the dark! (Ever had a ride like that?!?)

Having a good rubber sole on your MTB shoes on “rides” like that is also nice.

So if your priority is power and efficiency, go with a light stiff shoe and a light, minimal, pedal. If you’re riding in gnarlier conditions, you may want something that gives you as much control and peace of mind as possible – even when your not clipped in – such as the DH-type set-up.

(The subject of cleat placement is often associated with the cause or prevention of pain or injury due to repetitious pedaling. I’m not a specialist in this area, so I’ll say: if it hurts, investigate why, change if necessary, use your brain … don’t change your cleat angle, injure yourself with an over-use/wrong cleat angle injury and then blame the guy who told you to do so on the website … ). Common sense …

Anyway – disclaimers aside – as far as you cleats are concerned, the angle that you mount you cleat on your shoe at determines how much you have to twist your foot to get it to disengage from the pedal. Play around with different angles and see what works for you. I prefer an angle that gets me out pretty quick, with a minimal twist. The fore and aft of the cleat on the shoe is also adjustable. There’s a standard formula for this if you’re riding on the road or maybe long XC rides or endurance races. This may become very important in these type of events in order to prevent injury because of the extended time in the saddle and high amounts of pedal reps. With more technical riding this becomes less of an issue because riders are moving around a lot more on their bicycles (not remaining in the same position and pedaling over extended periods of time). I’ve known some of the top DH’ers in the world to actually cut sections out of their shoes so they can move the cleat farther back (toward the heal) in order to be able to absorb the larger impacts with more of a squat (weight-lifting squat) as opposed to having to use more ankle. I was a little skeptical of this, however, when I jacked up my ankle pretty bad earlier this year, this cleat placement (way back) was the only way I could ride the bike (and teach camps!)

Once you find your preferred cleat position, LOCK-TITE your cleat bolts (use BLUE lock-tite, medium strength. DON’T use red, high strength, or you’ll never get the bolt off, ever again!). As you can imagine, a loose and twisting cleat – making it impossible to disengage from the pedal – at the wrong time could spell disaster! Also, keep an extra cleat bolt in your Camelback … you never know …

A couple more things: trimming the rubber or plastic on the bottom of your shoe with a carpenters knife (or whatever) is a great way to get more clearance for the cleat and easier entry and exit from the clip. This will also minimize the chances of debris collecting next to the cleat and the sole of the shoe.

And, stay away from the “clipless on one side and flat on the other side” pedals unless they live on your commuter or bar-bike. Fumbling around on the trail for the correct side of the pedal to clip into is inefficient and dangerous … so is riding the clip side with regular (non-clip) shoes. One or the other please – you won’t see any tops riders riding these pedals!!!

Happy pedaling!

Head MTB Skills Coach Andy W’s take on Clipless pedals

In my last installment, I went over some of the technical aspects of flat pedals and shoe combinations and what to look for (and what to look out for) when riding said pedals and shoes. I also talked about some of the advantages that flat pedals offer the rider. In this installment, we’ll talk “clip-in” pedals (otherwise called “clipless” pedals).

My plan, initially, was to discuss the technical elements of clipless pedals and how to get the most out of a set-up. But, as I wrote, I realized that there is a lot of information regarding technique – good and bad, and “flat vs clipped” – that is still confusing to some riders, and therefore, I felt I should elaborate on it.

(Next installment, I’ll go over the technical aspects and what to look for in clipless pedals and a few tricks and tips with …)

As I said last time, if you want to get the most out of your riding – become the most competent rider possible AND have the most fun – I highly suggest you learn to ride both types of pedals. Both have advantages and disadvantages and each one will teach you to really develop certain aspects of your riding that may not occur if you simply stick with one type of system. Neither is better or worse – especially when it comes to technically challenging (i.e.: FUN!!) riding.

So, clipless pedals … and my take on some of the advantages and disadvantages:

Clipless pedals have been the only way to go, so to speak, in road riding and cross-country racing for a long time. And this makes a lot of sense: road riders ride on pavement, and often cross-country races are held (sadly enough, in my opinion) on tracks that resemble dirt roads more then they do “trails”.

It is often considered that the best way to ride a road bike – the most efficient way to pedal – is to “spin” very fast circles with the pedals, in a quite easy gear, and in theory, apply force throughout the entire pedal stroke (this was popularized by Lance Armstrong, among others), rather then “mash” the pedals, only applying force on the down-stroke (think standing up, pedaling, in a very hard gear). Its very possible to pedal like this (spin) on smooth surfaces, and I’m not going to argue that this isn’t the best way to pedal a road bike or race a technically-easy cross-country race (although, there have been some very successful “mashers” on both the road and the dirt).  Andy won’t argue but the study linked to in this post does say that “spinning” is not as efficient as “mashing”: http://betterride.net/?p=437

However, at BetterRide, we specialize in teaching “mountain bike skills”. People come to us to learn how to ride their bikes on technically challenging (i.e.: FUN!!) terrain. The speeds are usually slower in this type of riding, the terrain is quite varied and unpredictable (not paved or smooth) … because of these variables you stand a better chance of crashing than you do riding down the road. What I tell our students in our camps is, when the trail is flat and easy, I pretty much don’t care how you ride the bike. That’s not my area of expertise. When you’re riding the easy stuff you can eat a sandwich if you want to … juggle … I don’t really care … and, my students probably don’t need me to help them how to ride down a flat road or road-like trail.

But, when the terrain gets difficult and challenging, that’s when skills count and when we have to do things right on the mountain bike! When this occurs, we have to do things that road riders do not: we may have to drastically accelerate the bike in order to get up an extremely steep section of trail. We will often need to accelerate the bike in order to wheelie over an obstacle – and then maybe do it immediately again! (Proper wheelie technique happens with the legs, pedaling, and weight shifts – not merely yanking up on the bars) We may have to stand up, pedal, and charge up a steep rocky section. None of these things can happen effectively if we are already pedaling at 120 rpm (a fast pedal “spin”). When the trail gets tough, we need to slow down our pedal cadence so that we can execute the above maneuvers.

Because we will be pedaling at a slow cadence, we will be applying our power almost exclusively on the downstroke – even with clipless pedals – therefore, possibly (depending on who you talk to) negating any power advantage that clips may have over flats.

I personally feel that on extremely difficult, steep climbs, clipess pedals not only do not help the rider (because of the necessary slower pedal cadence) but also hinder the rider.

Hinder the rider? How? Well, if you ride clip pedals then you’ve stalled out on a nasty climb and started to topple over, tried to put your foot down to catch yourself, but were unable to unclip!! Man, those rocks hurt, huh? Especially if you tumble down thirty feet of them and into a creek bed like I’ve done on a few occasions!

When we come to a dead stop – such as when we stall out on a steep climb (or stop at a stop light! he he) – we need to immediately get our foot to the ground. Often, even the time it takes to execute the slight twisting motion to unclip our foot from the pedal takes too long (especially if you screw it up because you’re panicking!), and, BAM! You’re on the ground.

… if you ride clip-in pedals and this hasn’t happened to you yet, don’t worry … it will!!

Once this happens to you as a rider, you get a bit timid on those nasty climbs and bail-out a little early, not staying with it and attacking as long as you probably could have because, like I said, those rocks sure do hurt when you fall on them!

With flat pedals I can stick with it and climb ’til the last second. I can jump off the bike with both feet instantly if I need to. There is no doubt in my mind that I can (or will try to) climb gnarlier stuff with flat pedals then with clips.

Some riders complain that on climbs, with flats, their foot pops off of the pedal on the up-stroke. This happens to me, too, especially if I have been riding clipped-in for a while, previously. But, once I’m conscious of this, it goes away after the first climb, and, the amount of power that could be provided on that up-stroke, if I were clipped, in is so miniscule – its like a lone duck helping to push the Queen Mary through the ocean!

Advantages of clip-in pedals? First, the shoes are extremely stiff – stiffer then the shoes one would use for flats. This transfers more power to the pedal. Next, right under your foot and your super stiff shoe is a metal cleat which is engaged in a metal pedal. There isn’t really any “give” in this system and the shoe doesn’t “smush” down under your foot. I can usually feel this when I ride flat pedals and this is one of the only places where I can buy the argument that flats aren’t as efficient as clips. Also, you can get your Lance Armstrong-spin going on flat, smooth sections of trail – but you can also do this pretty effectively with flats (?).

In my opinion – and applicable to aggressive technical riding, and kinda counter-intuitive – probably the biggest advantage of clips over flats: they force you to SLOW DOWN and ride smart! Most people will ride a bit more cautiously when their feet are locked into their bicycle. In the end, you do go faster if you ride smart, and “go slow to go fast”, rather then flail out of control down the trail, riding way over your head – like I was always prone to do with flat pedals because I had the confidence I could instantly put a foot down or “abandon ship” if things got really bad! This is a huge reason why I now clip in when I ride downhill rather then ride flats (like I used to in do my “glory-days” of racing).   BetterRide founder Gene and World Champ Greg Minnaar like to clip in for a different reason, please see this post: http://betterride.net/?p=328

I learned some majorly significant things about vision (the most important thing in riding the bike) after I hung up racing and was no longer distracted with going as fast as I possibly could all the time, while I was clipped in – riding XC, not DH – and thus riding more cautiously.

And one more advantage of clip-in pedals: just as flats force you to maintain excellent position on the bike in order to keep your feet on the pedals (and, thus, you’re better able to control the bike), clips allow you get a little sloppy, and still, your feet are right where you left them, perfectly positioned on the pedals! This can lead to some bad habits if you start to rely on it, but it is nice at times!

So there’s a little more info on the “Flats vs Clips” non-debate. Next time: what to do to maximize the performance of your clipless pedal set-up.

Andy’s take on Coming Back From an MTB Crash

Not all crashes have to happen and the old saying, “if you aren’t bleeding it wasn’t a good ride” is nuts. Skilled riders ride hard and fast and don’t crash much. Unskilled riders (like me for the first 11 years of mtbing) wreck a lot, Andy is very skilled, rides had and this was his first hard crash in over 2 years. Check out his article and stay tuned for my article on some ways to come back stronger than before you crashed.

Andy’s Take on Crashing

In almost every camp that I teach, there is at least one student that is there because he or she had a bad crash – possibly got injured – and then decided that if they wanted to continue to do this MTB thing, they had better figure out how to do it correctly.

I explain to these riders, when they ask me how to “get over” their crash, that with the knowledge of riding that they will receive from the camp, and with the solid and proper technique that will be obtained through diligent practice, their skill level will dramatically improve and they will be able to understand why that crash happened (often, riders really don’t know what went wrong and why they had that nasty crash) and what they should have done differently. We talk about working our way back with baby steps. We talk about how to fall safer. I explain that fear and failure are natural and necessary parts of learning and riding – its o.k. to be apprehensive after a big crash – and those things don’t go away when you graduate from beginner to novice, but, in fact, persist all the way up to the top of the game – the best riders in the world experience the same fears, the same trepidation, as beginners (about different and more difficult obstacles, obviously – and probably bigger and nastier crashes!).

 

The riders always understand this – it all looks good on paper to them – but they still look at me and say, “I’m still scared! What can I do?” So for the next three days of camp, I try to impart to them various methods of getting over that fear, that mental obstacle.

And guess what! I recently got a chance to practice what I preach, so to speak!

So the following is a run down of what I did – and am currently doing – to shake off some of my own demons after a particularly scary crash. Everybody’s situation is different, but here’s mine, and here’s what is working for me. If you find yourself in this situation, hopefully some of the following will work for you.

Without going into too much detail, I basically made a mistake in one of the worst places possible while going fast, fell out of the sky and tumbled down the earth a good bit. Aside from some cuts and bruises, being sore all over, tearing my riding kit to shreds and ringing my bell a little, I got away with a couple of pretty jacked-up toes and a severely bruised heal.

 

It could have been way, way worse …

The first thing I try to do after a gnarly crash is figure out what went wrong. And there were a couple of things that were semi-preventable, that perhaps, would have made the difference. But what really went wrong was this: I was pushing myself and my bike super hard in nasty terrain – something that I love doing. And, if you do this often enough, sooner or later, its gonna bite ya!

I know that there isn’t any way around that – and that’s what bothered me.

I don’t believe in lying to myself about the potential dangers of riding. I don’t believe “that it will never happen to me …” I don’t refrain form talking about crashing or injuries (I will knock on wood every once in while!). It is what it is … and that’s part of what makes it challenging and fun! And I believe that I need to understand what the consequences of my actions could be, and then be prepared to deal with them.

Unfortunately, the possibility of having a bad crash is always present – whether you’re a World Cup downhill racer, or a beginner riding off a curb. And bad crashes scare everybody! .. I don’t care who you are! Some people deal with this fear better then others, some people don’t deal with it well at all.

The bottom line is we all WILL get scared. As a rider you will ask yourself, at some point, is it worth it to do this? Whether that means dropping of a 1,000,000 foot cliff, rolling down a nasty ledge in Fruita, or – worst case – even considering quitting riding altogether (I’ve had plenty of students that have taken the camp because they decided they either needed to learn how to do things correctly, minimizing the chances of falling as much as possible, or hang it up altogether).

The question I had for myself was, “is it still worth it to push that hard?” (for some of us pushing our limits is trying to wheelie up a curb – that’s fine, and also plenty scary and dangerous if you haven’t mastered the skill yet). And I wasn’t sure that I still wanted too.

 

I could still teach riding for many years even if I decided to take up playing checkers in the park as a competitive outlet . I don’t need to ride as hard as I do to do my job. Like many of you, my job depends on me being able to function physically. Getting hurt isn’t an option.

 

And, there are tons things to do out there to get your jollies. But, if you’ve read this far, then you probably understand that you get some things from riding bikes that you just don’t get anywhere else.

Besides fitness, the social aspect, a great excuse to travel around, and arguably the world’s greatest job, simply riding the bike hard, bettering myself here and there, pushing that edge, learning … those are the things that I live for.

Riding hard forces me to keep myself in pretty decent physical shape. Could I still teach riding if I stopped working out, running in the trails, riding motocross, and polished off a box of donuts, fast food, and twelever of PBR everyday gaining 30lbs in the process? Sure I could. But would I have gotten out of that crash with only a couple of mangled toes and a head-ache? Hell no!

Riding hard means constantly having a challenge for myself: I always have a ride just around the corner with other riders that want to ride hard and push themselves. I think we all come into these rides both excited and also wondering where we’ll stand with our buddies. That’s Fun!

I believe that BetterRide offers the greatest MTB instruction in the world. Because Gene and myself – even as “old” guys – continue to push ourselves as riders, we continue to improve upon our already great product – with both the riding and teaching. We are able to prove and disprove theories, bounce ideas off one another, and test these things – still – at the upper levels of riding. Is this mandatory in order to teach mountain biking? Nope. Is it extremely important to us? Yep!

 

I believe that it is also extremely important to ours students to see that the basic fundamentals of riding that we may teach in the parking-lot during our camps, are the same exact skills that are used by high-level riders in the most difficult situations when we get out on the trail. Essential? Maybe not. Essential to me in order to provide the best product possible? Yes.

 

I constantly find myself looking into new trails, products, gear, in order to give myself (and my students) that little extra edge. I can get up in the morning and go for a ride, come home and work on BetterRide stuff all day, teach a clinic, then go drink a few beers with a few riding buddies and talk bikes all night, and then get up the next morning and do the same thing. This all stems from the passion of riding the bike.

And that passion also means, to me, pushing it a little bit … sometimes, a lot.

The point is this: big crashes are scary, as they should be! You don’t simply forget about them, and I don’t think you should. But doing what you love, what makes you tick, what makes it all worth while is mandatory in life! And after running through the above list of reasons, among others, that I dig riding, I know that the reward is worth taking some chances.

I think that for most of us, this is probably the case – whether we’re about to send it in our race run at the World Champs, or whether we’re feeling good on the bike and today’s the day we’re going to go for that foot-tall rock ledge that we’ve previously always walked. If we focus on all of the positives – and they’re truly accurate and positive – they will usually out weigh the negatives.

Will I implement the things that I learned from the crash into my riding? Heck yes! Will I ride a little conservatively for a while? Yep. I’ll use baby steps and time to help me get back to where I was. Will I be aware of the level of danger that I subject myself to? Yes. But, I’ll focus on those positives and the fun and the challenge and understand that part of going fast and riding hard is about not getting hurt by doing things correctly and by being smart!

Inevitably, those students in my camps, who showed up timid because of that nasty get-off that brought them to the camp in the first place – after only three days of instruction – see the trail, riding, and themselves as riders, with new eyes. The tools that they gain from the camp are their positives, the feeling that they get from riding the bike correctly and understanding, thus, being able to commit to learning the proper techniques, are also their positives. This is what they are then focused on – not the negative of that bad crash. And this is what gets them out there on the bike, having fun and challenging themselves, again.

And although my situation is different from that of those students – its actually quite the same!

MTB Control (Brake/Shifter) Set Up With Andy Winohradsky

Setting the handlebars and controls up correctly on your MTB is a crucial part of being able to ride it properly when riding conditions become technically difficult. Unfortunately, though these are fairly simple adjustments to make, there are very few riders out there that understand how to do this, and why it is extremely necessary (bike shop employees and even professional “bike fitters” included! – most of the time you’ll get the same exact fit on a ROAD bike as you will on an MTB even though the applications, body position, type of terrain, suspension, etc, are night and day different!). Below, I’ll explain how to set up your handlebars and controls correctly and why it matters.

(Remember, the few hundred words that I hunt-and-peck into this article are by no means a substitute for actual, live, BetterRide instruction. Obviously, your controls relate to a lot of other aspects of riding the bike that I may allude to, but don’t have the time, nor the space, to go into detail about here.)

O.K. … first, there are many aspects to riding a MTB correctly that are quite counter-intuitive. One of these things is that we really want to control our bike primarily with our lower body. We want to engage the large muscles of our body and also our feet and ankles (which are excellent at keeping us balanced – unlike our hands, arms, and upper body). When we’re doing things correctly, the majority of balance, power, and control, should be transmitted to the bicycle through the lower body. Most riders use way too much upper body input to try to control the bicycle.

However, since our feet aren’t super great at grasping and pulling (especially with biking shoes on – and, no, you can’t count on your pedal-clips!!), we need to rely on our upper body to manipulate the bicycle into position so it can be driven with the lower body. I like to say that the reason that the handlebars are on the bike is to manipulate it into position so you can “drive” it with your lower body (with balance, power, weight-shifts, etc).

So … even though we need to use the big powerful, intuitive, athletic muscle systems in our lower bodies to assert the majority of control over our bicycles, obviously, we do push, pull, crank, leverage, etc, the handlebars with all of our strength at times. Therefore, obviously, our set-up needs to jive with what we’re trying to accomplish.

Another tremendously misunderstood and grossly overlooked essential skill to riding correctly – especially when the conditions get nasty – is also initiated at the handlebars: braking! We’ll get into that and how proper brake lever position is essential.

If our goal is to be able to control our bicycle in challenging terrain, then the goal of out bike set-up is to maintain proper body position – as much as possible – in said terrain. The proper position of your upper body – in the powerful, athletic, neutral, and balanced riding position – is half-way through a push-up. This allows for range of motion in all directions, and adequate application of power by engaging the larger muscle systems of the upper body such as you shoulders and back, chest, etc. Our handlebars need to be at a width that allows us to maintain that position. Too wide: no good! And – much more common – too narrow: even worse!! (Exaggerated example: try doing push-ups and pull-ups with your hands nearly touching vs. hands just over shoulder width apart … )

… and I’m not buying the “Well, where I ride the trees are too narrow …” So, on a two hour ride – you’re tellin’ me – you’ll give up having proper control over your bicycle for 1:59:55 in favor of the five seconds it will take you to negotiate a few sets of trees? Hmmm ….

Also, note where my hands are on the bars: all the way out at the ends. I like to feel the lock ring of my grip with my pinky finger. Why? Because of our inate body awareness, we know almost exactly where the outer edge of our hands are without having to look at them. We will instinctively make adjustments around or in between obstacles so that our hands won’t hit the obstacles. Although an inch of “un-manned” handlebar to the outside of your hand doesn’t seem like a whole lot, its plenty enough to cause bad things to happen if you hook it on an obstacle at 20 mph. More often, a rider will over-compensate for this extra handlebar width by giving up essential aspects of controlling the bike such as bike lean in corners (by standing the bike up – over-compensating – to miss an obstacle by a foot with that extra inch of bar) because – unlike their hand – they can’t “feel” or sense exactly where the end of that bar is.

Next, for reasons that we won’t go into here, almost (all?) MTB’s are sold with the controls (from the outside of the bar toward the stem) in the order of: grip, brake, shifter.

To obtain the position that is shown in the photo, we must switch this order to: grip, SHIFTER … then, brake. Some models of shifters have “shifter indicators” that tell you what gear you’re in. These are nearly useless and downright dangerous (if you do actually look away from the trail to look at the shifters) and often can get in the way if this order is switched. Sometimes the indicators can be removed or altered. Sometimes these indicators are permanent, and if this is the case with yours, still try to do your best to achieve the following proper position with your controls.

So let’s look at the first photo. With my index fingers resting on the brake levers (as they should be anytime you’re riding difficult terrain) notice where the fingers contact the levers: all the way at the end. These are brake levers, as in leverage. So, the farther to the outside of the lever that you can squeeze it, the more power you’re able to transmit to the braking system. (Some riders use their middle fingers on the brakes instead of their index fingers, which is fine, the important thing is that you are using only one finger per brake, and that it contacts the lever all the way at the end (I wouldn’t, however, use my pinky or whatever you call the slightly stupid finger next to the pinky as my braking finger!). The idea, itself, of using two fingers on the brakes – not to mention three or more – scares me to death!! The difference in the control of the bicycle is huge!)

Andy's mtb control placement

All modern disc braking systems (even v-brakes … usually!) have plenty of power to be engaged like this and instantly lock both brakes if desired. Also, all systems have “reach adjustment” allowing the lever to be positioned closer or farther from the bar to accommodate different sizes of hands and fingers. Often, once the shifter and brake are switched, the brake lever feels as if it is too far away from the grip. Use the reach adjustment to position the lever at a comfortable distance from the grip (I like a 90 degree bend in my finger when the brake engages).

Next look at the photo taken from the side of the bicycle. Notice how my brake levers are in a rather “high” position, nearly level with the bars and definitely not underneath or below the handlebars. Why? Because they need to be positioned correctly when I really need them!

I need to generate as much power as possible to push and pull the bike into position and I need to keep my wrists straight in order to do this. Imagine trying to push your handlebars through the floor. Now imagine trying to dead lift your handlebars through the ceiling. In both of these scenarios, your wrists are straight, not bent. Can you imagine trying to bench-press 200 lbs with your wrists bent? When you’re in your powerful athletic position on the bike, half-way through a push-up, with your wrists straight; and you extend your fingers: that’s where your brake levers should be. Makes sense, right?

Andy's mtb Brake/shifter angles

The problem is, most riders find this setting when they are in the parking lot (on level ground), or maybe their professional bike-fitter set them up when they were seated on their bikes, on a trainer, in the shop! This is fine if all we ever did was ride around – seated – in flat parking lots or on trainers in shops, but when we really, really need to be in control (when we can really, really crash bad if things aren’t nearly perfect) is when things get steep (going downhill). When this happens, the front of the bike drops significantly in relationship to our bodies, we need to stay as low as possible with all of our weight on our feet. The fork will compress some (as the brakes are applied) because there will be significantly more rider and bike weight on the front wheel (even though rider’s weight is still on the feet). Now, if your brake levers were in a good position in the parking lot or on the trainer, they will be way too low – almost directly under your handle bars – and you will have to bend your wrists and reach over your bars and down to your levers in order to reach them. This is bad for all the reasons we stated above.  (note from Gene: Andy is 5’6″ and therefore is shoulders tend to be quite a bit lower over the bike than someone my height (6’3″) so your height has a lot to do with brake lever placement, I run mine “down” quite a bit more than Andy’s. The goal is to have a straight wrist when braking)

Look at the photo of the fella riding the bike down the steep switch back. That dude is in really good position (o.k., that’s me …). Despite the steep pitch of the terrain, all of my weight is on my feet (this is essential for control in this type of situation). My arms are beginning to straighten out because the steepness of the trail is forcing me near the end of my range of motion (seldom will you find a section of trail as steep as this particular section). The steepness necessitates that I am extremely low on the bike. My brake levers, which were a little high for parking lot or trainer cruising, are now positioned perfectly (they will also be a little high for braking on steep climbs. Though I do occasionally use my brakes on climbs, its quite seldom, and I’d much rather have my brakes set up perfect for steep descents – where I almost always use my brakes). Can you imagine having to bend your wrists and reach over the bars in this situation?

Steep Switchback Body Position on MTB

Because speed control is mandatory in a situation such as in the photo, often riders get “pulled” forward and up (to simulate the position of being seated in the parking lot – the place where they set their brakes up) in order to try reach the brake levers. In this case, they can’t stop effectively, and they are completely out of position as they try to do it.

So, we want to set the angle of your brake levers so that they are in the proper position when you need them most (when the bike is pitched downhill) and so that they are accesible from your descending body position (knees bent, low on bike, half-way through a push-up with upper body).

As far as the position of the shifters or perhaps a remote switch for an adjustable-height seat post (which we all should have!), I’m not super particular, as long as you are easily able to reach the control and you aren’t accidentally contacting it and engaging it.

Every top rider that I can think of, where technical control is mandatory to the success of their riding, sets their bars and handlebar controls up nearly identical to the above. If your bike is not currently set up similar to the above, and if your goal is to have control of your bicycle in difficult terrain, do what ever it takes to make it happen.