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.

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.

MTB Cornering Video from private lesson with Gene Hamilton

All the way from France, Will Burgat working on cornering with Gene the day after his camp in Bootleg Canyon. Check out Will’s eyes in the first corner, he is looking through to the next corner, the toughest and most important skill in cornering. His body position, especially the elbows up and out and hip twist are also very good. He is a little upright but those are some strong corners!

More great cornering from Will. He is still riding a little upright but again, great vision and body position.

How to MTB Video: Using Strength Training For Better Body Position

My strength coach James Wilson has given me a great article to help you achieve better body position!

Touch the Wall Deadlifts for Better Body Position

Everything starts with good, balanced body position. Good balanced body position on your bike comes from being able to “hinge” at your hips and not your lower back. Being able to do this movement effectively will make a dramatic impact on everything you do on the bike.

The Touch the Wall Deadlifts have quickly become one of my favorite exercises in the facility. It is the best way I’ve found to teach the all important hip hinge movement pattern. Here are the progressions for this exercise, plus what you want to be learning at each stage of the progression. Don’t be afraid to replace your swings and/ or deadlifts with these if you feel you struggle doing them right.

You can download the Coaching Cue Handout for this exercise by right clicking on the link below and selecting Save as…

Touch the Wall Deadlifts

-James Wilson-