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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-

How to Descend a Steep Section, Mountain Bike Body Position

BetterRide head coach Andy Winohradsky explaining in further depth why being centered is so important, even on a steep hill. In Andy’s words:

In this update, I’ll explain proper weight placement while descending steep terrain, why this is so important and how it relates to controlling your bicycle, and I’ll also dispel one of the most infamous myths about body position and weight placement while descending.

It is EXTEMELY IMPORTANT that you remain centered and balanced on the bicycle in steep terrain, and this means having ALL of your weight on our feet. Not 50% on your hands, and 50% on your feet, not 70/30 … ALL of your weight needs to be on your feet***. The best way that I’ve heard it explained is like this: if the bike disappears, do you land on your feet? Keeping your weight on your feet is the only way to keep your body centered and balanced on the bike. This also keeps your weight over the bottom bracket of the bicycle which is essential in employing the bike’s handling characteristics.

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky on steep, sharp turn

In the photo, I am definitely not leaning forward on the bike. Because the bike is pitched forward with the of the angle of the terrain, the my hips (the body’s center of mass) are above the rear tire, but, my weight is still on my feet – despite my relationship to the bicycle – and directly over the bottom bracket. If my bike disappears, I will land on my feet!!!

Now we’ll talk about why it is so important to maintain this position.

The particular section of trail in the photo is a nasty little spot on one of the most difficult trails on Colorado’s front range. Though it looks like it could qualify as a switchback and does require some of the technique similar to that of negotiating switchbacks (switchbacks are tough and require proper technique in order to consistently pull them off), from a technique standpoint, it is simply more of a very steep and short rock slab with a ninety degree left turn at the bottom (the trail runs along the left that fence). Speed control is essential. While many riders can drop into a near-vertical cliff face, hold on for dear life, and ride in a straight line, scared to death and completely out of control, until the trail levels out (providing that it does), the sharp turn at the bottom of this one forces a rider to control his or her speed with proper braking. This “move” in the photo is performed at about 2-3 mph, slower then a normal walking speed. In this case, a quite advanced degree of front brake control is necessary and this is impossible to execute this without proper body position.

If the rider’s weight is too far back on the bike and there is not enough weight on the front wheel the front wheel will lock up and skid (perhaps this has happened to you – scary, huh?!). At this point the rider has a few choices: release the front brake and accelerate rapidly with no hope of making the sharp turn at the bottom, skid the front wheel to an inedible crash, or, (the correct choice) – and this one better happen instantaneously and perfectly – shift weight properly onto feet, regain control, control speed …

If the riders weight is too far forward, it will be impossible to apply the front brake without taking a trip over-the-bars, thus, no speed control and no chance of making the sharp left.

The rear brake, though still useful for controlling the bike in various ways that we won’t discuss right now, is pretty much useless when it comes to slowing or stopping the bike on terrain that is this steep.

Another reason that you need to maintain this body position with your weight on the pedals on steep terrain is because – though you don’t want this to happen – there’s a very good chance that your bike will slide or skid a little bit (sometimes a lot!). If you are not centered and balanced on the bicycle, you are out of position and will not be able to effectively control the slide. The tiniest mistake can lead to big problems on steep terrain if it is not immediately and effectively dealt with, and this means having rock solid, near perfect technique in these conditions.

There are other reasons why you need to keep your weight on your feet when descending: among them, your upper body simply isn’t strong enough to support your body weight for any length of time and the balance sensors of you body reside in your ankles – let your body do the things its good at doing!

Now to dispel one of the oldest, most wide-spread, and straight-up dangerous myths/advice about riding a MTB down steep technical terrain. The Myth? Lean back when things get steep.

Lets define leaning like this: an object, other then your legs, is supporting your body while your feet are still on the ground – I can lean against a wall or I could lean my body away from a fence but hold myself up by grasping the fence with my hands. In either case, if you remove the object (wall or fence), I fall down.

When we talk about leaning back on our bicycle, the handlebars are supporting our body. If the bike disappears (the handlebars disappear) we won’t land on our feet … we will land on our butts.

We’ve already determined that if a rider is “leaning back” it will be impossible to use the front brake effectively (very little weight on front wheel), and, thus, impossible to control his or her speed. It will also be extremely difficult to control sliding or other drastic movement of the bicycle because the rider is not in a balanced and neutral position.

The funny(?) thing is, riders lean back because they don’t want to go over the handlebars while descending steep terrain, when actually, leaning back WILL CAUSE a rider to go over the handlebars in many cases.

Here’s how it works:

In the photo, the my front wheel is approximately two feet lower then my rear wheel. Because I am maintaining proper position, my arms – though out-stretched – are still not straight, allowing the front wheel to drop even lower (if it were necessary) before the bars would get so low in relation to the rest of my body and bike, that in order to maintain contact with the handlebars, I would actually be pulled forward, out of position. In this scenario, I would no longer be able to keep my weight on my feet and it would shift on to my hands … and I’d be in big trouble.

What happens when a rider leans back is they hang their butt of the back of the bike and support their weight with out-stretched, straight arms. They are already at the END OF THEIR RANGE OF MOTION when the front wheel needs to drop two feet. When the wheel drops, their body must get pulled, or yanked forward (or “bucked” forward, as its often called) because their arms are already straight. Their weight gets thrown onto their hands, they can’t control their speed, and when a rider is this out of position, contact with even the smallest of obstacles can be detrimental. (see Gene’s video explanation of this in this post:

http://betterride.net/blog/2010/mountain-bike-desending-body-position-101-video-demonstration/

Obviously, there is a lot more to descending steep terrain then simply keeping your weight on your feet:

proper use of vision, bike set-up, proper braking techniques … the list goes on and on … All these things – and then some – are essential to successfully navigating steep descents.

But now, hopefully, I shed a little light on where you want your weight to be and why (and where you don’t want it to be and why) when the going gets steep …

*** Of course, there are techniques where you will make weight shifts and/or manipulate the bicycle in order to negotiate obstacles where your body weight is temporarily off of your feet. You WILL be temporarily out of position while performing these techniques, and you will need to return to your centered and balanced position on the bike before you actually contact the obstacle that you’re negotiating – we won’t address those techniques right now.