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How To Use MTB Gear Selection to Save Energy and Go Faster

There is a lot of miss information on gear selection and cadence for mountain biking and I would like to clear some things up for you.

As for cadence we are mountain biking, not road riding! This means we have a lot more variables to deal with (than road riders), roots, rocks, loose conditions, etc often requiring us to use a slow cadence to maintain traction and balance. While Lance Armstrong popularized the idea of spinning an easy gear I have never seen a study that proves this is the most economical way to climb for all body types and it can be every hard to maintain control on trail why spinning a high rpm. Many of the best mountain bikers (Tinker Juarez comes to mind) and even some road racers (Jan Ullrich) push really hard gears. So use a cadence that is comfortable for you, taking into account your fitness, power to weight ratio, traction and balance demands.

Always while riding adjust your gearing to the speed you are going!

When going from a downhill to uphill do not shift into an easier gear before necessary as you will lose precious momentum while coasting (unable to pedal) uphill and often lose your balance (by pedaling with no resistance throwing your weight forward).  This means if you are in your hardest gear at the bottom of a hill stay in that gear as you start climbing to keep your momentum up! Then, shift as needed (do not shift under power, do a “soft pedal” (a full revolution with no power to the rear wheel) when shifting on a climb) maintaining your momentum!  By only shifting when needed you can often maintain a much higher pace while using less energy on a climb (see previous article on going faster with less energy).

To accelerate a bike we need to be an an easy gear, not a gear we are straining to push. As you are slowing to enter a corner (where you will be coasting through) shift into a gear to match your speed on the exit of the corner (this takes some practice to learn what gear feels good at what speed).

Power modulation is also important! Sudden surges in power can cause wheel spin (wasting energy and possibly loosing balance/control) while climbing as can just plain applying too much power for the conditions. I often see super powerful riders crank uphills at speeds I am envious of but I can hear their rear slipping, if they backed off on power just a little bit they would climb just as fast or faster using less energy! Have you ever spun out on slippery root while climbing? Next time trying slowly increasing your power for a pedal stroke or three before the root then doing a “soft pedal” over the root and getting back on the power once passed the root. In short, producing a lot of power is great but relying on power instead of finesse wastes energy and often causes you to stall or crash.

A Simple Way to Go Faster On Your MTB While Using Less Energy!

A simple mountain biking technique to go faster while saving energy!

Often there is not enough detail in mtb advice or it is flat out wrong. This is an example of not quite enough detail. When I first started riding I was taught to rest on the descents (by coasting) to save energy for the climbs. This is partially true but it leaves out a Huge speed adding and energy saving technique. Won’t you like to complete your ride in less time while using less energy?!

The technique is simple, pedal some downhills and rest on the uphills! How is this possible? On sections of trail that are rolling (short downhill into short uphill, possibly repeated multiple times)as you crest the hill continue pedaling over the top and down the downhill then coast the uphill and repeat! It takes way less energy to accelerate from four miles an hour to 15-20 mph than it does to maintain ten mph uphill.

One reason I quit racing cross country years ago was it was frustrating being held by riders who were fitter than me but seemed to lack this seemingly common sense skill as well as riding skills. On one rolling section of trail at the Iron Horse Classic in 1994 I was able to maintain what felt like 20 miles an hour over a section of 12-15 rollers without pedaling (after the first downhill) in practice. In the race a physically stronger but less skilled rider was in front of me in this section and we managed about 10 miles an hour while working our tails off!  Frustrating to say the least! The ride in front of me was only looking about 10 feet in front of him (aka looking down) so he braked on the descents and then pedaled the uphills and repeated! In practice I simply pedaled down the first downhill and pumped the rollers to maintain 20 and have a lot of fun! Unskilled riders in race kill fun (and waste a lot of energy).

If you aren’t clear on how this work I will break it down for you. Let’s say you and fellow rider both crest the first hill (in the series of rollers) a little out of breath at four miles an hour. You decide to rest the dowhhill by coasting as soon as possible while your riding buddy sneaks in a few pedals. The hill makes you accelerate from four mph to eight, you have doubled your speed! Meanwhile, your buddy accelerated from four to 16 or 20, pretty easy to do with a few pedal strokes on a downhill. Now, yes, at the bottom of the hill he is still a little out of breath and you have recovered but, he is going more than twice your speed! (and he is already quite a ways in front of you). Now for the uphill, you attack it (because you have recovered) and manage to maintain eight miles an hour. Your riding buddy (being still out of breath) coasts up the hill and slows from 16 to 11, reaching the top of the second hill recovered, ahead of you and going much faster into the next descent (where he will just pedal once or twice down to double your speed again.

In short,when possible Pedal the Downhills and Coast the Uphills! (on certain uphills, obviously this doesn’t work on 1,000 foot climbs, although it still will be faster for the length of the descent and the first part of the climb).

How to Mountain Bike at Your Highest Capability Level

By BetterRide Founder Gene Hamilton

In a culture of more, now, faster, we all want to improve quickly. In mountain biking this means we want to corner faster, climb faster, bunny hop higher and be able to ride technical terrain better, now! As a mtb racer and a coach I am always looking for ways to improve my riding and my coaching too and like you, the faster the better. The funny thing is, we ignore, gloss over and just don’t want to talk about the thing that really holds us back from reaching our goals in all aspects of life. Our focus tends to be on the physical; “what are the mechanics of a j-hop?”, “what should my body position be in a corner?”, “will these lighter wheels will make me faster?”, when it is our mind that is holding us back. We subtly sabotage our efforts with negative and often flat out BS thoughts. I have posted on this before, but I was wrong about the best way to get ourselves to actually perform at the highest level we are capable of.

In our camps and previous posts we have focused on positive and negative “self-talk” and how powerful both are. Negative self-talk (“I am a decent descender, but suck at climbing”),  is probably the number one thing holding most riders back. In the past we have stressed the value of positive self-talk (“I am a good descender and getting better at climbing with practice.”) which is far and away better than negative self talk, but turns out not near as good as interrogative self-talk. Interrogative self-talk is asking, “Can I do this?” which changes your self-talk from declarative statement, “I am a great climber” to a question, “Can I climb this?”. The first statement, ”I am a great climber” will give you an emotional lift but the question, ”Can I climb this?” will lead to a response, “Well I climbed a steeper, rockier hill in Moab last week.”. Then you are likely to remind yourself of how you have prepared for just such a climb, “Of course I can climb this, I have increased my power by 15% in the last two months of training and I have have been practicing my climbing techniques…”. Then you are likely to give yourself some advice, “last week in Moab I resisted the urge to try and sprint the lower part of the climb and maintained a slower cadence which really helped my balance in the loose stuff”.  Positive self-talk makes you feel good and possibly confident while interrogative self-talk prompts you to come up with ways to accomplish the task.

Before or during your next ride, instead of declaring your abilities with positive self-talk simply ask yourself, “can I do this?”. The best time for self-talk is before a ride or when you have stopped to either rest or access a trail feature. A lot of self-talk while riding leads to not being in the moment which can cause mistakes and crashes.

For more information read: “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form Simple Future Tense,” Psychological Science 21, no. 4 (April 2010), Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracin, and Kenji Noguchi .

 

Mountain Biking is an Offensive Sport

A Key to Riding Your Best! By: BetterRide founder Gene Hamilton

A real key to mountain biking at your best is to always be on the offense. Defensive riding gets you hurt! When you are on the offense you are riding at the limit of your abilities which improves your focus, coordination and allows you to reach the “flow” state. On the other hand, when you are riding defensively (thoughts like, “oh, don’t crash here”, “wow, this looks slick, don’t slide out”, “whoa, this is scary and steep, just don’t crash”, etc.) you are much less coordinated and actually focused on what you don’t want to do, crash!

One way to always be on the offense is simply focus on what you DO want to do. Thoughts like, “get to the bottom of this fun rocky section as smooth as I can”, “rail this corner as fast as I can”, “stay balanced and in a neutral position on this loose decent”, “climb this loose rocky hill like a billy goat, in balance and looking past all the obstacles”. These type of thoughts lead to confidence and riding at your best.

What do you do when you can’t focus on what you want to do? The trail is too steep, too exposed, too loose or just plain too scary for your current skill set. Get off your bike and walk! Then figure out what scared you and take baby steps to improve your skill and/or confidence. 50 feet of exposure on a narrow trail scares you, walk it and then find a trail with six feet of exposure and get comfortable on it. Then work your way up to 50 feet of exposure using small steps. Taking a giant leap over your comfort zone never turns out well. If you make it you just feel lucky, no increase in confidence and if you crash your confidence will decrease.

Challenge leads to the “flow” or “zone” state. That state of being when you are in the moment and everything seems to happen with ease. Reaching the state of “flow” is a big reason we ride but it is often hard to attain. In his book “Flow” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that one thing that must be present to reach the flow state is challenge. He explains that it must be a strong, but reachable challenge. Not enough of a challenge and your mind wanders, too much of a challenge and you get scared. Pick challenges within, but at the top of your skill set. The challenge can be to simply ride certain trails, be faster than before, smoother, use less brakes, etc. I have found that most of my crashes and mistakes have happened on an easy section of trail right after a hard section. I simply relaxed and lost focus when the trail got easy and suddenly was on the ground. Has this ever happened to you?

Here are a couple of examples from my own riding experiences:

 

Beginning of steep section on Horse Thief Bench (photo from mtbr.com)

During the Fruita Fat Tire Festival I led a group of riders on Horse Thief Bench trail. The entrance to the bench is steep, rocky and has a couple of big ledges, most people hike their bikes down. At the bottom of the entrance shoot the trail is flat and easy for a few hundred feet. The group I was leading wanted to see me ride it so off I went down the entrance shoot. Having lived in Fruita for four years I knew this section well and floated down it. As I got to the bottom I saw about 20 riders cheering on my effort! On the flat and easy section, feeling proud of myself and patting myself on my back for such good riding I hit a rock and flipped over right in front of those 20 riders and my group behind me. Now they were in disbelief, looking at the rocky trail I had just rode and looking back at the beginner trail I had just endoed on. I think I said something like, “I am a professional, don’t try this at home”. The funny thing is similar wrecks and near wrecks have happened too many times as I have gone from offensive to not focused or defensive.

Endo on Horse Thief Bench, this was beyond his skill set. photo courtesy of Time Piece Films

Wow, those photos are great testimonials to the importance of dropper posts! Had Rob, above lowered his seat he might have pulled that off!

Years before my crash I was heading to a race in Brian Head Utah and I stopped in Moab to pick up my friend TJ to come race with me. I was feeling really confident after practice and knew if I rode my best I should win (which would make this the second win of my pro career). Well, my run was amazing and I remember thinking to myself, “that run was amazing, no one could beat that, just make it through these last to corners and you have won”. Well, TJ beat me by a tenth of a second, for his first pro win. Now, to get that point (two corners before the finish line) was I thinking “just make it through these corners” or was I thinking “smash these corners, crush this track, attack!”? Yes, I was thinking attack all the way down the course, until the last two corners. Did I make it through those corners? Yes, but I slowly made my way through those corners. Had I attacked those corners like the rest of the course I would have won for sure, but by backing off I cost myself the race. I have seen great racers loose focus and crash in the last corner so many times, they simply switched their focus from attack to, just make it without crashing and down they went.

 

When Greg Minnaar demonstrates cornering in our camps he attacks them!

Always focus on what you want to do and always ride on the offense! As a matter of fact, stop riding your mountain bike and start driving your mountain bike. The word “ride” is passive, we ride roller coasters and amusement park rides, the ride is in control. The word “drive” is active, we drive cars, trucks and go-karts, we are in control. Drive your bike with authority.