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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.

Great New Mountain Bike Skills Video! Can you clear the Rock?

In my quest to create a series of mountain biking “competencies” (tests to show if you have mastered a skill) here is a wheelie and weight shift competency (see post titled: Ways to test your mountain biking skill and monitor progress in mtb skill).

Here is a great video of clearing a rock using two basic skills, a wheelie and weight shift. This is the exact same skill to get over a small curb correctly just done on a larger obstacle. Remember, always use “baby steps” when progressing a skill! It is much better to gain confidence through a series of victories than risk injury and/or a big failure that can set you back mentally.

If you can clear a 36″ rock with 12″ square edge at the bottom you have mastered the wheelie and weight shift (although there are definitely larger rocks on some trails if you can clear a 36″ rock you have the skill for a much bigger rock, you just need to work your way up).

Great student write up on both his BetterRide Camp and his experience with James Wilson’s Strength and Mobility programs

Great student write up on both his BetterRide Camp and his experience with James Wilson’s Strength and Mobility programs. check it out: http://chriscowan.us/2-garanteed-steps-to-improve-your-mountain-bi

The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given. (How we actually “break” bad habits and create perfect ones)

The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given. (How we actually “break” bad habits and create perfect ones)

As you may know I am obsessed with learning and teaching. How do we learn? What is the best way to learn a new skill? How can I best coach this skill? How can improve on my methods? These questions are constantly running through my head which is what makes coaching such a great passion for me. Well about 5 months ago I hit the Jackpot!

I have learned some truly amazing information on learning and mastering skill. Two books in particular have really opened my eyes, Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster by Ernest Dras and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. The first book is written by a renowned tennis coach about golf and the second explains the science of learning backing up (and then some) the first with the science behind why slow practice and “deep” practice work so well. If you are fascinated by learning and have always wondered how some people go on to be great at something while others seem to try hard but not get to the top these book are both great reads and I highly recommend them. If you are more a “cliff notes” type scholar I will give you some of my biggest takeaways from the books.

What both of these books explain is Slow, “Deep” or “Deliberate” practice is the best and fastest way to master anything, whether it is playing an instrument, mastering a martial art or becoming a better mountain biker.

Why slow, deep practice? Turns out we don’t fix or change bad habits, we need to produce brand new perfect habits. In layman’s terms a skill (such as doing a wheelie) is a series of impulses transmitted through a wire from your brain to all the muscles and nerves the skill requires. When we first do a skill we put the wire in place but it takes perfect repetition of that skill to make the wire work better. The “wire” starts out with no insulation (imagine a bare wire with no rubber coating under the hood of your car) so it shorts out easily and doesn’t always fire correctly. We build that insulation (called the Myelin Sheath) best through slow, deliberate practice.

BR Coach Gene Hamilton explaining cornering body position

How does this effect you and your mountain bike riding? If you are like me and all of my students so far, when you first started riding your either had no instruction or improper instruction and started doing somethings incorrectly (which for me meant, getting my weight back on descents, riding to upright with straight arms, braking in corners, etc. a ton of bad habits). Unfortunately the Myelin Sheath doesn’t know what is correct or not so the more you ride incorrectly the more you build up that insulation around that wire. Which means the more and more powerful that bad habit becomes. Then you read a “tip” on how to ride better (like in my mini-course) and now you know you should ride with your weight on the pedals instead of getting your weight back. You then practice this by coasting down your driveway with all of your weight on your pedals. Congratulations, you have just created a new, perfect habit! Don’t get too excited yet though, that habit or “wire” isn’t insulated to well so it doesn’t always fire correctly. You are committed to change though so you practice it five times a day for a week. Now the Myelin Sheath has gotten thicker and the wire works better but, the old wire has 8 years of Myelin Sheath building around it so the old habit still takes over when you aren’t focused on the new habit and when ever the least bit of fear creeps into you.

How do you build up enough insulation on the wire for the new, perfect habit take over the old habit? Slow, deliberate practice. What the heck is slow deliberate (or “deep”) practice? Slow, deliberate practice is working on one movement or short combinations of movements slower than you normally would do them. The best musicians learn songs much better and faster by taking 20 minutes to play a three minute song! They are focused on the tiniest of movements and the sounds they produce sound more like elephants in pain than music (my favorite quote from The Talent Code is from a music professor who says, “if a passerby can recognize the melody you are playing it too fast”).

Coach Gene Demonstrating how to practice deeply.

You may be saying, “What does this mean to me? I ride bikes!” Well for you it means we need to first learn the correct, in balance and in control techniques and then practice them at a very slow pace with an eye on perfection and stopping and correcting our mistakes. You are fooling yourself if you think riding a bike will make you better at it (maybe a hair more comfortable as you get used to your bad habits but not better).

Students doing "deep" practice while Gene coaches

If you want to reach your personal best as quickly as possible, slow down and practice deliberately!