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Is More Power Making You Mountain Bike Slower?!

One of the Huge, Little Things When Mountain Bike Riding!

While riding some steep technical climbs today I realized an interesting skill that I use quite often on my mountain bike yet have trouble with on my dirt bike (which has a lot of power!).  Although I am a professional mountain bike racer I am an intermediate (at best) motorcycle rider but both sports require a lot of skill when climbing steep and loose trails.

More power! Isn’t that what us men are always searching for?! The more power I have the faster I climb (and sprint!), right? Well, not so fast power boy. Often power can be our biggest weakness. Sometimes we power through sections on power alone, so we make the section but we weren’t particularly efficient and we got lucky, we could not consistently rely on power alone to make that section. Other times power is what slows us down or stops us. Loose and/or technical sections (especially climbs and switchbacks) require precision. The precision I am talking about isn’t line choice precision (which at .5-2 miles an hour is much more important than it is when going faster but not the topic of this post) but what in motorcycling is called throttle control, for mountain biking we will call it power control.

I was climbing a tight, steep, loose and way off camber switchback today. At about the 3/4 point around I almost came to a complete stop on nearly the top of the “berm” (banked part of the turn). Years ago I would of just put all of my power into at this point and would of had a 50/50 chance of making it. I might have flew through, might have spun the rear tire and stalled or slid out. Today, I realized I was slightly off balance (a little leaned down the hill) and because of the off camber and loose conditions I could not power through. So I stalled, shifted my weight up the hill a bit and then eased on the pedal pressure and crawled through the switchback, but I made it! This was situation where patience and a couple of key core skills (trackstanding, body position, switchback line choice and vision) really paid off.

This switchback was approximately number 10 of at least thirty switchbacks in about 25 straight minutes of granny gear climbing. It really got me thinking about power control (and how bad I am at it on my motorcycle!) and I started really paying attention to this seemingly little detail for the rest of the climb. I was blown away but how much modulation I used in my power out put for the rest of the climb! One of the big goals of climbing that we teach is to apply constant, steady power to the rear tire (not sudden surges that can break the tire free) but I never realized that on some climbs (like this one) it isn’t steady. It is carefully modulated power, accelerating or increasing power as much as I could with breaking loose, slowing or backing off the power when necessary then increasing power again.

This precision of power output  is easy to explain but it takes years of deliberate practice (not just random riding but really focusing on the skill) to master. It is mastered when you can subconsciously adjust you power output so that you can make all but the trickiest steep climbs and switchbacks. Which like so many skills means you will never master it! One day you clean all the switchbacks the next ride you miss one or two.

The fact that you can constantly improve with deliberate practice and drills but never completely master (where no matter how challenging the trail you never make a mistake) mountain biking is what keeps me riding! The challenge is always there no matter how good you get!

So go out and practice your power output and if you don’t have the core skills wired (remember, we do a lot of things wrong because they are intuitive, humans intuitively move away from danger, which on mountain bikes, skis and snowboards means we instinctively move or lean back away from the downhill. While instinctive it puts us in an out of balance, non-neutral, out of control position in all of those sports*) make the best invest you will eve make in your riding and lean the core skills (and dills to master those core skills) in one of our three day skills progression camps.

*Please checkout this article on intuition and instinct. http://betterride.net/blog/2011/why-our-instinicts/

The Best Mountain Bike For Learning Skills?

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky’s take on long travel “trail” mountain bikes:

Recently, a friend of mine rode one of the latest “longer travel” trail bikes (around 160 mm of rear wheel travel) and was blown away by the bikes capabilities on the trail. He couldn’t come up with a reason why he shouldn’t have one and he asked me what I thought.

I told him that I may not be the best guy to talk to when trying to make the decision on whether or not to buy a new bike – of course you need one of those! Who doesn’t!

But he asked me another very interesting question about having a “bigger” (more travel, slacker angles, heavier – more “all-mountain” or “free-ride”) bike versus a “smaller” (lighter, less travel, steeper angles – more XC race oriented) bike, and which would be the best bike for skill progression.

I think that most riders believe that the smaller bike would be. It would require more skill to ride: it would force better line choices, near perfect riding position, etc, and therefore, make a rider learn proper technique. While with the big bike, one could simply plough into obstacles, and the bike would do all the work – no skill required!

But I actually feel that the opposite is true: the bigger bike is more likely to give the rider the tools necessary to learn proper technique while the smaller bike may actually inhibit the learning process.

Why?

First, we don’t learn very well when we’re scared or in “survival mode”. With many bikes that are very much on the XC racing side of the spectrum, the combination of things like tire choice, stem length, the geometry of the frame, the rigidity and strength of the parts (or lack thereof) – especially having the seat jacked up to the climbing height when descending (no adjustable height seat post) – can all add up to a pretty dicey ride when trying to negotiate difficult terrain. Will the thing climb like a rocket ship? Yep, probably will. But as soon as these bikes get pointed downhill or into tough terrain, a lot of riders end up in the “just-try-not-to-crash-mode”. And this is obviously not a very good environment for learning and applying new techniques.

On the other hand, the bigger bike will instill confidence. The rider will now have a controlled setting of sorts, and have the ability to focus on specific aspects of riding instead of simply “just-trying-not-to-crash”.

More importantly, the larger bike allows for higher speeds in the tough sections, thus, allowing the rider the opportunity to process the trail at these higher speeds and get accustomed to them. This is huge.

Anyone who has ever taken BetterRide instruction comes away with a new understanding and respect for how important vision is on the bicycle. We spend a lot of time on vision, breaking down the techniques for using vision on the bike, how and why they are necessary. We stress that if you can only learn one chunk of the instruction of the three-day camp, make it vision because it is the most important thing when riding the bike.

Though very few do it properly, most riders do understand the importance of seeing the good lines and putting the bike in the right place on the trail. This aspect of vision is obviously very important (and kind of complex and counter-intuitive). But there is way more to vision and bike riding then just that.

Of our five senses, vision is giving us nearly all of the information about what is happening with our ride. If I am scared, it is because I see obstacles that Iook intimidating or maybe because I’m going – what I perceive to be – too fast. The way we see the trail and its perceived dangers affects us psychologically and this determines the decisions that we will make.

Again, a bigger bike gives you the opportunity to learn how to see and process the trail at higher speeds. You become comfortable at these speeds and therefore confident. Now you are able to work on techniques and learn skills and apply them at speeds and in terrain that would be very difficult to do with a smaller bike.

Yes, you will eventually find your limits on the bigger bike. And, yes, you do have to pedal the thing to the top (usually). But now, even if you do go back to that svelte XC race machine after being on the big dog, you now have the ability to process at those higher speeds. Speeds that used to be intimidating, no longer are. Of course you will have to slow down for stuff on the small bike that you didn’t have to slow down for on the big bike, but now that decision is more academic and not driven by fear and intimidation.

A few “for instances”:

Speeds on my XC/trail bike don’t seem fast because I’m used to the speeds of a downhill bike. Obstacles on an XC trail aren’t intimidating because I’m used to the obstacles on DH track.

Most of us have probably heard the story of someone’s buddy, who is a dirt bike rider and went on a MTB ride for the first time in his life, and was extremely fast on the descents – right away! Well, this person is used to processing the trail at dirt bike speeds (that are usually much greater then MTB speeds). He’s not intimidated, he’s seeing good lines; he’s doing this part of riding – the most important part – very well.

The above is also a big reason why many pro downhillers ride a lot of motocross in the off-season.

And, if we put an average DH racer on an XC bike and point her downhill, she’ll ride the wheels off the thing, only slowing because of the perceived limitations that the bike imposes on her – but not because of perceived limitations of her skill!

So, if you were on the fence about getting into a longer travel trail machine, jump off and grab that credit card! Not only will you have a blast, but also you’ll own a great new tool for developing skills that will transfer over to you XC race bike very nicely!

For Gene article on finding a confidence inspiring bike click this link: http://betterride.net/blog/2010/the-ideal-confidence-inspiring-mountain-bike/

Why I am the Most Fortunate Man Alive!

Although we are most famous for having the best mountain bikers in the world  (like World Champions Ross Schnell and Sue Haywood) taking our camps most of our students are just passionate riders looking to improve. While it feels really good and strokes my ego when MTB racers like Ross tell me how much they leaned in our camps it is emails like the following too that really make my day. Last week, Andy (BetterRide Head Coach) said his job is the best job in the world and providing him with it (and having him do such a good job) makes me feel fortunate indeed!

Andy with students, Fruita, CO

 

Here are two emails that students have send Andy recently:

Andy — I wanted to write to say thank you SO much for your awesome instruction at the Madison Better Ride camp.  I was one of the three Chicago roadies at that camp and the three of us had gotten together a few times since the camp ended to work on skills.  Believe it or not, Brian (Francine’s husband) just bought cones to practice with.  We’ll be using them soon.

Before Better Ride, I would go to the Kettle Moraine (one of WI’s state parks in the southern part of the state) with my group and I’d be promptly dropped on one of the more technical loops that we’d ride.  We went again yesterday.  It was my first time doing extended riding with the group since the camp and it was fantastic!
I didn’t get dropped because my skills this time (it should be noted that I did get dropped on the climbs, but that’s what happens when you put a track rider uphill). I felt like I was flying through the course.  Of course, at times, I was a little wobbly trying to stay low, and work on the skills you taught us.  I’m still very new to mountain biking but I had significantly improved since the last time I was there and it was pretty obvious.   I’m still working on cornering, among many other skills, but I was so happy to have made the improvement that I did.  Thank you so, so much for your help.

Angie

Andy Coaching a BetterRide Student, Fruita, CO

Hey Andy,

Thanks again for a great class in Cincinnati, worth every dime. You are great at what you do, and a perfect teacher…..keep it up!

Got my 31in bars and 50mm stem along with the seat post…..AWESOME!

It’s like a new bike, I love it. Really amazing the difference that all makes…….who’d a thunk it. lol

Thanks again for everything and I will be in the 2nd class for sure.

Have a great summer….

Dan

Head Coach Andy’s take on Flat Pedals for MTB riding

Without stirring up the clipped-in versus not clipped-in pedal debate a whole bunch, I’m going to shed some light on proper set-up and favorable shoe/pedal/cleat combinations for each, along with a few tips and tricks to get the most out of each set-up.

Well … what the heck, here’s my two cents on the “clipped” vs “no clips” great debate:

Guess what? Neither one is better! Each set-up has its advantages and disadvantages. Really, if you want to become the most well rounded and competent rider possible, get comfortable on both types of pedals. I’ve learned very important things (possibly, the most important things in controlling the bike!) riding flat pedals and transferred it over to riding clips, and, there’s a good chance I never would have learned the significance of these techniques had I ridden clips exclusively – and vice versa. Currently, I do switch back and forth between clips and flats.

Try out the other set-up! You’ll learn a thing or two about your riding and develop some technique that you otherwise will not!

O.K., first “non” clipped pedals, otherwise known as platforms or flats:

Too often I see my students (and other riders) riding with sub-par, junk for pedals. Pedal pressure is the most important element of controlling your bike. If you don’t have an excellent relationship between your bike and your feet, you’re at a major disadvantage when it comes to trying to ride the thing. You absolutely do not want to use cheap plastic pedals such as the kind that come with toe-straps with the straps simply removed. They have no traction and small platforms and are really quite dangerous. You also want to steer clear of cheap metal-cage pedals. Flat pedal technology has come a long way in recent years. A few years ago there were only a handful of quality flat pedal choices out there. Now, the choices in great flat pedals are darn near infinite!

The first thing you want to look for is a very thin pedal, for a few reasons.

First, the pedal has less of a chance of “rolling over” under your foot. What’s rolling over? Picture this: let’s say you’re looking at your bike from the side, and let’s say your pedal is actually a 4”x4” square block of wood with the pedal axle right down the center. If you sit on your bike and hold the brakes so it can’t move, place your foot on the block (pedal) and push your foot forward in its relationship with the bike (without moving the pedal or rotating the cranks), because your foot is so far away from the axle (in this case, about two inches), in other words, because the pedal is so “tall”, the pedal itself will eventually rotate and “roll over” under your foot. Just as if you “rolled” that block of wood of off a steep cliff. As you can imagine, this would be no good if it happened while you were riding. Rolling a pedal over usually happens when a rider gets out of position on the bike and doesn’t have enough weight on his/her feet, especially while braking, because the bike (and the pedal) wants to slow down or stop, but the rider (because of inertia) wants to keep moving forward. Do you have a tough time staying smooth on the descents, want to learn how to be smooth by getting lower on your bike and keeping your weight on your feet? Get on some flat pedals, they’ll force you to do this correctly!

Canfield Brothers Crampon and 5.10 shoes the ultimate Flat Pedal/Shoe Combo

 

A thin pedal also has more clearance from obstacles on the trail then a thicker one. An eighth and especially a quarter of an inch, is a huge deal when it comes to smacking pedals on rocks, logs, whatever, and can easily mean the difference between a small, manageable error, and a crash.

 

Thin pedals also put your center of gravity closer to the ground. Who cares? Its only a quarter of an inch? Your feet are the most important aspect in controlling your bike. They’re tied into the balance sensors of your body. Ever wore a pair of shoes and then got another pair of shoes that are just a bit thicker? You notice this instantly. Combine this with the fact that a tall or thick pedal stands a better chance of hanging up on obstacles and rolling over and all of a sudden I’m not feeling so great about my pedal choice with a thick pedal and I’m not riding very confidently. Ever hear a top rider complain that they hate the pedals that they are riding? Nope? Know why? Because they won’t be riding them for very long and definitely not when it counts. Look closely, and you’ll see plenty of riders who are sponsored buy a certain company while riding another companies pedals, risking losing a nice chunk of money and definitely upsetting a few people in the process. Its that big of a deal!

Thicker quality flat pedals also have a parallelogram shape (viewed from the side) to help the pedal to rotate into position under the rider’s foot in case the rider happens to step on the “edge” of the pedal (vertical front or back of the pedal if it is in a level position).

Thin Pedal w/large pins! Canfield Crampon

Good flat pedals will also have a wide, broad platform (viewed from the top). This allows more room for your foot and more area to get traction.

 

Let’s talk pedal pins! These are the pins that stick up out of the pedals and stick into your shoe, providing traction.

 

Short pedal pins allow for an easier removal of the foot from the pedal and they don’t mess up your shins quite as bad WHEN you rake them across your legs. Often BMX riders will ride short pins and also fewer pins because they need to remove their feet from the pedals, slide them around and re-adjust, or just plain get off of the bike in a hurry (eject). Ever see a hard-core BMXer’s shins? Not pretty …

Wide Platform to balance on

Nice long pedal pins keep your feet in place. With long pins and a good shoe (discussed below) your foot is pretty much locked in. There’s no siding around or re-adjusting. Your foot is planted on the pedal and it won’t move unless you get all of your weight up and off of the pedal. Yes, they do a number on any type of soft fleshy tissue that they come in contact with, but the chances of “slipping” a pedal with a proper shoe and a proper pedal with long pins is drastically limited. Kinda like you stand a better chance of cutting yourself if you use a dull knife rather then a sharp one (?).

 

How ’bout shoes? The shoe company, 5.10 is the industry standard in quality flat pedal shoes. They use a super sticky and soft rubber for their soles and an awesome pattern for traction. They have numerous models from street shoes to full Downhill shoes with padding and reinforcement in all the important places. Another not so bad choice is your typical “skate” shoe like Vans, DC, Etnies, etc.

5.10 Sticky Sole to keep you on the pedals

These shoes are also designed with fairly soft, wide, broad soles for sticking to skateboards and BMX pedals. The sole on all these shoes is also thin so that your foot is as close as possible to whatever it is that you’re standing on and trying to maneuver.

Stay away from running shoes. These are designed to minimize impact, not stick to pedals. Often these shoes have large lugs for traction (trail running shoes) and, often, sections in the soles of these shoes are removed by design to help enhance their purpose – which again, isn’t to stick to pedals – obviously, your pedals won’t stick to a section of your shoe’s sole if it isn’t even there. These shoes also have quite thick soles – especially trail running shoes – that put you at a greater distance from the pedal the the above mentioned types.

… and they don’t look nearly as cool! Remember: look good, feel good … Ride Good!

Anyway, check back soon for the “clipped-in” version of this article. Put some serious thought into learning to ride flat pedals if you haven’t already done so … even if you are a “Clipped-in for life” rider.

Please see this post for Gene’s take on both pedals: http://betterride.net/?p=328

and this post with a study that shows that the upstroke that clipless pedals allow you to do is not efficient :

http://betterride.net/?p=437