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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

Andy’s take on Coming Back From an MTB Crash

Not all crashes have to happen and the old saying, “if you aren’t bleeding it wasn’t a good ride” is nuts. Skilled riders ride hard and fast and don’t crash much. Unskilled riders (like me for the first 11 years of mtbing) wreck a lot, Andy is very skilled, rides had and this was his first hard crash in over 2 years. Check out his article and stay tuned for my article on some ways to come back stronger than before you crashed.

Andy’s Take on Crashing

In almost every camp that I teach, there is at least one student that is there because he or she had a bad crash – possibly got injured – and then decided that if they wanted to continue to do this MTB thing, they had better figure out how to do it correctly.

I explain to these riders, when they ask me how to “get over” their crash, that with the knowledge of riding that they will receive from the camp, and with the solid and proper technique that will be obtained through diligent practice, their skill level will dramatically improve and they will be able to understand why that crash happened (often, riders really don’t know what went wrong and why they had that nasty crash) and what they should have done differently. We talk about working our way back with baby steps. We talk about how to fall safer. I explain that fear and failure are natural and necessary parts of learning and riding – its o.k. to be apprehensive after a big crash – and those things don’t go away when you graduate from beginner to novice, but, in fact, persist all the way up to the top of the game – the best riders in the world experience the same fears, the same trepidation, as beginners (about different and more difficult obstacles, obviously – and probably bigger and nastier crashes!).

 

The riders always understand this – it all looks good on paper to them – but they still look at me and say, “I’m still scared! What can I do?” So for the next three days of camp, I try to impart to them various methods of getting over that fear, that mental obstacle.

And guess what! I recently got a chance to practice what I preach, so to speak!

So the following is a run down of what I did – and am currently doing – to shake off some of my own demons after a particularly scary crash. Everybody’s situation is different, but here’s mine, and here’s what is working for me. If you find yourself in this situation, hopefully some of the following will work for you.

Without going into too much detail, I basically made a mistake in one of the worst places possible while going fast, fell out of the sky and tumbled down the earth a good bit. Aside from some cuts and bruises, being sore all over, tearing my riding kit to shreds and ringing my bell a little, I got away with a couple of pretty jacked-up toes and a severely bruised heal.

 

It could have been way, way worse …

The first thing I try to do after a gnarly crash is figure out what went wrong. And there were a couple of things that were semi-preventable, that perhaps, would have made the difference. But what really went wrong was this: I was pushing myself and my bike super hard in nasty terrain – something that I love doing. And, if you do this often enough, sooner or later, its gonna bite ya!

I know that there isn’t any way around that – and that’s what bothered me.

I don’t believe in lying to myself about the potential dangers of riding. I don’t believe “that it will never happen to me …” I don’t refrain form talking about crashing or injuries (I will knock on wood every once in while!). It is what it is … and that’s part of what makes it challenging and fun! And I believe that I need to understand what the consequences of my actions could be, and then be prepared to deal with them.

Unfortunately, the possibility of having a bad crash is always present – whether you’re a World Cup downhill racer, or a beginner riding off a curb. And bad crashes scare everybody! .. I don’t care who you are! Some people deal with this fear better then others, some people don’t deal with it well at all.

The bottom line is we all WILL get scared. As a rider you will ask yourself, at some point, is it worth it to do this? Whether that means dropping of a 1,000,000 foot cliff, rolling down a nasty ledge in Fruita, or – worst case – even considering quitting riding altogether (I’ve had plenty of students that have taken the camp because they decided they either needed to learn how to do things correctly, minimizing the chances of falling as much as possible, or hang it up altogether).

The question I had for myself was, “is it still worth it to push that hard?” (for some of us pushing our limits is trying to wheelie up a curb – that’s fine, and also plenty scary and dangerous if you haven’t mastered the skill yet). And I wasn’t sure that I still wanted too.

 

I could still teach riding for many years even if I decided to take up playing checkers in the park as a competitive outlet . I don’t need to ride as hard as I do to do my job. Like many of you, my job depends on me being able to function physically. Getting hurt isn’t an option.

 

And, there are tons things to do out there to get your jollies. But, if you’ve read this far, then you probably understand that you get some things from riding bikes that you just don’t get anywhere else.

Besides fitness, the social aspect, a great excuse to travel around, and arguably the world’s greatest job, simply riding the bike hard, bettering myself here and there, pushing that edge, learning … those are the things that I live for.

Riding hard forces me to keep myself in pretty decent physical shape. Could I still teach riding if I stopped working out, running in the trails, riding motocross, and polished off a box of donuts, fast food, and twelever of PBR everyday gaining 30lbs in the process? Sure I could. But would I have gotten out of that crash with only a couple of mangled toes and a head-ache? Hell no!

Riding hard means constantly having a challenge for myself: I always have a ride just around the corner with other riders that want to ride hard and push themselves. I think we all come into these rides both excited and also wondering where we’ll stand with our buddies. That’s Fun!

I believe that BetterRide offers the greatest MTB instruction in the world. Because Gene and myself – even as “old” guys – continue to push ourselves as riders, we continue to improve upon our already great product – with both the riding and teaching. We are able to prove and disprove theories, bounce ideas off one another, and test these things – still – at the upper levels of riding. Is this mandatory in order to teach mountain biking? Nope. Is it extremely important to us? Yep!

 

I believe that it is also extremely important to ours students to see that the basic fundamentals of riding that we may teach in the parking-lot during our camps, are the same exact skills that are used by high-level riders in the most difficult situations when we get out on the trail. Essential? Maybe not. Essential to me in order to provide the best product possible? Yes.

 

I constantly find myself looking into new trails, products, gear, in order to give myself (and my students) that little extra edge. I can get up in the morning and go for a ride, come home and work on BetterRide stuff all day, teach a clinic, then go drink a few beers with a few riding buddies and talk bikes all night, and then get up the next morning and do the same thing. This all stems from the passion of riding the bike.

And that passion also means, to me, pushing it a little bit … sometimes, a lot.

The point is this: big crashes are scary, as they should be! You don’t simply forget about them, and I don’t think you should. But doing what you love, what makes you tick, what makes it all worth while is mandatory in life! And after running through the above list of reasons, among others, that I dig riding, I know that the reward is worth taking some chances.

I think that for most of us, this is probably the case – whether we’re about to send it in our race run at the World Champs, or whether we’re feeling good on the bike and today’s the day we’re going to go for that foot-tall rock ledge that we’ve previously always walked. If we focus on all of the positives – and they’re truly accurate and positive – they will usually out weigh the negatives.

Will I implement the things that I learned from the crash into my riding? Heck yes! Will I ride a little conservatively for a while? Yep. I’ll use baby steps and time to help me get back to where I was. Will I be aware of the level of danger that I subject myself to? Yes. But, I’ll focus on those positives and the fun and the challenge and understand that part of going fast and riding hard is about not getting hurt by doing things correctly and by being smart!

Inevitably, those students in my camps, who showed up timid because of that nasty get-off that brought them to the camp in the first place – after only three days of instruction – see the trail, riding, and themselves as riders, with new eyes. The tools that they gain from the camp are their positives, the feeling that they get from riding the bike correctly and understanding, thus, being able to commit to learning the proper techniques, are also their positives. This is what they are then focused on – not the negative of that bad crash. And this is what gets them out there on the bike, having fun and challenging themselves, again.

And although my situation is different from that of those students – its actually quite the same!

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.

Video: Huge MTB Skills Increases with the Least Amount of Practice!

The idea for this article came from “Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster”, a great book on learning sport by Ernest Dras. In my blog article, “The Best MTB Skills Advice I Have Ever Given. (How we actually “break” bad habits and create perfect ones)” I explained a bit about the Myelin Sheath and how we improve through through slow, deliberate practice. Now I will explain how to practice slowly and deliberately and see huge returns with the least amount of practice.

The first step is know the goal of the skill you are practicing (what is my desired outcome), how to do the skill perfectly (you may not be able to it it perfectly but you understand each individual piece of the skill and how it should be done), how it should feel and what it should look like. Without this knowledge base you are not practicing, you are simply riding and most likely ingraining bad habits.

In this example I will use cornering which is probably the most complex and most misunderstood skill in mountain biking (and road biking for that matter).  The goal of cornering is exit speed, as the faster you can exit any given corner the more efficient you will be. The foundation for cornering is perfect body position and vision, once you have these mastered it takes counter pressure (my phrase for counter steering) to get the bike to lean, weight placement to stay in balance, hip articulation for power and control, proper arm position and weight placement. We spend over two hours on cornering in a parking lot doing drills before applying it to the trails in our camps (and expect the riders to do drills the rest of their life to master and maintain mastery of cornering).

I see so many riders and racers who have studied enough video to have a decent idea of cornering technique and now they are just trying to go faster with a vague understanding of proper technique.  These riders always plateau before reaching their true peak. They plateau because they don’t know, understand and more importantly can not do the “details” correctly, doing something 80% perfect sounds impressive but it means you are doing it 20% wrong! A better understanding of the skill and some good, slow practice would make these riders much better!

Once you have a deep understanding of the skill slow practice will help you fine tune the skill. By doing the skill extremely slowly you will be aware of every small change in pressure, vision, balance, control, etc. You will find “dead spots” (where something is missing, such your weight suddenly shifting), you will understand how a little more counter pressure effects not only the lean angle of your bike but how it effects your balance, your hips, your outside arm, your traction and your trajectory.

Gene Slow Practice on the Road

In this video I am practicing slowly and have my “awareness” turned up and can feel what every little movement does. I am experimenting a bit, pushing a little harder with my inside hand and feeling what that does to the pressure on my feet, to the position of my hips, to the bite of my tires and sharpness of my turn. As I push forward with my inside hand I become aware that I am pushing my body backward, behind the pedals and it is unweighting my front end causing my front tire to push.