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bama cornering

Mountain Bike Coaching. The best pro in the sport taught them wrong!

Often the best athletes in a sport don’t make the best coaches. I was reading the book Blink the other day and it talked about Andre Aggassi’s advice on how he puts so much top spin on the ball. When explaining it to his coach and other coaches he stated that by turning his wrist over as he hit the ball it gave him the top spin. Well the coaches believed this (after all Andre was one of the best players in the world) and started teaching their students this. Well, an interesting thing happened, there was a huge rise in wrist injuries among young tennis players. After careful motion analysis the coaches saw that Andre’s wrist never moved, the “top the ball motion” was actually generated at his shoulder not his wrist.

Reading this reminded me of all the movements in riding that I now explain quite differently than I did 5-15 years ago. The skill hasn’t changed but after years of study I realized that I was often explaining the outcome of doing it correctly but not the actual fundamental skill. Effective coaching involves breaking skills down and being able to explain them to a diverse group of people. Then the goal isn’t to just convey knowledge but to get the rider to actually do the skill, correctly,  in ALL situations. We must explain and demonstrate how to do the skill, why/when to do the skill, how it should feel, all explained 3-4 ways so riders with different learning skills and backgrounds ALL understand.  One of the most fun aspects of my job is after 20 years of coaching I am still learning how to explain skills better. The learning of skills continues too, after 15 years of coaching mountain biking I am still learning a lot of little details on how to do skills better/easier/with less effort.

Mountain Bike Coaching

BetterRide Coach Chip assisting students in a cornering drill designed to ingrain the right habits.

It is great to see Mountain Bike Coaching catching on, good for riders and good for the sport. Unfortunately, like all professions there are great coaches, good coaches, ok coaches and outright dangerous coaches. Often the best coaches aren’t the best athletes, the athletes that had passion but not the physical gifts often study the sport more as they have to make up for their physical short comings with better technique. With this in mind I finally realized that my asthma was a blessing as it forced me to find the most efficient way to ride a bike if I wanted to be competitive against riders with much larger lungs. This plus years of being coached, going to coaching schools, reading all I could and 20 years of coaching experience has really helped me design an effective curriculum that has benefited World Champions and riders just like you.

The moral of the story, don’t believe everything you hear, even it comes from an “expert”.

Rick Practicing is mountain bike skills

How Foot Placement Affects Mountain Bike Handling and Cornering. (part 3)

In the last 25 years one topic that has come up multiple times is how foot placement affects mountain bike handling and cornering, especially going into a corner or switchback. I have heard always have the outside foot forward so you can start to pedal earlier on the exit of a corner and I have experimented with that and the opposite, having the outside foot trailing as you go into a corner. This was actually my first foot placement article that I was working on before a student asked a question that sparked part 1 and 2:  http://wp.me/p49ApH-15o    http://wp.me/p49ApH-15P

Turns out, having your outside foot back while cornering is faster, but not for you! Or me, or three-time World Cup Champion and three-time World Champion Greg Minnaar). Confused? Well, in a second I will explain why having your outside foot back in a corner can help you a little bit but first I have to explain what will help you a lot! The number one thing that determines cornering exit speed (your goal) is vision. As you enter a corner you should be looking at least five feet past the exit of the corner and up to 30 feet past if possible (I know, in dense woods you often can’t even see the exit from the beginning of a corner, in these cases you have to look as far as you can, then as you enter the corner look further). Next you must finish all of your braking in a straight line before the corner and be in proper body position (that is a blog article in itself). Doing those things consistently is tough and why Greg Minnaar, Aaron Gwin, Cody Kelly and Mitch Ropelato are so consistently on the podium, they do this 100% of the time!

foot placement

Greg Minnaar nailing the big picture elements of cornering.

Can you consistently corner as well as those four racers? Even though I have coached three of them I can’t consistently corner that well and neither can most other pro downhill racers, very few if any pro cross-country racers and very few riders of all levels/experience. I have video of hundreds of pro racers (including me) and thousands of amateurs racers looking at the apex or closer as they enter a corner. The same videos show most racers, pros and amateurs alike braking in the corner and often out of position. These racers/riders are missing 98% of what creates exit speed. Having their feet in the right position (outside foot trailing inside foot) at the entrance might make them corner 2% faster but looking through, braking before the corner and maintaining the correct body position would make them 50-100% faster! Since we all have a limited amount of practice time (drill time, not riding time) our time would be better spent working on the big picture,(looking through the corner, braking before the corner and using perfect body position) before we worry about a little detail like which foot is forward.

Why can be faster to enter a corner with your inside foot forward and outside foot trailing? It allows you to easily distribute your weight exactly where you want it, by simply “letting” the outside foot drop to where you feel most balanced (from 50% of your weight on either foot to 60-40, 70-30, 71-29, etc., and you can slowly shift your weight to the outside foot or quickly shift your weight). This is much harder when your forward foot is your outside foot (for me this is a right hand corner as I ride left foot forward) as you really have two choices, outside foot level with inside foot or outside foot down. The micro adjustments are much harder with your forward foot making turning away from your forward foot a little more awkward than towards your forward foot. If you could switch which foot is forward instinctively, with zero thought, cornering towards your forward foot would be faster (a little bit!) but in my 15 years of coaching over 3,000 students I have yet to find a student who can do this effortlessly. Even my fastest student, Greg Minnaar cannot do this without thinking and then screwing up a more important element of cornering. I do believe as the world cup gets more and more competitive racers will start adjusting which foot is forward as they enter corners to gain that extra 10th of a second or two tenths. This is something that will take a YOUNG racer years to master. Your time and my time would be better spent perfecting the more important elements of cornering!

BetterRide student Aaron Polly getting the picture skills right!

BetterRide student Aaron Polly getting the picture skills right!

How your body deals with this is interesting. After 40 plus years of riding left foot forward (biking, skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing) I have twisted my legs, hips, back and neck. Despite years of yoga, stretching, foam rolling, massage therapy and chiropractic care my right hip is WAY tighter than my left and back gets sore quickly. With this in mind I have started riding awkward foot forward on the easier sections of trail. While this won’t make up for the imbalance in my body it might keep it from getting worse!

So focus on the Big Picture techniques like vision, balanced and neutral body position and braking before the corner. IF you ever master these then you can worry about which is forward as your enter a corner or switchback.

Riding a Steep Roll In for the First Time is Less Scary With Proper Technique!

Can Mountain Bike Handlebars Be Too Wide?

Can Mountain Bike Handlebars Be Too Wide? As someone who preaches that a short stem and wide bars will give you much better handling on a mountain bike (both climbing and descending) I get asked that question a lot. The short answer is, of course your mountain bike handlebars can be too wide, but most likely your’s aren’t wide enough!

The reasons we have been preaching about wide bars since 1999 are that they simply give you more stability, more leverage to fight sudden jerks to the side and more leverage for cornering. A quick baseline to start from is to do a push up and experiment with hand width and find out where you feel most stable and powerful. From this starting point go out a bit wider and start working your way in. What we are looking for is for your forearms to slope outward slightly from your hands to your elbows when you have lowered your chest in a “half push-up” position (see photo below). At the widest your forearms should go straight up to your elbows when in this position.

Can Handlebars be too wide?

Handlebars Correct Width

This width will give you the optimum amount of control. From this position you can absorb shock, keep the wheels on the ground over a small drop, resist twisting/jerking forces and power you way trough a corner by getting enough counter pressure leverage to give you the right lean angle.

Unfortunately as this trend has caught on I have seen a few riders who are too short (or narrow shouldered, short armed) for the widest bars made and they look like this photo below:

Can Handlebars be too wide?

Handlebars Too Wide!

I saw a lot of young riders at Whistler last summer with a setup that looked like that. Really hard to control the bike when you are stretched out like that! Those riders need to cut their bars down a bit!

Most riders, especially cross country/endurance oriented riders run bars on the narrow side (perhaps because of tradition?) and they look like this:

Can Handlebars be too wide?

Handlebars Too Narrow

This also severely hampers control (really twitchy with no leverage to fight sudden bar jerks, and no leverage for cornering pressure) and collapses the lungs a bit making it hard to breathe! It is more aerodynamic though, which unfortunately doesn’t help much at the speeds you travel at on your mountain bike and aerodynamics are not worth sacrificing control over.

The widest bars I have found are the SMAC innovations SW820 Moto Bars ( http://smacinnovations.com/bars.php , 820mm wide) and at 6’3″ I run these uncut on both my xc and dh bikes. BetterRide coach and one the best technical riders I know, Andy Winohradsky is 5’6″ and runs 30.5″ wide bars on both of his bikes. We put on camps all over the country and have not yet found a trail with trees too narrow for these bars. The tightest trees I have found are on the East Coast, in Texas and in the Mid West. In some of these places there were two to four spots an hour where I had to slow down and wiggle through some tight trees. Four, even six times an hour is no reason to compromise your handling though, I would rather you have the most control 99% of your ride and have to slow down a bit a few times an hour than be out of control for 99% of your ride and be able to go faster over about 20 feet every hour! If you honestly live in an area with more than six tree gaps less than 32″ wide in an hour ride, cut your bars!

There is not yet a scientifically proven perfect mountain bike handlebar width as there are so many variables; height, shoulder width, arm length, stem length, top tube length, reach measurement, etc. The easiest way to find out what is right for you is to start at the widest width available to you (or that you feel is appropriate, if you are 5’1″ no need to start at 820mm!) and ride at that width (on a trail without narrow tree gaps at first!) and then keep moving the grips in a bit until your arms look close the “correct” photo above and you feel like you have the most control (not necessarily what feels best as what often feels best is what you are used to which may not be correct).

 

Skeeter and his cockpit set up for his bad back.

Mountain Bike Cockpit For Riders With Back Issues and/or Tight Hips

Mountain Bike Cockpit For Riders With Back Issues and/or Tight Hips

Most mountain bikers are tenacious but riders who refuse to quit or even start riding with major back issues like fused vertebrates, degenerative disk disease, bulging disks, etc. really inspire me! I was fortunate enough to coach just such a rider this weekend, Skeeter is a 57 year old mountain biker who has been riding dirt bikes for years and has degenerative disk disease. His cockpit set up is really tall which will compromise the bikes handling a bit but it is way better than not riding or riding a bike set up for performance that makes your back hurt.  A 58 year old woman with four fused vertebrae that I coached in a camp with us in 2003  had her bike set up similarly and I explained she might have to walk a few steep climbs (because it is nearly impossible on a steep hill to keep your weight centered with your bars 3-4 inches higher than your saddle) but those climbs are only a small fraction of her riding miles. At least she is out riding! The fact that she was starting to ride at 58 blew me away, she never had a bike as a kid even!

Here is Skeeter’s cockpit setup for his back issues:

Skeeter's Mountain Bike Cockpit For His Bad Back

Skeeter’s Mountain Bike Cockpit For His Bad Back

 

This will compromise the bikes handling a bit (because it is nearly impossible when climbing a steep hill to keep your weight centered with your bars 3-4 inches higher than your saddle and your bars will be too high descending putting you in a tall and upright position) but it is way better than not riding or riding a bike set up for performance that makes your back hurt worse. See these articles on body position for more on that: http://betterride.net/blog/2011/mtb-skills-tip-w-pic-technical-climbing-wandy-winohradsky/ and http://betterride.net/blog/2010/mountain-bike-desending-body-position-101-video-demonstration/

Great to see riders of all shapes, sizes and with various performance reducing injuries/conditions still out riding and having fun on the trail!