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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!

Mountain bike myths

Mountain Bike Myths That Hold You Back. Are You Selling Yourself Short?

There are two big mountain bike myths that hold back many riders. The myth of the “natural athlete” and the myth of the “magic pill” have played a huge role in depressing riders confidence for years. Are either holding you back?

I will start with the “natural athlete” mountain bike myth. You may think (like I did until my late twenties) that the best people in sports are gifted or born with natural talent. This belief can lead you to not giving your all and/or not seeking out the best coaching available because you feel that you will never be as good as those naturals. While we all probably know someone who seems to do well in any sport that they try (which sure can be frustrating) these “natural athletes” were not born that way and sadly they rarely reach their potential. These “natural athletes” were often simply stronger at a younger age (Do you remember that kid who dominated every sport in junior high who had a mustache at 13?) or they got a head start on sports by receiving some great “basic training” in sports (especially those that require balance and coordination) when they were young, giving them more self confidence.

Mountain bike myths

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

Reaching your potential requires work in the form of doing drills (which if done right can be fun) just ask Micheal Jordan. If anyone ever looked like a natural athlete it was MJ, wow, the man could fly. Micheal Jordan was far from a natural athlete though, did you know he got cut from his team in both his freshman and sophomore years? That’s right, Micheal Jordan wasn’t as good as 10 other kids his age in his town yet we don’t know the name of any of those kids who were “better” than him do we? Why is Jordan’s name etched into our brains? Because he worked hard at the fundamentals of basketball and worked hard in the gym and MJ reached his potential. There is an old saying, “amateurs practice until they get it right, pros practice until they can’t get it wrong”. MJ did his drills like a pro!

In the book The New Toughness Training for Sports, tennis great Chris Evert says “I was neither the fastest or the strongest in the game at the time” yet she was ranked #1 in the World! Golf great Tom Kite is legally blind without his glasses, describes himself as an average putter who drives the ball short yet he won the US Open at 42!  Anyone who has ever met me was probably under whelmed at first, I walk funny, have asthma and two massively separated shoulders. Heck I never came close to passing the “Presidential Fitness Test” as a kid. Yet despite not being a “natural athlete” I have done okay for myself in snowboarding and mountain biking.

If I had had Micheal Jordon’s work ethic and more importantly his belief system I would of gone even further in both sports. It was my belief in the “natural athlete” being better than me that kept me from giving a 100% in my training. Yes, even if I had given a 100% I would never be able to beat someone with Ned Overend’s lung capacity in a cross country race but it would of been fun to see how close I could of come. Luckily skills don’t take big lungs. So stop labeling yourself or using the idea that you are just not a natural athlete as an excuse to not do your best (as I did). If you focus on being the best that you can be everyday you will astound yourself.

The “magic pill” or “pros secret” does not exist. So many people think that if they just knew that “one thing” that Steve Peat, JHK, Sam Hill, Ryan Trebon, or whoever their hero is knew they could ride as well as them. Well I hate to break your heart but there is no magic pill or secret skill, the way to the top is the basics. Mountain biking, like martial arts, ski racing, motocross, auto racing, gymnastics, etc. requires mastery and maintenance of the basics to do well. Watch the UCI World Cup Downhill races on Redbull.com, Greg Minnaar, Gee Atherton, Rachel Atherton and Aaron Gwin aren’t doing anything special, they are simply executing the basics, nearly flawlessly.

Greg Minnaar mountain bike myths,

Greg Minnaar demonstrating the BASIC mountain bike cornering techniques we teach (after doing drills on pavement)

Unfortunately, just like in martial arts and ski racing these basics are not intuitive so first you must learn the basics. Learning them is easy with the right teacher, mastering them requires work (even with the best teacher). The Magic Pill? Knowledge and mastery of the basic core skills. If you, a friend of yours and I wanted to become great at Karate what would be the best path? Lets say your friend took those boring “wax on, wax off” lessons from a master teacher for 6 months while you and I “practiced”  everyday by fighting each other who would be better at Karate at the end of the 6 months? Despite having less “practice” time than us your friend would be head and shoulders above us in Karate skill. For more myths that may be holding you back check out our free course on the 10 most common mistakes made by most riders and how to fix them.

A little Zen: Try to look at life with a “Beginner’s Mind”, with a beginners mindset you are open to all possibilities, with an “expert” mindset your choices are very limited. Think how many “experts” have been wrong, experts once thought the world was flat and that no one can run a mile in less than four minutes. Having a beginners mindset really helps you put your ego aside, learn and enjoy life more.

Create a great ride!

mountain bike rocks

Mountain Biking in Sand, MTB Video Tutorial

Mountain biking in sand is a skill that flusters a lot of riders. On my first trip to Moab in 1990 I really struggled with it and it wasn’t until MTB Legend Missy “the Missile” Giove gave me some tips on mountain biking in sand that I figured it out. It is especially hard on flat ground when you have to maintain your momentum or worse yet on an uphill.  If you struggle with riding in sand check out this video tutorial for some help:

An important thing I left out of the video, when riding in sand don’t try to be absolutely precise with your line. As long as you are basically going where you want to go you are doing fine! I call this “fuzzy navigation”, just keep looking where you want to go and making the smallest corrections possible! Any sudden attempt to change direction will end up with your tire crabbing and you stalling out. This includes trying to turn in sand which is nearly impossible. Ideally make you turn (or at least part of it) before the sand and after the sand. If you do have to turn in sand make the biggest, most gradual arc you can.

Mountain Biking in Sand, Fruita mtb trails

BetterRide Mountain bike skills student Ali Fuchs on Joes Ridge in Fruita.

Mountain Biking in sand, coasting

Going downhill and/or coasting in sand is a little easier. When transitioning from a hard surface like rock or hard packed trail to sand there are few concerns, mainly making sure your bike doesn’t stop while you keep going! Here is a second mountain biking in sand video on how to transition to sand at speed:

Of course, these are two minor skills compared with mastering the fundamentals of mountain biking which sadly few mountain bikers have. Until you are always in the right body position and always looking at least 3-5 seconds ahead (100% of the time, even on the gnarliest trail) most skills and tips like this have little value. Remember knowledge is worthless without action!