Are You Safe on Your Mountain Bike?

BetterRide Head Coach Andy Winohradsky discusses protective gear for mountain biking:

Summertime is in full swing and that means its downhilling season!  Even if you’re a not full DH racer, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve at least entertained the idea of going to a resort; renting, borrowing (or buying…he he), a DH bike, and having a day of chairlift accessed good times.  If not, I highly encourage you to do so.
However, there can be a little trepidation with the whole downhilling thing, and rightly so.  Downhilling can be dangerous (just like regular trail riding), but there are a few things we can do to minimize those dangers.  First and foremost: wear protective gear.
Lately, I’ve gotten a few questions from riders fairly new to the downhilling game about what gear to wear, how much, “do I really need a full-face helmet …”, etc.
So I’ll try to shed some light on the whole body armor thing, but let me first say that all this gear is made for a reason, and WHEN you crash, you’ll be glad you had it on (or wish you did!).
… And, yes, you do NEEEED a full-face helmet!
Here’s an email from a Betterride student after, I believe, his first day of DH:

…That said, managed to time some rollers perfectly wrongly and slammed into the front
face on one after a jump.  Ended up about 20ft from the impact point.  Could get up
and continue but pretty badly scratched on the shoulder, back, arm, with impact
bruises on ribs (front and back somehow).

Interestingly, from the state of the (previously very new looking) camelback it took
a lot of the sting out of the fall.

Very very glad I was wearing something on my back (the camelback), along with elbow
and knees(which were without a scratch)

Was wearing a full face helmet (thank god).

It was a lot of fun, and managed to walk away with some good stories and wounds for
my 5 year old to look at but wanted to say to this group that if you are thinking
about doing it wear as much protection as you can get.
Many of the people doing it were wearing full armor, as well as Leatt neck braces.
Sadly some people were doing it very poorly protected, with some idiot boyfriends
taking girls up with their walmart hardtails with no elbow or knee protection.  They
were going down very slowly but it was still dumb.

Given my sore neck last night and today I can tell I had some whip lash from the fall.

I have now bought a full face helmet, neck brace and full armor.  Even if I only do
it occasionally then I want to be much better protected than I was.

Pretty typical story:  had a great time AND took a pretty good fall that reminded him of the serious nature of riding bikes down mountains.  Sounded pretty happy that he had the camelback on, huh?
I don’t want to spoil anybody’s good time, but … you will crash!  Think about this: if you go downhilling, you are going to push it a bit!   So, sooner or later, you will fall!  It just makes sense to have the gear on when this happens.

I had a little tumble the other day on my XC bike.  I was descending, pushing pretty hard and caught my front brake lever on a large branch that was obscured by smaller branches that by themselves, wouldn’t have posed any problems.   The hidden big branch, however, locked up my front wheel at the perfectly wrong time, giving me an instant front-end washout, to catch, to high-side!  As I was flying through the air, I remember thinking (its amazing how much actually goes through your mind as you’re eating it), “at least this isn’t happening on a fast part of the trail…”  I also saw where I was going to land and thought, “well, I should be alright, but this is gonna suck!”

That last statement was accurate.

So … a fairly slow speed crash (nothing compared to downhilling speeds)
and a week later I still have a numb and swollen elbow, both knees
scratched up and sore, a pretty sore shoulder, and maybe re-broke my
broken toe that I keep re-braking.  Fortunately, I was able to keep my
face and head off of the ground.

If I had body armor on, I would have been fine.

Now, I’m not going to wear full body armor when I’m riding XC (which isn’t necessarily a good idea), but my point is that the mechanics of a crash 4 or 5 times the speed of my rather slow one – which is probable when DH’ing – would have almost certainly meant a real injury – not just scrapes and bruises – without the proper protection.

Here’s my gear list when I get on a DH bike

  1. Full-face helmet.  DO NOT go DH’ing without  one.  There are various arguments and theories about what type of construction/certifications are the most protective, but … use a good one.  A quality helmet will have a shell that has a quality chin-bar/mouth guard, not a cheap plastic one that, literally, can be broken with your hands.  I use a full motocross, D.O.T. certified helmet when I race and ride hard.  In the photo, I have my Bell Moto 9 (moto helmet) and a Troy Lee Designs D2 (bicycle specific).

    Andy's DH and Moto Helmet


  1. Knee pads.  Use something with a least a little bit of plastic to protect your knees and dissipate the impact of a sharp object.  I prefer quite a bit of plastic around my knees.  In the photo, there’s a 661, Kyle Strait kneepad that is great for pedaling efficiency and very comfortable.  I use these for super-d racing.  The other one is made by Fly Racing and is hinged so that your knee is never exposed to danger.  Notice all the plastic surrounding the knee with the Fly (and the deep gouges and scratches).  Which one would you rather have on in a crash?

    Andy's mtb knee pads


  1. Upper body armor.  Remember the “…very, very glad I was wearing something on my back …” part of the email?  Many downhillers don’t wear any type of upper body armor, which doesn’t make much sense.  If your trying to make a living at sport and every hundredth of a second counts … well, it still doesn’t make much sense.  My body armor is fairly minimal, but it does offer spine protection and chest protection via pretty burly plastic.  Once I’m riding, I can’t tell I have it on.  I can’t really understand why those pro-racer kids – out there battling for 20th place in a local race – can’t be bothered with a two pound piece of equipment that very possibly could save their life.

    Mountain Bike Body Armor


  1. Goggles, not sunglasses.  They stay in place, keep dust out of your eyes, and offer WAY MORE protection.

More of Andy's mountain bike gear

  1. Elbow pads.  Mine are, again, quite minimal, without any padding.  So a crash will hurt, but the idea is that the plastic will dissipate the force of a sharp object on impact.


  1. Gloves.  I use the thinnest, single layer palms I can find so I can really feel the bike, but I always use them.  One time I was on the chairlift with a buddy of mine while practicing at a race and we were talking about gloves.  He was saying how he couldn’t be bothered with them anymore and that they didn’t really help protect you anyway.  I begged to differ.  On that run, he crashed and ended up “de-gloving” the skin off the palm of his hand (like you’d peel the skin off of a hunk of chicken).  Didn’t cut himself or hit a sharp object, just broke his fall at a pretty good clip and viola, no hand-skin!  He didn’t get to race that day.


  1. Shoes.  My 5.10 Minnars are a DH specific shoe with some good padding and reinforcement in key areas.  I wish I had these on when I smacked my foot into the ground during my little crash last week.  They also have a lot of rubber on the sole (unlike a lot of MTB shoes).  This means more traction on pedals, and if necessary, the ground.  (See article on shoes and pedals on this site for more in-depth info)

    The best MTB Shoes!

So there you have it.  I’ve been DH’ing for a long time and I really wouldn’t feel comfortable riding with any less gear then the stuff I listed above.  Have fun, be safe!

Of course learning the in balance and in control mountain bike techniques we teach in our camps would also go a long way to keep you safe. Less falls equal less injuries!

Top 4 Exercises for Better Body Position w/video

Great exercises from James Wilson!

Top 4 Exercises for Better Body Position

One of the most important movement skills for any mountain biker to posses is the basic “hip hinge”. This is your ability to bend at the hips and not at the lower back and it is directly related to your ability to get into good body position on the bike. Without this movement skill you will always struggle to find balance and flow on the trail.

However, it can very tough to learn this movement skill on the bike if you don’t already posses it off the bike. This is where smart strength training comes into play – by using strength training as a basic means of “skills training” you can re-train and strengthen your movement skills which will make it much easier to apply on the bike.

The following 4 exercises are a great way to teach yourself a good hip hinge movement pattern, strengthen it and then make it powerful. Remember that the goal is not to get through all 4 exercises the first time you try this routine – stop when you find the exercise that offers you a challenge and spend time getting it down before moving on to the next step. If you don’t prioritize movement quality then you’ll never be able to learn how to do it better.

– Ball Popper X 6 reps: This strange looking exercise is the first step to learning how to bend at the hips instead of at the lower back and ankles. You should feel as if you can really apply a lot of pressure to the stability ball between your butt and the wall before moving to the next step.

– Touch the Wall Deadlifts X 8 reps: Now that you now how to drive your hips backwards instead of just sinking down you can start to pattern the actual movement. By standing in front of a wall and bending over until you touch it you force yourself to learn the hip hinge since the wall won’t get any closer without the right movement strategy.

– Deadlifts X 5 reps: Once you have control of the hip hinge with your bodyweight, it is time to add some load and “cement” it. Everything that you have learned in the first two steps should be applied here – don’t change how you move now that you are using load. Remember to load the hips at the bottom before standing up, drive your heels into the ground to start the movement and then squeeze your thighs together at the top to ensure proper technique.

– Swings X 10-20 reps: The swing is simply a dynamic deadlift so if you don’t have strong command of the previous three exercises then you will really struggle with this one. However, few exercises are as valuable for teaching you how to absorb impacts with your legs while maintaining strong body position and how to power movement with your hips and not your legs and arms.

No matter where you are on this exercise continuum, practicing the appropriate level of exercise for you will go a long way to helping you gain better command of this all important movement pattern. Without it you will struggle to apply all other techniques to your bike and quickly hit the ceiling on how fast you can go while maintaining balance and control. Add these exercises into your training routine and you’ll see a marked increase in your balance and flow on the trail.


MTB Strength Training Systems is the world leader in integrated performance training programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. As the strength and conditioning coach for the Yeti World Cup Team and 3 National Championships, his programs have been proven at the highest levels. As a regular contributor to several popular magazines and websites, James has helped thousands of riders just like you improve their speed, endurance and skills on the trail. Visit to sign up for the free Trail Rider Fundamentals Video Mini-Course

Great World Cup Video Showing 2 Very Important MTB Skills!

In our mountain bike skills camps we explain that we didn’t invent the skills that we teach we learned the techniques from the best (and then broke them down into easy to put together pieces that we can explain demonstrate and then get the student to do). We often suggest watching downhill race videos for great examples of the proper techniques that we coach (for all riders: recreational, cross country, endurance, free-ride, all-mountain, single speed and downhill).

Well Mid-West BetterRide coach Chris Cornelison found this great video. It shows Nathan Rennie doing two things that we coach rides to do. Both can be seen in the footage stating at :53 in. 1. Notice how no matter how crazy the trail Nathan is always looking ahead, he never even glances down at the trail. 2. Notice how quiet is chest and head are! He could put a glass of water on his head and not spill it!

Of course mastering these skills isn’t easy, you must first understand how to look ahead and how to stay smooth and in balance and then practice them using drills (just throwing yourself down a gnarly trail will just teach you how to tense up and ride defensively) which is why we are here!

Head MTB Skills Coach Andy W’s take on Clipless pedals

In my last installment, I went over some of the technical aspects of flat pedals and shoe combinations and what to look for (and what to look out for) when riding said pedals and shoes. I also talked about some of the advantages that flat pedals offer the rider. In this installment, we’ll talk “clip-in” pedals (otherwise called “clipless” pedals).

My plan, initially, was to discuss the technical elements of clipless pedals and how to get the most out of a set-up. But, as I wrote, I realized that there is a lot of information regarding technique – good and bad, and “flat vs clipped” – that is still confusing to some riders, and therefore, I felt I should elaborate on it.

(Next installment, I’ll go over the technical aspects and what to look for in clipless pedals and a few tricks and tips with …)

As I said last time, if you want to get the most out of your riding – become the most competent rider possible AND have the most fun – I highly suggest you learn to ride both types of pedals. Both have advantages and disadvantages and each one will teach you to really develop certain aspects of your riding that may not occur if you simply stick with one type of system. Neither is better or worse – especially when it comes to technically challenging (i.e.: FUN!!) riding.

So, clipless pedals … and my take on some of the advantages and disadvantages:

Clipless pedals have been the only way to go, so to speak, in road riding and cross-country racing for a long time. And this makes a lot of sense: road riders ride on pavement, and often cross-country races are held (sadly enough, in my opinion) on tracks that resemble dirt roads more then they do “trails”.

It is often considered that the best way to ride a road bike – the most efficient way to pedal – is to “spin” very fast circles with the pedals, in a quite easy gear, and in theory, apply force throughout the entire pedal stroke (this was popularized by Lance Armstrong, among others), rather then “mash” the pedals, only applying force on the down-stroke (think standing up, pedaling, in a very hard gear). Its very possible to pedal like this (spin) on smooth surfaces, and I’m not going to argue that this isn’t the best way to pedal a road bike or race a technically-easy cross-country race (although, there have been some very successful “mashers” on both the road and the dirt).  Andy won’t argue but the study linked to in this post does say that “spinning” is not as efficient as “mashing”:

However, at BetterRide, we specialize in teaching “mountain bike skills”. People come to us to learn how to ride their bikes on technically challenging (i.e.: FUN!!) terrain. The speeds are usually slower in this type of riding, the terrain is quite varied and unpredictable (not paved or smooth) … because of these variables you stand a better chance of crashing than you do riding down the road. What I tell our students in our camps is, when the trail is flat and easy, I pretty much don’t care how you ride the bike. That’s not my area of expertise. When you’re riding the easy stuff you can eat a sandwich if you want to … juggle … I don’t really care … and, my students probably don’t need me to help them how to ride down a flat road or road-like trail.

But, when the terrain gets difficult and challenging, that’s when skills count and when we have to do things right on the mountain bike! When this occurs, we have to do things that road riders do not: we may have to drastically accelerate the bike in order to get up an extremely steep section of trail. We will often need to accelerate the bike in order to wheelie over an obstacle – and then maybe do it immediately again! (Proper wheelie technique happens with the legs, pedaling, and weight shifts – not merely yanking up on the bars) We may have to stand up, pedal, and charge up a steep rocky section. None of these things can happen effectively if we are already pedaling at 120 rpm (a fast pedal “spin”). When the trail gets tough, we need to slow down our pedal cadence so that we can execute the above maneuvers.

Because we will be pedaling at a slow cadence, we will be applying our power almost exclusively on the downstroke – even with clipless pedals – therefore, possibly (depending on who you talk to) negating any power advantage that clips may have over flats.

I personally feel that on extremely difficult, steep climbs, clipess pedals not only do not help the rider (because of the necessary slower pedal cadence) but also hinder the rider.

Hinder the rider? How? Well, if you ride clip pedals then you’ve stalled out on a nasty climb and started to topple over, tried to put your foot down to catch yourself, but were unable to unclip!! Man, those rocks hurt, huh? Especially if you tumble down thirty feet of them and into a creek bed like I’ve done on a few occasions!

When we come to a dead stop – such as when we stall out on a steep climb (or stop at a stop light! he he) – we need to immediately get our foot to the ground. Often, even the time it takes to execute the slight twisting motion to unclip our foot from the pedal takes too long (especially if you screw it up because you’re panicking!), and, BAM! You’re on the ground.

… if you ride clip-in pedals and this hasn’t happened to you yet, don’t worry … it will!!

Once this happens to you as a rider, you get a bit timid on those nasty climbs and bail-out a little early, not staying with it and attacking as long as you probably could have because, like I said, those rocks sure do hurt when you fall on them!

With flat pedals I can stick with it and climb ’til the last second. I can jump off the bike with both feet instantly if I need to. There is no doubt in my mind that I can (or will try to) climb gnarlier stuff with flat pedals then with clips.

Some riders complain that on climbs, with flats, their foot pops off of the pedal on the up-stroke. This happens to me, too, especially if I have been riding clipped-in for a while, previously. But, once I’m conscious of this, it goes away after the first climb, and, the amount of power that could be provided on that up-stroke, if I were clipped, in is so miniscule – its like a lone duck helping to push the Queen Mary through the ocean!

Advantages of clip-in pedals? First, the shoes are extremely stiff – stiffer then the shoes one would use for flats. This transfers more power to the pedal. Next, right under your foot and your super stiff shoe is a metal cleat which is engaged in a metal pedal. There isn’t really any “give” in this system and the shoe doesn’t “smush” down under your foot. I can usually feel this when I ride flat pedals and this is one of the only places where I can buy the argument that flats aren’t as efficient as clips. Also, you can get your Lance Armstrong-spin going on flat, smooth sections of trail – but you can also do this pretty effectively with flats (?).

In my opinion – and applicable to aggressive technical riding, and kinda counter-intuitive – probably the biggest advantage of clips over flats: they force you to SLOW DOWN and ride smart! Most people will ride a bit more cautiously when their feet are locked into their bicycle. In the end, you do go faster if you ride smart, and “go slow to go fast”, rather then flail out of control down the trail, riding way over your head – like I was always prone to do with flat pedals because I had the confidence I could instantly put a foot down or “abandon ship” if things got really bad! This is a huge reason why I now clip in when I ride downhill rather then ride flats (like I used to in do my “glory-days” of racing).   BetterRide founder Gene and World Champ Greg Minnaar like to clip in for a different reason, please see this post:

I learned some majorly significant things about vision (the most important thing in riding the bike) after I hung up racing and was no longer distracted with going as fast as I possibly could all the time, while I was clipped in – riding XC, not DH – and thus riding more cautiously.

And one more advantage of clip-in pedals: just as flats force you to maintain excellent position on the bike in order to keep your feet on the pedals (and, thus, you’re better able to control the bike), clips allow you get a little sloppy, and still, your feet are right where you left them, perfectly positioned on the pedals! This can lead to some bad habits if you start to rely on it, but it is nice at times!

So there’s a little more info on the “Flats vs Clips” non-debate. Next time: what to do to maximize the performance of your clipless pedal set-up.