Learning to flow through the trails is a recipe for faster riding and more fun!
Free Speed?... YES PLEASE!!
Most riders, especially racers, spend a lot of time and effort training to generate more power on the pedals. As coaches, what we see far too often is riders not working on the parts of their game that aren't pedaling. We refer to these skills as Free Speed. This can include anything that allows us to go faster without having to pedal harder. It doesn't matter if you're riding for fun or racing for the win. In either case, riding faster, smoother and more efficiently are going to produce better rides that are way more satisfying. Today we're going to focus on the easiest way to create and maintain momentum out on the trails.
1) Be Dynamic! Create Bike-Body Separation
One of the most common things we see as skills coaches is riders rear ends being welded to their seats. There seems to be a feeling of security with being firmly planted on the saddle (à la Mary Poppins). Even when folks stand up, they often squeeze their thighs together against the seat. This is often an artifact of how people used to ride off-road, using the seat as a rudder of sorts to guide the bike. All of this prevents proper bike-body separation, which is crucial for riding with speed and flow. Instead of being locked into the bike, we want to get into an attack position where we're hinged at the hips and our weight is carried by our feet. To get the weight on our feet, we want our knees above or behind the bottom bracket, never in front. When our knees more forward, our weight will be shifted to our hands, creating tension through the arms and reducing our maneuverability. With our knees and arms bent, we have the ability to absorb bumps and to move around front-to-back and side-to-side on the bike.
A key point with the attack position is the hip hinge. Properly executed, a rider's hips will move backwards as they hinge. This not only creates a stable, balanced position, it also shifts our center of gravity rearwards behind the bottom bracket. This movement is akin to a properly executed deadlift. When I see a rider's weight too far forward, it's usually because they're not moving their hips back as they hinge.
To create an even more stable position, aim for your knees to be in line with one-another when viewed from the side. This allows our hips to be even and prevents pulling the bike to one side or the other.
Jacob flying through the singletrack in the 2019 Whiteface 100. Notice how his knees are next to each other. They're slightly behind the bottom bracket, and they're creating a stable platform for him to hinge at the hips.
2) Get Low!
Once we've got the idea of the attack position, we now want to think about how much we're hinging. When watching a really good rider approach a feature in the trail, you'll notice they hinge and drop their upper body towards their handlebars. This creates a position where they have the most potential to push or pull the bike. Doing this properly can easily double the available range of motion to initiate a maneuver. Hinging way over like this also serves another purpose. Remember that a proper hip hinge moves the hips rearwards. When we hinge way over, we move our hips way back. This is much better than the old-school method of dealing with downhills of "get back and stay back." With a proper low hip hinge, we get our center of mass (our hips) way behind the bottom bracket while keeping our arms and legs in a somewhat neutral, centered position. This maximizes our ability to maneuver the bike and keeps us from getting 'handcuffed' in a position where we can't initiate a desired movement (lean into a corner, hop an obstacle, send a drop, etc).
There's no better illustration of this than Kate Courtney at the UCI World Cup in Snowshoe this year. Watch how just before the first drop she goes into a deep hinge and drops her chest to the bars. This gives her the maximum ability to push (or anti-row) the bike out over the drop. By the time the bike touches down, she's already back to her centered, low hip-hinge and ready for the next drop a couple seconds later.
3) Purposeful Braking
It's very common for off-road riders to keep their index finger on the brakes most of the time. Because of this, most riders drag the brakes a lot more than they realize. This does two things: First, it takes away momentum we worked hard to generate. Second, our bikes don't flow well over the trail with the brakes engaged. Not counting pedaling, our tires have to divide their traction between steering, leaning and braking. All three of these have different demands for traction and each takes away from the others. In other words, braking robs traction away from cornering. It also creates a force that pushes our bikes upright, which is the last thing we want when leaning through corners.
The solution is to keep your full hand on the bars as much as possible. Then, move the index finger to the brake lever only when necessary. This increases control of the bike, relaxes our hands (less arm pump) and allows us to ride faster.
One of the reasons riders tend to drag their brakes is because their brakes simply aren't grabby enough. Obviously we want modulation, but we also want those binders to make quick, controlled changes to our speed. Our Speed Science coaches have found the best results with Shimano brakes and metallic pads. We usually run 180 mm rotors in front paired with 160's in back for XC and trail riding. The SRAM Code, Guide Ultimate and Level Ultimate brakes provide similar power, but most of their brakes do not provide what we consider sufficient braking force. This leads to a lack of confidence and causes riders to drag their brakes. (Disclaimer: We have no affiliation with either SRAM or Shimano. This is just what we've found works well.)
4) Look Further Ahead. WAY Further Than You Think.
This is advice that's almost become a cliché: "Look ahead." It's not wrong, but it doesn't go far enough, literally. What we really want to do is look so far ahead that we routinely have to scan our eyes back closer. What I've found is that most decent riders look about 20-30 feet down the trail and no further. They tend to lock in on one distance ahead and stay there. The problem is that the faster we go, the quicker we're going to cover that distance. This creates a speed limit, as we don't want to ride faster than we can see and anticipate what's coming. The solution here is to look way, way further ahead and then scan our eyes closer in as needed.
How far? As far ahead as possible. Look down the trail as far as you can see, and then scan your eyes back toward you to fill in the details. Do this constantly with about 70% of the time spent looking way far ahead and 30% scanning back in closer. This lets you see way down the trail so you know important information about set-up, run-in, speed requirements, etc. Is there a sweeping turn that you’ll want to enter wide? Is there a short, steep punchy climb that you’ll want to carry good momentum into? Scanning your eyes back toward you on the trail fills in details to help you choose your specific line through the terrain, but now works in concert with the broader information you know about what lies ahead.
Here's where most riders focus when they're "looking ahead". It covers about ~20 feet of trail and significantly limits their speed through the upcoming corner and rock garden.
Here's where we should be looking. A constant scan back and forth with the majority of the time spent looking as far as possible down the trail. This rider has already picked a line through the turn and knows there's an uphill rock garden coming.
5) Pedal Like You Mean It!
One thing that is very different in mountain biking compared to riding on the road is that we have limited opportunities for effective pedaling. This doesn't stop riders from trying to pedal constantly - through turns, over bumps, through all kinds of trail features. Sure you're turning the pedals, but if we're being honest, how much of this pedaling is actually creating meaningful propulsion? It's a lot less than one might think. A better rule to follow is to only pedal when it's helping us accelerate, or at least truly propel the bike forward. When we give ourselves permission to not pedal constantly, it allows us to spend more time in our attack position. This gives us opportunities to ride through trail features faster and smoother. It also allows us to 'pump' the bike through downslopes and dips in the trail, which actually creates free speed. We'll cover proper pumping in an upcoming article.
Now that we've recognized we have limited time to get meaningful pedaling done, we need to maximize the propulsion created when we do pedal. We're big fans of spinning a low gear when climbing, but that has no place when we're riding fast through a flat or rolling trail. In these times, we want to be in a high enough gear that we can get a boost in speed with a few hard pedal strokes, maybe even just one or two. This often means standing up out of the saddle, which is a lot easier if we're already in our attack position.
We've also found a trick to always shift up two gears at a time, as one is rarely enough of a change in rolling terrain. Crest over a rise? Pick up momentum after an obstacle? Gain speed from pumping through trail features? Instead of shifting to a harder gear one at a time and pedaling in between shifts to get on top of each gear, try grabbing two gears at the same time. BAM BAM! This allows you to get on top of a harder gear sooner, thus not eating up valuable terrain while you shift/pedal through the gears. Therefore, we’re up to speed sooner and now able to carry more speed into the next section of trail. Many Shimano shifters allow for two upshifts in a single push of the lever. With SRAM drivetrains, build a habit of hitting that upshift lever twice in quick succession. The derailleur then seamlessly shifts two gears in one motion.
In rolling terrain, shift up two gears at a time and make the most of limited pedaling opportunities.
Now Go Ride Your Bike!
We hope this has given you some new tools to improve your riding. As much as we're looking to increase speed, we're also looking to increase confidence and enjoyment. These three things usually increase together if we're doing things right. We cover these fundamental skills and many more things in our skills coaching. If you'd like to work with us to increase your proficiency and have more fun on your bike, please reach out to us here and we'll set up training specifically tailored for you.