James Thornhill-Fisher is flying down one of his favourite trails on his new Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt 650B, when he spots a group of riders standing next to the trail, looking apprehensively down a rock drop. Slowing slightly and cutting to the left James hits the drop…
As I launch everything goes quiet, all I can hear is my heart beating. Then I land and off I go in an adrenalin rush as all the sounds come flooding back.
Dropoffs have always been part of mountain biking, but today’s trails and riding styles have more and bigger drops than ever. A lot of normal riders are taking more vertical lines on cross-country trails. When you learn to take off safely and land smoothly, you’ll have more freedom and fun everywhere you ride.
So you can bottom your 180mm travel shock off a curb? Don’t be too proud of yourself. Smooth landings are where it’s at. Save your body, save your bike, save your skin
Minimize the drop
Find a line that drops less and aims you downward toward the landing instead of flipping your front wheel skyward. Then when you reach your take-off spot, crouch your body as low as possible so you don’t have to fall as far. Flare your elbows out to keep your front end from pulling up or going skew. Get your bike back on the ground as soon and as smoothly as possible. There’s nothing cool about cracking frames or ankle bones.
Keep your front end up until your rear takes off
Dropping one wheel at a time is dangerous business: If your chainring catches the lip, you pitch forward. If your front wheel falls into the landing ditch, you’ll do an endo. If your rear wheel rolls forward while your front wheel drops straight down, you become a human catapult. The bottom line: Until you’re completely airborne, keep your front wheel level with, or above your rear wheel.
Use speed to your advantage
The faster you go, the easier it is to keep your front wheel up until your rear wheel leaves the ground. If you go fast enough, you hardly have to do anything to match your bike’s angle to that of the trail. Speed lets you clear gnarly rocks and bad landings. Flat landings feel smoother when you land with momentum than when you land slowly.
Adjust your landing to the slope
On flat landings, get your rear wheel down first. This minimizes your free fall and lets you absorb the landing with your legs. On downhill landings, get your front wheel down first (only just though). Steep landings are so smooth you’ll wonder when you’re going to land. If you do land rear wheel first on a downslope, your front end will slam down, and you could get tossed over the handlebars.
Big is cool, but don’t be a fool
If the drop is lower than your knee pads, you can usually roll right off it, no big deal. But when drops grow taller than your wheels, you have got to start paying attention to your form, and you should definitely look before you leap.
The art of navigating a drop is the art of controlling the angle of your bike and landing smoothly. When you master this art, you can hop over obstacles at speed
and maintain momentum when the ground drops out from beneath you.
When you come across drops on your favourite trails, try not to jump upward. Stay low and rely on speed. The faster you go, the easier this is.
- If you can manual consistently, you are ready to try small high-speed drops.
- Approach the take-off in your low attack position. Get low. Lower still…
- Preload forward as if you were going to do a manual, which you are.
- As your wheel reaches the edge, shift back into a manual.
- Keep your front wheel up until your rear wheel leaves the edge.
- Come back to centre and match the angle of your bike to the angle of the landing.
- On a steep landing, land front wheel first.
- Absorb the impact with your legs(if any) and be on your way.
On the biggest drop of your ride, you should bottom your suspension. That’s what it’s for.