This month our loose cannon correspondent, David Bristow, looks back at the scars and medical bills of two decades of happy mountain biking and gives a few pointers about how you can avoid them.
This is the post-Cape Epic 2014 issue and will likely be packed with analyses, war stories and lots of technical stuff about gear ratios, wheel diameters, android nutrition and all the palaver that goes with the racing side of mountain biking. How intimidating must all this be for newcomers to the sport?
I was trying to tempt my boy, Ben (13), down some single track the other day, and was a little bit disappointed that he preferred to bomb down the dirt road. Which got me thinking: I’ve been mountain biking for around 18 or 19 years, and have the benefit of thousands of hours and many thousands of dirt kilometres.
I’ve forgotten how bang I used to be to ride down technical single track, but there I was expecting him to sommer follow me down stuff that has taken me a few broken bones and umpteen stitches to wax. It must be the same for every new mountain biker when surrounded by racing reptiles on their stealth machines. So I took some time to teach him the basics of good riding.
The rest of this is therefore not aimed at the super athletes, but rather for those riders – or wanna-be riders – who are still learning the basics without breaking their bodies. There are a few very basic skills and techniques that need to be honed in order to get to the point where you feel like you’d rather be riding the singletrack than the dirt road. This column is for you, and Ben.
Rule number 1: Never hit the front brake
Explanation: Your front brake is the one that brakes the hardest, and you do need to use it often and often hard. But you must never pull it by itself. You need to know which lever works the back and which the front brake. Then you need to practice always pulling the back brake as your first reaction. It’s probably best to set up your bike so that you have the back brake on the right if you are right handed, and vice versa.
What you really need to be doing, however, is using them both at the same time. Use two fingers on your back brake lever and one on the front, which will make sure you are holding the bike with the back brake while the front works to stop you. Flying over the handlebars is something you really want to try to avoid, even though most of us have done it more than once. What follows is invariably a trip to the doctor.
Rule number 2: Look ahead
Explanation: From your very first ride, or your very next one, depending, you need to practice looking at the trail ahead of you. Never look at the trail right in front of your front wheel.
Looking down at your front wheel leads to welts, bruises and roasties, i.e. falling off. You need to look at the track ahead, about five metres if you are going fast, and around three metres if riding more slowly. What you need to get right is finding the right line ahead of you and allowing your instincts to steer the bike through. Once you brain has processed the best route option, your body will do the rest. Only very occasionally, and very briefly, should you look at the terrain right in front of you, just to double check your line through a tricky section. It’s like shooting a pistol or a bow: you do not aim down the barrel or the arrow, but allow your body and actions to follow the line of your eyesight.
This is something you sometimes have to force yourself to do, but the more you do it the easier it becomes. Finding the best line up ahead is the difference between riding like a drunk and riding like you are enjoying it.
Rule number 3: When the trail gets gnarly, put your bum back
Explanation: While all your hard braking is done on your front wheel, all your hard traction is done by the back one. Getting your weight right to the back of your saddle (downhillers often slide their bums right over the backs of their saddles), is the secret trick to all tricky riding. If you get your weight far enough back, and just steer sensibly, it’s almost impossible to spill.
Rule number 4: When riding very steep uphills, centre yourself
Explanation: Sometimes the only way up a very steep climb is brute leg power. But you can make things easier for yourself by getting your centre of gravity just right. You want to drop your elbows down to your sides, then pull your bum forward in the saddle. It feels like you are trying to pull all parts of yourself to the centre of the bike frame. This ensures all the bits of the bike and of yourself are in the best place for optimal power transfer and minimal wheel spin.
Rule number 5: When riding downhill, stand
Explanation: Even on the trickiest of drop-offs, which scare the bejesus out of us when we’re starting out, can be cruised by just putting your weight back, then steering to make sure your front wheel doesn’t connect with some big object.
The best way to do this is to stand on your pedals, then you can shift your weight (bum) forwards and backwards as your bike rocks and rolls. You should have the image of riding a horse, when you push down on the handlebars and pull up on them, so that your bike rolls over objects rather than hitting into them.
Rule number 6: Keep your front wheel light
Explanation: It’s your front wheel that causes all the trouble. Whether riding up, flat or down, you should avoid your front wheel hitting into things. You need to learn to lift it over stuff. A light front wheel, combined with weight shifted back, is the way to ride effortlessly.
Practice lifting your front wheel over logs and rocks, even the smallest ones. Start small and work your way up through the bigger stuff. The technique is to push down then lift up, quick and hard, and the secret is in the timing. You need to get the wheel up exactly at the critical point (which is the object you want to clear). That’s why you need to start on the small stuff. Don’t be timid, really pull hard up. Then try pedalling hard at the same time. You’ll be surprised what you can get over once you perfect this. Also on drop-offs, or when going through dongas, lifting your front wheel as hard as you can will avert just about every pitfall.
Rule number 7: Corner like a pro
Explanation: Whether on road or singletrack, the trick to good cornering is the same. Most importantly, you need to look ahead and see the curve you are going to be taking (never, ever, right in front of you). Do that and the bike will follow the arc you draw with your eyes.
As you enter the corner, lift your inside foot so that the pedal is clear of the ground, and push down with your outside foot. Then drop your inside knee like motorbike riders do. This gets your weight distribution and body posture just right to take any corner at good speed.
Rule number 8: Thick sand is just another technical track
Explanation: The secret to riding through thick sand is the same as for all tricky tracks – get your bum right back, keep the weight off your handlebars and steer as lightly as you can so the front wheel doesn’t bite in, and spin through in an easy gear that you can keep going without having to change.
You can also try sitting straight up in the saddle and putting only the lightest of touches on your handlebar, just to keep going straight. The front wheel will find its own best way through.
Rule number 9: Play
Explanation: The best way to improve your technical skills is by playing. Try bunny hopping over things, especially puddles. Try jumping curbs, or up and then off any low platform. It’s all in bonding with your body, lifting the bike with your feet and pulling hard up on the handlebars.
To do this and indeed to ride any technical stuff you need to have cleats. Practice moving as one with your bike, sideways as well as forwards and backwards as you roll over obstacles. Getting a rocking motion is one key to smooth riding and not hurting your bike. With your shoes out of the cleats, or wearing takkies, try mastering the art of doing a wheelie (popping up onto your back wheel). Think it through – power pedal and hard handlebar lift. It takes lots of practice, so don’t give up too easily. A soft car park or any park is best, going slightly uphill.
Rule number 10: There is no rule number 10
Explanation: Just ride as often as you can, enjoy doing it, and the rest is like learning to ride a bicycle.