Mountain biking 102, staying off the edge of crazy.
“I’m not going to be doing anything crazy…I just want to ride easy trails” is probably the most common phrase we hear in our shop from people new to mountain biking. I don’t want to do anything crazy either! I’m now in the 6th decade of my life, looking down the barrel of diminishing potentially active years, and the thought of injuring myself and putting myself out of the game for recovery, even for a few days, scares the heck out of me (and terrifies friends and relatives who would have to put up with me), so crazy is definitely off the table for me. But…the definition of crazy is a blurry one and keeps on shifting as we gain experience and our bodies change. A few weeks ago I rode the Los Burros Trail with a group of people, and those who have ridden that trail recently know that there is a section coming off of the south side of Lake Mountain that has tight steep switchbacks and lots of loose rocks. After riding it, we decided to come back the next day to clean most of those rocks out of the trail and started hiking up it with the plan of cleaning it as we came back down. As we began the climb on foot, the thought literally came into my head: “What kind of crazy person would ride a bike down this trail? Its so steep and all the rocks make it really slippery!” Then I had to laugh at myself: I had just ridden a bike down this exact section yesterday with not too much trouble at reasonably high speed. Am I crazy? I have a relative who broke her hip getting out of bed one morning. Is getting out of bed crazy? How do we find that line between doing what we do and protecting ourselves from injury? Here are some suggestions for pushing that line further, enjoying mountain biking more and building on the beginner fundamental skills you may already have.
You call that a saddle? First off, let’s talk about comfort on the bike. You may have noticed, and your nether regions may have notified you very loudly, that a mountain bike saddle is a weird, narrow, relatively hard implement of torture to new riders. How do experienced riders sit on that thing for hours of riding? Can I please have one of those big soft padded seats I see on a cruiser? Experienced riders do not sit on the saddle for hours and no, you do not want a big wide padded saddle on a mountain bike. The mountain bike saddle is designed to support your body by providing the pubic “sit bones” a place to rest. Your sit bones are spaced apart due to your skeletal structure and have nothing to do with your body shape or your weight. In general, women have wider spacing to go along with wider hips for childbirth, but everyone is different. The width of your saddle needs to match the width of your sit bones, usually between 130-160mm. The long narrow nose of the saddle is not for sitting on but for keeping you centered on the bike while peddling and the shape of the saddle is designed to allow your legs full rotation while peddling in a leaned over riding position. If you are having trouble with the saddle area, get a saddle fit from your local bike shop and wear padded chamois shorts to prevent abrasion. As far as sitting on the saddle goes, try not to! If you have ever ridden a horse, you know that if you sit plopped in the saddle and just have your feet dangling in the stirrups, you will not be comfortable and will regret the moment you climbed onto that horse. When riding a horse, the stirrups are set at the length where you can support your body weight by using your legs and much of your active riding time is done slightly off the saddle, using your legs to support your body and provide suspension as the horse moves under you. When riding a bike, the same concept applies. The saddle is there to control and support your movements, but the main thing providing body support and suspension are your legs. Try to get your weight off the saddle as much as possible. When not peddling, I am off of my saddle completely, coasting with both pedals parallel to the ground and even with each other, “flat pedals”, with both pedal blades tilted slightly down in the back diminishing the chance of being pushed forward when hitting bumps in the trail. Coasting with flat pedals lets your legs support your body fully off the saddle, gives you control and focus as the trail surface moves under your wheels and lifts your pedals away from potential obstacles on the sides of the trail. I like to practice coasting this way with alternate feet forward. Most of us have a natural dominant forward foot where we feel more in control, but training yourself to have either foot forward helps rest and stretch tendons on both sides as your ride.
Peddle, peddle, peddle… Learning pedal stroke is probably one of the most important skills to develop as you progress in biking. Most beginners feel that they are peddling up and down as if marching in place. If you consider the mechanical path a rotating pedal takes and the series of levers operating from your hip socket to knee, to ankle to pedal, cranks and bottom bracket, you realize that there is no simple up and down to peddling a bike. Thinking about the mechanics of peddling allows us to train our bodies to get the most efficiency from each stroke. I like to think of the pedal stroke as being like the pistons and tie-rods of a locomotive. As the train moves forward, the tie-rods are relatively horizontal to the ground and changing the end angle with the rotation of the wheel. The rods are moving in a forward and backwards direction rather than an up and down pattern. A bike pedal stroke is much the same where the power at the top of the stroke is pushing forwards and down while power at the bottom is pulling backwards and up. As I pedal, I often visualize the stroke as forwards and backwards and try to focus on feeling the slight forwards and backwards movement of my foot inside my shoe as the stroke rotates around. Your pedal should be tilted slightly up in the front on the top/front part of the stroke and slightly down in the front on the backstroke. A great exercise I do quite often while riding is focusing on one leg at a time and concentrating on the feel of engaging the calf muscles of that leg all the way around the stroke and feeling the back and forth movement inside the shoe. Let the other leg relax and just float along its pedal stroke. Do 10 one-legged strokes per leg and then focus on using both at once- the difference you can feel is immediate and powerful. Flat pedals with metal pegs are a great upgrade from the stock plastic pedals and will allow you to have a much more powerful connection between shoe and pedal. Alternately, many people prefer to use “clipless” pedals where their shoe mechanically attaches to the pedal, giving an even stronger connection between shoe and pedal. How ever you attach to your pedal, focusing on the mechanics of peddling will give you more power and control than you ever thought possible.
Up and down. Climbing and descending are two of the difficulties beginners have on the trail. Nothing substitutes for practice and time on the bike, but here are a couple of suggestions to help make both of these situations easier. When the trail begins to rise, dread often sets in: this is going to be bad, I’m going to have to walk it, I’m going to die… Number one is practicing cadence before you start to climb. Cadence is the pattern of pedal strokes you use and is measured by the speed at which your cranks are turning. You should try to keep your cadence between 70-80 rpm and shift as appropriate to maintain that cadence no matter the terrain. It’s easy to get lulled into a slow peaceful rhythm in flat sections of the trail, and feel like you are cheating in some way when you use “easier”, or lower gears to maintain a faster cadence, but actually the faster cadence is much better for your bike’s drivetrain and for your endurance. As you begin to climb, shift proactively down into lower gears as you notice your cadence slowing. Try to shift when the pedals are at their highest/lowest point because this is when you are putting the least torque on the drive chain and it is easiest for your derailleur to move your chain from one gear to the next. If you have a dropper post, make sure that it is at its highest point and shift your weight forward more over the bars. If you have shocks front and/or back, move the lever to the most rigid setting so that you are not wasting power on pedal bob, or bike flex as you power forwards. Try to use your whole body including arms and core as you pedal upwards and focus on one section at a time. Take your time, slow and steady is much more efficient than an initial burst of power at the bottom, and quick burnout before you reach the top. Once you reach the apex of the climb and are ready to descend, open up your shock(s), move your dropper post to its lowest position and shift your body weight back on the bike. Use your legs as suspension and get as low as possible on the bike to lower your center of gravity and gain more control on the descent. Feather your brakes going down and use front brake pressure judiciously, but in concert with the rear brakes. Allow the front wheel to continue turning as you descend and corner so that you have control of your bike and do not slide out. Let your bike absorb the roughness of any terrain and have faith that the shocks will do their job and keep both wheels planted on the trail.
Roughing it. Lastly, practice allowing your bike to “eat the rocks” on the trail. Practice with smaller well planted rocks and coast with flat pedals, allowing the bike to move under you. Again, if you have ever ridden a horse, you know that bouncing around on the saddle over rough terrain makes you feel out of control and very uncomfortable. A good equestrian is constantly using their legs as suspension and allowing the horse to move under them as it sees fit. A bike is obviously not a living thing, but the same concept applies: get off the saddle, use your legs as suspension and allow the bike to flex and move under you as it travels over rough terrain. The physics of the forward momentum of the bike allows it to travel over uneven sections of trail more easily at a higher speed than it can if you slow down and try to maneuver around every little rock and bump. Have faith that your bike will take care of you and build that faith by practicing going over obstacles on easy sections of trail. With practice, you’ll be voluntarily steering to go over things rather than around them because it’s fun to feel the power of the engineering of the bike working to control your ride.
When I began riding, I used to wonder why everyone had to ride so fast and how they were so relaxed about taking on new sections of trail. Granted, I’m not the best rider out there on a trail, and never will be, but I do understand the joy of speed, the relaxation that comes from focusing and concentrating on technique, the satisfaction and power you feel when conquering that climb and the thrill of feeling the bike move under you on descents. When I see something too crazy for me, I get off and walk over it, but those “hike-a-bike” moments are getting fewer and shorter as I improve and gain confidence and experience. I’m definitely pushing the line of crazy farther up the scale, and as age and crazy collide, I’m sure that the line will continue to fluctuate to keep me safe and comfortable on the trail. Now that you have some techniques practiced, have power in your peddling and understand the mechanics of your bike, get out there and get a little crazy. Not too crazy, but just at the point of crazy that your friends and riding companions will say “Hey! Great riding back there! Let’s go find some new trail to conquer”.