Wild Rockies Race Team Riding Technique
Author: Fritz Stafford
Published: March 23, 2015
Mastering the Bike – Body Interfaces:
Most bicycle riders believe they know how to ride a bike, but they often do not learn how to correctly interface with the bike. Significant efficiencies can be gained by learning some basic techniques.
The first point about proper pedaling technique is proper equipment. Light weight, off-road, clip-in pedals, and light weight, stiff-soled mountain bike shoes are an absolute must. The most widely used MtB and CX pedals are Crank Brothers Egg Beater or Candy models, and the most widely used MtB and CX shoes are SIDI Dominators. There are other good pedals and shoes, but you cannot go wrong with these.
The next consideration is learning to clip-in and clip-out. It can be embarrassing to fall over while learning basic clip-in and clip-out technique, but everybody has gone through this. At first, you will probably find yourself looking at your pedals while attempting to clip-in. Eventually, you want to become so expert at clipping-in that it becomes a reflex that requires no diversion of your vision. Take every opportunity to practice clipping-in and clipping-out. When you encounter on-coming riders on the trail, clip-out rather than riding off the trail to avoid the riders. Even better yet, clip-out both feet, and then reverse your normal clip-in order.
Most beginning cyclists pedal with the inefficient, brute-force “mashing” technique. This consists of pushing down on the pedals with the bike – body interface being between the bottom of the foot pushing down on the sole of the shoe. Improving pedaling efficiency involves learning how to apply energy to the pedals all the way around the pedaling stroke, not just the down stroke.
Part of the pedaling stroke is the down stroke, where it is appropriate to push down on the pedal, but it is not necessary to focus on this, as it tends to happen naturally facilitated by gravity (i.e., the weight of your legs). Rather, focus on pulling through the bottom of the pedal stroke with the foot level, and then pulling up to initiate the next stroke. One way to focus on this is to envision the bike – body interface being between the top of the foot and the tongue of the shoe. I once had a coach who said, “think of it as polishing your toe nails on the inside top of your shoes”.
A great way to practice pedaling technique is on an indoor trainer, especially rollers. Most beginning cyclists will have some upper body up-and-down “bobbing” and / or back-and-forth “rolling” when they first ride a trainer. You can get away with this on a trainer that clamps onto the back wheel, but balancing on rollers is difficult until you learn to ride without bobbing and rolling. Regardless, it is very important to learn how to ride with a quiet upper body, and even a fixed wheel trainer will aid in this (e.g. place a spotlight behind you that is projected onto the wall in front of you, and focus on minimizing the movement of your shadow). Expect to take an entire off-season to master this.
The final point is pedaling revolutions per minute, rpm, or cadence. 90 rpm is generally recommended as an average starting point, with rpm as low as 80 on steep climbing sections and rpm up to 100 on flat sections. Another great way to practice pedaling technique is to first learn to ride at 100 rpm comfortably on the trainer, and then push pedaling rpm up to 120 for 60 second intervals every 5 minutes. It will be difficult / impossible to do this until you eliminate any upper body bobbing and / or rolling.
Many beginning cyclists ride with their hands clenched to the handlebars, and wrists, elbows and shoulders locked. While this might initially seem to be more secure and require less effort than riding with unlocked and flexed joints (i.e., elbows flexed out for mountain bike, and elbows flexed back and tucked-in for road bike), the “Death Grip” places undue stress on the neck, back and shoulders, and it inhibits the rider from attaining the relaxed form required for maximum performance, control and comfort.
Learn to ride with a light touch on the handlebars. Lay your hands on the handlebars, wrap your hands lightly around the grips with one or two fingers over the brake lever. People with smaller hands are encouraged to utilize disc breaks which only require the forefinger, so the remaining fingers are available to wrap the grip to provide more secure grip when needed (e.g., bumpy downhill). Keep in mind that the handlebar bike – body interface is intended to control the bike, rather than support the rider’s weight!
Braking technique can be confusing, as not only beginning cyclists use poor technique. The key braking tip is to learn how to slow quickly without skidding and remain in control. Better riders skid less. Skidding is loss of traction (i.e., braking force) and control, and skidding erodes trails with chattermarks / washboards.
Most beginning cyclists use too much rear brake, and this leads to skidding of the rear wheel. >80% of braking force comes from the front brake, and this takes some practice to learn proper fore – aft body position to avoid going over the handle bars while braking on steep downhill sections. The body has to be further back than the crank axle when braking to balance both the gravitational and inertial (braking) forces over the crank axle. Also, proper braking requires anticipation, as turning while applying the front brake is poor technique that results in steering difficulty at best and complete loss of traction at worst.
To maximize stopping force, it is necessary to find the fine line between maximum brake modulation and skidding. This requires practice on various trail conditions. Start on a straight downhill trail section with loose gravel and / or sand. Ride down the hill at moderate speed in Ready Position (see below section Saddle, Riding Position Technique), and lock up the rear brake just before the bottom of the hill. Then, immediately release the rear break, and reapply the rear brake with less force until you are able to quickly find the point of maximum brake modulation (i.e., no skidding), shortest stopping distance. After developing confidence with the rear brake only technique, repeat the exercise utilizing only the front brake (which is a little scarier), and then both brakes.
Off-road cycling cornering technique has many similarities / analogies to downhill skiing. Keep the weight centered over the uphill edge of the downhill ski with the upper body vertical, quiet and facing down the fall line at all times. For the case of cycling, this means keeping the weight equal on the front and back wheels with the bike angulated / tilted into the turn and the upper body angulated in the opposite direction over the line the wheels are travelling. This is accomplished by standing on the outside pedal while cornering with the pedal down and with the inside hand pushing down on the inside of the handlebar.
Saddle, Riding Position Technique:
Most beginning cyclists think the saddle / seat is for sitting on all the time. While the saddle is a critical bike – body interface, there are many situations encountered in off-road cycling where it is best to NOT be seated.
The first point to emphasize is that standing on the pedals with the pedals level is by far the most stable position for descending, and / or hard braking, and / or tackling technical obstacles. This allows for rapid shifting of weight fore and aft as necessary to keep one’s weight centered over the crank axle, and it also allows one’s knees to suck-up rapid vertical movements of the bike without launching the rider over the handlebar, or otherwise losing control.
Also, as mentioned previously in the Cornering Technique section, standing on the outside pedal with the pedal down and the inside hand pushing the inside of the handle bar down provides the best cornering balance, traction and control. Think of this as centering your weight from left to right over the center of the crank axle.
Sitting in the center of the saddle is the most comfortable position, and this provides the least fatigue for long duration rides. This is the best position for pedaling and braking on flat, slightly uphill, or slightly downhill terrain with mild technical obstacles.
As the terrain and / or riding demands change from moderate, other riding positions become more effective.
The standing position mention previously can be elaborated into the “Ready Position” and the “Attack Position”. The Ready Position is assumed in anticipation of more challenging terrain, braking, cornering conditions. In the Ready Position, one stands on level pedals with the crotch lifted slightly above the saddle and the upper body in the same position as the seated moderate terrain position. One then shifts into the Attack Position while negotiating the more challenging terrain, braking, cornering conditions. This involves lowering the upper body by flexing the elbows out like “chicken wings” AND moving the hips fore or aft, left or right to keep both the rider’s weight and inertial mass centered over the center of the crank axle.
Climbing is often the first place most beginning cyclists notice they are falling far behind their riding buddies, and they always wonder why. “That guy is older, or heavier, or in worse fitness than I, and he is kicking my butt!” First of all, refer to the Training, Equipment Tips, Bike Fit section to assure proper bike fit.
For most cases, climbing while seated on the Mountain Bike is most efficient, and this technique needs to be mastered before moving on to the advanced technique of climbing out-of-the-saddle (which can be faster). The key point of seated climbing technique is that maximum efficiency is achieved by moving forward on the saddle, and it is necessary to move further forward as the slope of the climb increases. In the extreme seated climbing position required for the steepest climbs, the seated climbing position is very different from the middle of the seat moderate terrain position described in a preceding paragraph. The extreme seated climbing position is at best uncomfortable, and it will take ~1 year of practice to master.
The extreme seated climbing position is sometimes referred to as riding the rivet, as in the olden days before personal media devices, bicycle seats were made of leather with a rivet at the end of the seat nose. This seat position is well ahead of what most people would consider riding forward on the seat. It is probably best thought of as riding with the nose of the seat practically in your anus. It takes some time to build up muscle to tolerate this.
The seated climbing position moves your weight forward to counteract the slope of the climb, better centering your weight over the crank axle than a further back position, and keeping weight on the front wheel for steering control. This position improves traction, as too much weight on the rear wheel causes slippage. It also provides better leverage for pulling up during the pedal stroke, which improves power and efficiency.