Improve Mountain Bike Skills through Your Points of Contact
Your body position on the mountain bike and how you use your points of contact with the bike make a huge difference when you hit the tricky sections of a course: the switchbacks, the dive-bomb descents, the wall-climbs. For inexperienced riders, position on the bike is often the first thing to go when the course gets hairy. Ever watch new rider in a rock garden? They apply the infamous death grip to the bars, stiffening the front of the bike, losing fluidity and control.
Watch the best mountain bikers; they stay in contact with their bikes in ways that allow bike and body to move separately yet work together. Being aware of your body position and its relation to the different places it contacts the bike will get you through tight corners, steep descents, and even up the steep climbs in better shape. Your mountain biking will be faster, more efficient, safer and more fun.
Points of Contact
You contact your bike in five places: two hands on two grips, two feet on two pedals, one butt on the saddle. The strength of each point of contact depends on how much weight you apply and also how hard you grip the bars. Mountain biking terrain varies, so good positioning has to vary, too. Adapting to each kind of terrain requires you to use the five contact points differently at distinct times.
Imagine cruising along flat, smooth terrain. Your weight is pretty evenly distributed over your hands, feet and saddle. But then imagine standing up and sprinting hard; you’re forcing all your weight down on the pedals. If you don’t grip the bars and rock the front of the bike, the force of your pedaling will push your bike in every direction but straight ahead. Now think about sprinting hard while leaning forward with your weight on the handlebars – it won’t work.
As you practice awareness of all your points of contact and develop good habits around adapting them to changing terrain your race results will get better and better.
You’re coming up on a sharp left hand corner: where should your body be? You want to commit your body weight to the outside foot (your right foot) and on the bars to your inside hand (left hand). The weighted outside foot helps drive your tires into the ground, greatly reducing the risk of sliding out. Weighting your inside hand helps put the bike into a natural arc that follows the corner, and also helps balance your body weight over the bike. Meanwhile, your head stays upright so you stay stable and can scope out your next move. Keep your upper body relaxed while you focus your eyes on the exit of the corner and beyond, maintaining momentum and prepping for the next part of the course.
You are not going to want to lean the body and the bike the same amount, which means your butt can’t be glued to the saddle. To gain some flexibility there, push down with the outside foot just enough to break the contact between your butt and your saddle. Suddenly you can lean the bike and the body independently.
For more stability, lean your bike to push your saddle against your inside thigh (in a left turn, this would be your left thigh). This way, the bike leans more than your body, adding more stability. For a right hand corner, position yourself the opposite way.
By using these methods with your contact points, bike and rider track through a corner smoothly but in different ways.
On a steep descent, position is completely different from cornering. If you stay seated in your normal spot on the saddle you’ll feel every bump on the way down and have tremendous weight on your hands. On the steepest descents, you’ll risk going over the bars.. Let body and bike float down independently, but with the right connection through the contact points and you can be comfortable and in control again.
Move back on the bike far enough that you can take your weight on your feet and your larger leg muscles can act as shock absorbers when the descent gets rough. Using hands and feet, push the bike ahead of you, similar to throwing the bike at a finish line. On a steep descent, your butt may be entirely behind the saddle. Moving back keeps your wheels weighted and on the ground, and moves your center of mass over the middle of the bike instead of the front wheel. Apply a Goldilocks grip: not to firm, not too loose, but just right, allowing your bike to choose a smooth line on its own.
Staying off the saddle will allow the bike to move freely over the terrain under you without transferring the shocks to your body. For practice, drop your saddle on steep descents, creating more room for your bike to move around underneath you. The amount you need to drop your saddle will depend on your own comfort, but you will feel the greatest effect if it’s low enough so that it is level with your knees when you’re standing and the crank arms are level with the ground.
Climbing without the right points of contact wastes energy and hinders technique. Climbing is intense, sure, but many use too much of their body to climb, especially the upper body. They’re too focused on their hands as a point of contact. The way you want less contact with the saddle on descents, you want less focus on your hands when you climb. Relax the upper body, especially on technical sections. This will allow the front of your bike to lead you to a path of least resistance and let you focus on your contact with the pedals, which is where climbing power comes from.
On steep climbs you may find that the front wheel doesn’t maintain strong contact with the ground. In that case, first bring your chest towards your stem. If that is not enough, move forward on the saddle. As a last resort, stand. When standing for very steep uphills with tenuous traction, keep the elbows bent and shoulders low, move forward and pump the bars to drive the back tire against the ground with each pedal stroke.
Using Your Saddle
Controlling your riding through smart contact with the saddle leads to extremely efficient riding. It’s the only point of contact you control directly with your core muscles, and learning to do so can take your riding to a new level. Staying seated works great on smooth trails, or trails with bad traction (gravel, mud or sand). For practice, try riding on flat smooth ground and shifting your weight around on your saddle without moving on the saddle. Put more weight on the left or right cheek, and try to steer the bike, while keeping your hands on the bars with a light grip for stability. It’s tricky to get the hang of it, but you’ll feel the effects, you should notice the bike steering without using the handlebars to turn. In smooth terrain, you don’t need to absorb shock with your arms and legs, so solid contact with the saddle will let you rest and relax your upper body. When you do need to control your bike, use your core. Initiate turns by shifting your hips. This will control the ride well and keep you over the center of the bike, maximizing traction. In some cases – like in slick conditions – this is about the only way to stay upright.
If you find you’re losing your front wheel in turns or getting roughed up on descents, you may have too tight a grip or too much weight on the handlebars. In this case, relax your upper body, push down on the bike with your legs and control the lean of the bike with your core. On the other hand, if you feel like you can’t move your bike well or you have trouble with rough terrain, weight your feet and your hands more and allow bike and body to separate.
Think about your points of contact on every ride, and stay aware of how you are connected to your bike. Make that connection work for you! The more fluid you can be, the faster and more efficient you will be.
Whether you are an experienced racer or a weekend warrior, working on skills will make you a faster, safer, more efficient rider. This is the first of three articles by Coach Lewis Gaffney that will discuss areas many people forget to work on when they practice skills. These fundamentals will build good habits and get you to your goals. (Contributing Author: Andrew Osborn)