BIKE HANDLING 101
Riding a bicycle can be a potentially dangerous physical activity. Be sure you are in good enough health for the type of riding you plan to do. Safety is each riders responsibility. Wear a helmet at all times. Wear eye protection which gives adequate visibility on the trail you will be riding.
Riding a bicycle is riding a bicycle; but there are some special skills you will need to develop for off road riding. It is difficult to know where to start. Here are just some basics.
Yield the Trail
The very first aspect of bike handling is learning to yield the trail to others. A small book could and has been written on what it means to yield. Yield is an attitude. It is not determined by who passes who or who stops or who gets off of the trail. To yield is to say, "I will be the one." Some people never learn the basics of yielding the trail. People also do not interpret just who should yield the same. For example I would rather have the privilege of continuing to ride if I am climbing a hill and meeting another who is coming down the hill. I guess it is my love for climbing or the difficulty of restarting the ride half way up a hill, that makes me feel as I do. It is easy to start going down. Every one does not feel as I do however. Some feel the one going down the hill should be allowed to continue. Experienced riders learn to communicate with others with body motion, looks, or words to determine who will yield in many cases. As a general rule always stop for horses if they are on the same trail. Many horses are afraid of bicycles. Talk to the riders. Work it out. Hikers, walkers, and trail runners dictate that you slow down and communicate your intentions. With other bicycles I don't guess there are any set rules. If in doubt who should yield, it is you.
You will notice your bike has 21, 24, or even 27 speeds, and may wonder if this many is really necessary. All bikes have 3 chain rings on the front. And either 7, 8, or 9 on the rear wheel for a total or 21 to 27 speeds. All of the gear combinations are not useful or useable. The big ring on the front is for road riding or fast down hill. That leaves the middle and inner rings for everything else. When the chain is on the middle ring in front most people consider it in the normal position. This is the one you will use most of the time off road. When on the middle ring all of the sprockets on the rear are usable. When on the inner chain ring, the smallest, on the front, all of the rear sprockets are not useable. The sprockets on the small end of the rear cog set put the chain on an angle from front to rear and in a strain. This will wear your chain and sprockets prematurely. It also man not be smooth and quiet. A general rule is the largest through the fourth or fifth largest is best. Likewise, the big ring on front should only be used on the four smallest sprockets on the rear. The middle ring handles the entire range of rear sprockets and is suitable for mist riding. Don't hesitate to use the inner ring if you need a lower gear, that is why it is on the bike. I have ridden a few single track trails that were so crooked or were so much up hill that much of the trail was spent on the smallest ring. The smallest ring gives lower gears which are excellent for seated climbing. The index shifting systems are a far cry from what was around ten years ago. Especially the fact that the new systems will shift under load. That is they will shift while you are peddling. Even while climbing a hill. This is the reason you need a good clean well lubricated chain on your bike. Proper shifting under pedal pressure just won't take place consistently with a dirty chain. Learn to use your gears to make you a better rider. Pushing a gear which is to hard for you is hard on your body and uses extra energy. A gear which is too low keeps you from riding smoothly and moving with the bike. In order for the bike to become an extension of your body you must learn to select the proper gear without having to thinking about it.
Using the Brakes
Using the front and rear brakes is a common sense thing. If you apply the front brake too hard, the front wheel will lock and you can become a new member of the "Over the Bars Club," reserved for those who are thrown over the Handlebars. Sometimes the rear brakes alone will not have enough power to stop you. The rear wheel easily slides. The steeper the decent down a hill the easier it seems to lockup. Once it starts to slide the bike is difficult to control. When maximum stopping power is needed the front and rear brakes are used together. When going down a steep hill at slow speed learning the "touch" to determine just how much pressure to exert on front and rear brake levers is an important skill. The grip on the handle bars and brake levers is important. During down hills and fast curvy single track you will need to grip the bars at the same time have two or three fingers over the brake lever, often applying light steady pressure to keep your speed down slightly. Two methods are popular. A few years ago a writer in a popular magazine stated one method in particular was the correct one. Any other method according to the article just was not a good grip. When closely examining pro and expert racers and riders in general featured in photos in the magazine over ten-to-one used another grip than the one he extolled. Use the grip which gives you the most security and control. One method involves griping the bar with the thumb and first finger. They circle the grip and hold it securely. The remaining three fingers are over the brake lever and are adequate to "feather" the brakes or apply them hard enough to stop the bike. If your bike has twist shifters you may prefer this method. The other method requires griping the bar grip with the thumb and fingers number three and four. The first and middle finger are over the brake lever. Which method you use depends on your preferences, your grips, your brake levers, and your hands. It is not good to ride with all four fingers over the brake lever, except to stop the bike. I have found that slim handle bar grips, even though I have large hands, are the most comfortable on my bike. I can grip the bars and brake levers at the same time easier with them. I use both methods of griping the bar-brake-lever when I ride. Switching can rest your hands on a two or three hour ride.
Picking A Line
A line is what we call the path, the exact narrow path, where you plan to roll your tires. Some places do not require much of a decision on your part. While others dictate that an exact spot must be picked, then ridden. An easy trail or road lets you look around and not really concentrate on riding the bike. A more difficult trail requires your one hundred percent attention at all times. For example: a trail with rocks, roots, and ruts, the three R's. Picking a line is an art of sorts. It is often what separates the riders from the pushers. It id not picked 12 inches in front of your bike. It begins to take place over 50 feet in front of you. Fifty or sixty feet up the trail you may not be able to see much detail, but you may see a rain rut which enters the trail from the left and see that you need to go on the right side of it and that you need to move over where you are now. Quick looks up the trail every few seconds can tell you a lot about it. You will see features in the trail and know to look at certain things as you get closer to them. You sort of pick a rough line from afar the narrow it down as you get closer, then at last picking the exact place where your tires will roll. Trails which require a tight line to be picked are usually called technical trails. That is a technique is need for each different obstacle in the trail whether that obstacle in one of the three R's or a very tight turn of extremely steep but rideable short climb or decent. As one learns the technique for different obstacles and develops the skill needed to execute them, he or she can ride their bicycle in places they never believed they could. A sense of accomplishment and self satisfaction comes to a rider as they become move proficient at difficult trails.
Climbing Steep Hills
Each person will have his or her own preferred method for climbing steep hills. Will have their own interpretation of what steep is. Different bicycles respond differently during climbing. Regardless of these factors there is a technique for an unseated standing climb which needs to be mastered by all riders. How long you can maintain a standing climb depends on your fitness level. This may use more energy than any other type of riding. Selecting the proper gear comes from experience and is peculiar to you and your bike. If the gear is too low the rear tire will spin, the front wheel will come up, or you will have to hold back by keeping a lot of back pressure on the off side pedal every pedal stroke. This wastes a great deal of energy. If the gear is too high you will not be able to push it or will have to force it by pulling hard on the bars. Riders with very strong legs can break chains and do other damage by forcing too high a gear. A good starting point for most is the middle chain ring in front and second from largest in rear. Or the small chain ring in front and the third or forth from largest in rear will be about the same. There are many good methods for a standing climb. The basic consists of letting your body weight press the pedal down while you pull up and back on the bars. Pulling the bars is not really for more leverage, but is to shift body weight to the rear tire for more traction. Your body position will be nearly vertical. Back is held straight. Handle bars pumped up in rhythm as the pedals go down. If the hill is very steep the front wheel will almost and maybe barely leave the ground each pedal stroke. As the front tire comes up steering is lost then restored as it settles back down. On a bike with a good suspension fork and proper dampening it is very easy to easy to establish a good rhythm climbing. The front tire stays connected with the trail better than with a rigid fork. A poor suspension fork will bob too much and seem to absorb climbing power. Some full suspension bicycles do not do a standing climb very well while some climb better than a hardtail bike. If the bikes suspension has adjustable dampening, fooling with it may make the bike feel better in a standing climb. The average rider can not go very far in the standing climb. The technique of pedaling and pulling the bars up and toward your chest in a smooth rhythm for a standing climb needs to be perfected to ride in many areas.
Climbing Long Hills
We define a long climb as different from trail which is just, shall we say, uphill. It if different in the energy and methods used to ride up it. It is long enough and steep enough to fit your personal definition of a long climb. There are several things which can make you a better climber. The main thing is leg strength and fitness. Fitness being able to get enough oxygen in your lungs and to your muscles during the climb. Some things can be done to optimize the strength and fitness which you have. By picking from climbing techniques which are known to work and finding which ones work for you, you can become a better climber. To become a really good climber you have to climb. Practice makes perfect. Use makes strong. May be you don't like to climb and don't want to be a really good climber. You can still be better than you are. Climbing long hills basically involves seated climbing techniques. Many long climbs involve the small chain ring on the front for most riders. Proper gear selection is paramount in successful climbing. Early on the approach part of a long climb, before the grade gets very steep I usually make my shift to the small chain ring. Seated and pedaling with a smooth cadence with the front sill on the middle chain ring, I down shift the rear until it is on the third for forth sprocket from the largest as needed. When the grade gets steep enough to warrant a lower gear I use something called a split shift. Both front and rear are shifted at the same time. The front is shifted from the middle to the inner or smallest ring which gives a lower gear. At the same moment the rear is shifted to the next smallest sprocket from where it is. Resulting in a higher gear on the rear. Because of the number of teeth difference in the front and rear shifts the resulting gear is slightly lower than it was before the shifts. This is sometimes called a split shift or half shift. This is very neatly accomplished with Rapid Fire Plus shifters. Both index fingers pull each shifter simultaneously one click. With this done the rear derailleur handling the shifting chores of a lower or higher gear as is necessary during the climb. Keep in mind that to prevent extreme chain angles while on the inner ring, only the largest four or five sprockets are recommenced. Rider position on the bike is important. The most popular is to slide slightly forward on the saddle. This puts you more directly over the center line of the pedals instead of behind them. With the bike inclined up in front as you ascend the hill to be closer to the center of pedaling action necessitates this slide forward. More of your weight is applied to the pedal stroke this way. A seat which has a wider nose is said to have a wider climbing platform. These saddles are a very popular style. After moving forward on the saddle, bend lower toward the top tube of the bike. Probably until the chest is parallel to the ground, or nearly so. Elbows are bent and the hands are any where from the handlebar grips to the bar ends low on the bar ends nearest the grips is good for most people. The right hand does not have far to move for a quick shift if needed. Pedal in smooth circles. Be sure the rear foot is not being picked up by the pedal as it comes up. Keeping downward force on the off side pedal is a very bad habit. This may come from having to do so to keep the feet in place on platform pedals. That is what toe clips and straps or clipless pedals do; keep your feet on the pedals. Your straps would be tight for climbs. The amount of picking up on the back or off side pedal seems small but it adds tremendous power and endurance on climbs. If the foot which is pushing the pedal down to climb the hill also has to lift the other foot a lot of power is being wasted. As the hill gets steeper or you get tired, you will shift to lower gears. If you run out of wind you may even be able to catch your breath of sorts by shifting to your lowest gear and backing off on speed. Sometimes you can rest this way for a steeper section far ahead on the climb. Some long climbs here in the South East have short sections which are easier if you move to the standing position. Learn how to shift to the proper gear as you make the transition from seated to standing and back to seated. Sometimes you will want to shift two gears on the rear sprocket sometimes only one. A higher gear ratio is need to stand and a lower one seated. As you move from one position to another or you will not be as efficient. Moving to the standing position for short sections may be good for you. Even though standing uses more energy it uses different muscle groups and may or may not improve your total climbing efficiency.
Descending A Very Steep Grade
Going down a very steep place on a trail presents several problems. The number one problem is speed control. Another is basic bike control, just making the bicycle go where you want it to. The dangers to be avoided are too much speed and being pitched over the handlebars. This dreaded endo is caused by the front wheel hitting something causing it to stop rolling. If the riders center of gravity is too high he or she does not stop. This is especially bad down hill because it is so far to the ground because of the hill. First of all speed must be controlled. This can only be accomplished on very steep descents with body english and proper braking. Your weight must be moved rearward on the bicycle in order to transfer enough weight to the rear wheel for adequate braking traction. If it is normally centered on the seat the logic tells us we must get behind the seat. Exactly how far behind the seat is determined by how steep the hill is. Many saddles have cut-away rears making them narrower at the back and easier to move back on. This cut-away also makes it easy to grip the very rear of the saddle with the inner thighs for a little extra bike control if you are not all the way off the back of the saddle. When the grade gets very steep you will have to get all the way off of the back of the saddle and over the rear tire. Until you are comfortable doing this you may want to lower you saddle a couple of inches just before you drop off on a steep descent. Once you learn how to move off the back easily you will not need to lower your seat to do so. This is one argument for a quick release on the seat clamp. Before riding it is a good idea to mark your normal seat height with a felt tip marker by making a ring all the way around your seat post so that part of the ring shows above the clamp when the seat is at the proper height. You can easily return the seat post to the proper position without fiddling with it and in one try. You will also always know if the seat slips or has been moved by someone else. To slide all the way off the back of the saddle put the pedal crank arms about level. As you stand to slide back you can even tip toe up on the pedals to give you more room to clear the saddle as you slide back. Once back keep your arms straight and knees bent. Grip the handle bars with thumbs and one or two fingers. The remainder of the fingers on the brake levers. Don't grip with all of your fingers around the brake levers unless you are stopping. The rear brakes will handle most of the braking but at the same time the front brakes will be the most powerful. To keep the rear hooked up and not sliding you can touch the front brakes lightly to help keep the bike slow. Watch where the front wheel is going. If it must go over a root, rock or through a rut let off of the front brake completely until past the obstacle. Watch similarly for holes or short off camber sections which also slope sharply left or right. A tire which is almost sliding from the braking force may wash out quickly on an off camber section. Whether front or rear an off camber section may call for reduced braking, or sometimes no brakes at all for four or five feet, while you roll across it. Here in the South East many steep hills have rain ruts nearest the bottom. Sometimes the best way to handle them is to keep speed very low approaching the rough spot then let go and ride past it then if necessary brake again. If you panic while going down a very steep section do not attempt to drag your feet or put down your feet and stay on the bicycle. If you feel you can not ride down a hill you have already started down then get off of the bike. Do not get off by putting your feet down and staying straddle the top tube. This can be very painful if you are not able to stand easily. Get off the low side of the bike. Unclip one foot and step off the rear of the bike as you unclip the other foot. Turn your bike to one side and as the bike goes out from under you, lock the brakes and maybe you and the bicycle will stop. If you are on a hill which angles to the left or right the "low side" will be the up-hill side of the bike. Keep in mind however it is possible to ride down a grade so steep you literally can not walk down it or even stand up on it. If you follow another rider down such a grade and it is not in your ability to ride it you can get into trouble quick. You get to be a good rider by riding right on the edge of your ability and at times over stepping it a little. You want to do this without getting hurt and without hurting your bicycle. Riding down steep grades requires over coming fear for some people, but it also requires skill and common sense for all people.
Obstacles In The Trail
There are many different obstacles which may be in the trail. Most mountain bike trails are not just smooth pathways through the hills and hollers. Horse trails, jeep roads, skidder roads, ORV trails and hiking trails are never free of obstacles. There are always roots, rocks, logs, ruts, ditches, mud holes, sandy spots, bridges, drops and ledges in the path you want to ride. Part of the challenge is to learn to ride over or through many of these obstacles. Different obstacles naturally require different techniques and skills. Probably the most basic and most necessary skill is the wheelie. I am not talking about riding down the trail on the rear wheel either. Just pulling the front wheel up enough to help it over obstacles. Lifting it enough to get it over a root or small log across the trail. Once the front wheel is across it is easy to make the rear wheel follow. The simplest method of lifting the front wheel as a low speed maneuver is as follows:
Only experience will let you know how fast to go to do this maneuver. Start slow and easy. If you pull too hard and apply too much pedal pressure you will go over backward. Practice on something soft which will not wreck you if your front wheel comes down on it. Timing is everything. If you are going across something such as a 5 or 6 inch log it is easy to get your rear wheel to follow. When you have gotten the front wheel across and it is settled down on to good dirt, once again lean forward and put some weight on the bars. This will un-weight the rear wheel and it will easily bump and roll across the obstacle. You will soon learn you can help the rear over some things by applying a little pedal pressure at the exact moment the rear tire touches the log or other obstacle. This will lift the rear tire up and over many things. Or out of a rut you may have jumped with the front tire. When you have this move down pat, add to it by rotating the pedals backward a little as soon as the front wheel gets over the obstacle. This is to prevent the keep the pedal from hitting the obstacle so rotate it above level. Maybe to the two o'clock position. This will put your pedals in the power-stroke if needed. Keep in mind this is a low speed maneuver. It will get you over many small logs, roots or rocks in the trail. It will help you mount ledges in the trail. Bridges on some of the trails I have ridden have to be mounted this way. For some reason, maybe easy construction, they were built 6 to 12 inches above the surface of the approaching trail. This is basically how one would ride up a short set of stairs. It will get you across narrow ruts across the trail. A modification of this method is what is used to ride down a drop that may be soft in the bottom of have a scotch at the bottom which might stop the front wheel. Pull the front wheel up just before it drops over the edge of the drop. This is a little more advanced, but is a necessary move to ride down some things. It is a bad feeling to ride down a 18 inch drop and feel your front wheel stop. What you are doing is flying the front wheel over and riding down the drop on the rear only. In the South East many ditches have mud in the bottom of them which will suck a front tire down and stop it cold. If you wheelie the front tire across the rear can roll through them. If you can't do this maneuver practice it on a soft surface and over something such as a rolled up rug until you know your front tire is not touching it when it goes over it.
There is another wheel lifting technique for higher speed. It is simpler but does not lift the front wheel as high. Stand with pedals level and knees bent. With a firm grip on the handlebars, press down quickly and lift the front of the bike with a quick movement upward. Speed is too great for pedal pressure to help lift the bike. The bent knees will allow the rear tire to kick the back of the bike up and over the large stick or small rut in the trail. You will learn to shift body weight between the time the front tire clears the obstacle and the rear gets to it. This maneuver is used often on fast fire roads or jeep roads. They are often straight and smooth enough for fast downhill rides, but have problems which have to be overcome for a good ride. After you have this maneuver perfected so that it feels natural to you, learn to lift up on both pedals as the front wheel comes up. This is sort of a weak bunny hop. It lightens the rear wheel even more and maybe even lifts it from the ground. Either way it makes crossing small bumps in the trail smoother. The bump may be a rain rut, a three inch high stick, rock, or root. There is a saying I quote often, "Timing is everything." It is quite obvious that if your timing is off you will not make either wheel lifting technique work. What may not be obvious is that if your timing is off you may end up with a flat tire or a bent rim.
Most of the places you ride will not require riding across streams. Many of the horse trails that I used to ride had stream crossings. Some of them were quite wide. None of them were deep enough to damage a bicycle. I guess it goes without saying riding your bicycle through deep water is not good for it. Streams are unique in that they offer several challenges. The first one is usually riding down into the stream. Many of them have steep banks which present a challenge. Riding off a steep stream bank requires that almost all of your weight be transferred off of the front wheel. Once down the stream weight must be quickly equalized between front and rear for control and traction. I almost always stand when crossing streams. If the stream bottom is covered with rocks, loose or otherwise, standing allows better bike control. If your tire is deflected by a rock or other submerged object, you will have to use body english to keep riding. This can not be applied seated. Some streams have rocks or other obstacles on the bottom which require lightening the front end of the bike until it is over them. You must also be careful not to apply too much pressure on the pedals as the bottom of many streams is slick and the rear wheel can spin quickly. Exiting the stream on the far bank can also require special care on some streams. Once you get your front wheel out of the stream you may have to transfer most of your weight to the rear for traction if you have to climb out of the stream. Caution, knowing you ability and not riding above it are the key factors here.
Fast Downhill Runs
After the new rider has been riding for a while, he or she usually starts to descend hills a little faster. There are some very basic techniques which make descents safer and more controllable. A full suspension bike, front and rear, is basically more controllable than a hardtail bike. most beginners won't be riding full suspension bikes. The big difference in the way you ride each type of bike is that the rider can stay seated more on a full suspension bike. The basic techniques apply to both type of bikes. If the trail is very rough you will have to stand on the pedals. Put the pedals horizontal, not one of them at the bottom. The bike can not be controlled very well with all of your weight on one pedal on one side of the bike. With the pedals parallel to the ground, stand enough to unweight the saddle. Keep your knees bent to absorb the bumps. Slide back a little so you can grip both sides of the saddle with the insides of your thighs. It is necessary to clamp the saddle with your thighs to keep the bike from bouncing too much on the bumps. If the bike is loose to just jump around on the bumps it is difficult to control. By holding the saddle with you legs you can keep it in contact with the ground more. You may be just barely off of the saddle or may be several inches off of it. Use which ever position feels best to you. I like to stay just barely off of the saddle so I can sit easily for smooth sections then easily unweight the saddle when I want to. I bend slightly forward at the waist so that my elbows will be bent slightly to absorb shock being transmitted by the bars. Hold the bars with your thumb and one or two fingers and the other fingers are used for brakes. If you have just climbed a difficult hill to get to the top of the down hill ride, you may want to shift off of the inner chain ring. When a bike is on the smallest sprocket in front the chain is close to the chain stay and will slap it harder and more often on bumps in the trail. If you are going to go very fast, you need to know the trail, watch for traffic, know your bike, and ride within your ability.
Being sure you ride safely is your responsibility not mine.
A careful rider has fun. A careless rider gets hurt, which is no fun.
These riding tips suit my style. They
may not suit the riding style of everyone. They are not meant to
be absolute, but are general. What works for one person will not
work for another.
Written by: Aaron Bruce
May not be reproduced without permission
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