DIY Mountain Bike Skills Session
Let’s face it, most of us don’t get out on the trails as much as we’d like. While we’d love to be mountain biking, our general weekday rides (if you get them) are more likely to be spent on the road or cycle path getting to work.
Hit the dirt on the weekend, and even if the fitness is there, your skill level may be left wanting. If you’d prefer to be surfing the dirt rather than eating it, here are a bunch of skills that you can brush up whilst commuting. Don’t just pedal along and daydream, get animated and play around on your MTB. You’ll get a more comprehensive core workout, develop your skills base and feel like a kid on a BMX again!
Before you attempt anything that’s even remotely fancy, you need to train yourself to assume a proactive stance on the bike. Sure you can just sit there and plod from point A to B, but whenever you want to actually do something – be it hopping a stick or turning a corner – make sure you get off your backside. Stand with your pedals level, bend your elbows so they stick out and lower your torso so that your weight is centred over the bike. Keep your arms loose and relaxed. This ‘active’ position readies you for anything the trail (or cycle path) can throw at you. It may sound like such a simple thing but it’s easily forgotten—think about it, practise it and you’ll be less likely to slip back into old habits.
Aggressive cornering (especially on flat or off-camber turns) requires you to move your body independently from the bike. In basic terms, you want to lean the bike while keeping your body more upright. This action places your weight on the outside pedal and helps to drive the side knobs into the ground. All good and well but many riders struggle to free themselves from the bike. Play around and try leaning the bike as far as you can to the side while keeping your body upright—as if you were going to drag the bars on the ground. Do it properly and the saddle will be next to your hips, not under your bum. Learning to free yourself from the bike will help you to become a more active rider and you can do it anywhere.
Practise hopping obstacles in safer and less intimidating situations. Pick a crack in the pavement and treat it as if it were a rock or root in the trail. At lower speeds you can hop the front wheel first, then the back wheel in two separate actions. Start with that and get used to timing it so each tyre clears the crack. As you improve, vary the speed and continue to work on the front then rear action, and timing. The better you get, the faster you can go and eventually the two-part lift should meld into one smooth motion. Also practise getting both wheels up simultaneously in a bunny-hop. The front/rear action is better on the trail as it affords more control at lower speeds but it’s good to have both techniques at your disposal. Expand these techniques by applying them to clear real obstacles such as potholes or speed bumps.
If you’ve got your bunny hop dialled, get creative with it. Use a line on the path or road as a guide. Ride alongside the line and as you pull up for your bunny hop, lunge to the side and try to make your tyres clear the line. On the trail this translates well for clearing ruts or even some diagonal tree roots. Also try the same move with more of a front then rear movement, again hopping from one side to the other.
Don’t just stop; see how hard you can stop. Get more familiar with your brakes and the brake bias that provides the best balance of control and stopping power. Try using the back brake only (trust me, it won’t stop you in a hurry). Then try the front brake only. Shift your weight back on the bike as you get more comfortable with hard application of the front brake. For straight-line stopping, in most situations you’ll do best with around 80% of your effort directed towards the front brake and 20% on the rear. Don’t just shift your weight back, get low over the bike, drop your heels and put your weight into the pedals. Aim to stop as fast as possible without skidding.
Wheelie practice is a great way to entertain yourself whilst commuting. Find a gentle uphill and select a gear that’s low enough to promote good acceleration but not so low that you run out of puff instantly. Place your sit bones towards the back of the saddle and minimise the weight going through your hands—doing this makes the front end want to lift without needing to yank up on the bars. Put in a punchy pedal stroke and if you’re doing it right, the front wheel should pop up off the ground. Now work with it until you get comfortable. Practise endlessly and you’ll find the balance point with your bodyweight that lets the wheel stay aloft without mad pedalling. Always hold a finger over the rear brake; if you start to go over backwards, grabbing the brake will plant the front wheel back on the ground. Lightly dragging the back brake can assist and it’s always best to do this with flat pedals rather than clip-ins.
Once you’ve mastered finding the balance point on your pedalling wheelie, aim to graduate to a coaster or manual. It’s basically a wheelie that’s instigated and maintained without pedalling—not at all easy but something to shoot for. Lift the wheel with a rearward lunge and pushing forward with your feet. Note that it’s a rearward throw of your torso; you don’t just yank up on the bars. The rearward shift places your weight over or behind the back wheel which in turn keeps the front aloft—find your balance point and roll with it as long as you can. Again, practise with flat pedals to avoid potential pain.
Use quiet road crossings to practice gutter hopping. The easier option is to approach at lower speed and use a pedal stroke to pop the front wheel up—refer to the basic wheelie technique. Using a gutter forces you to work on the timing but only bother with the move once you’re competent at getting the front wheel high enough. Once the front wheel is up, unweight the rear wheel to let it roll up without stopping or denting the rim. Progress to lifting the back wheel with a quick kick up of your heels. More advanced riders can approach at speed, use the manual wheelie to get the front up and transfer the weight forward hop the back up.
So your local trail network isn’t blessed with a skills area loaded with North Shore skinnies? No biggie, there’s probably many kilometres of skinnies in your suburban streets. Best of all they aren’t too intimidating, so you can concentrate more on the skills rather than tensing up in fear of failure. Straight gutters are best to begin with but there’s no reason not to get tricky with corners and dodging power poles as you progress. The key is to stay relaxed and look ahead. Focus on a point that’s around five metres up the skinny—focus immediately in front of your wheel and you’re sure to veer off line. Try it pedalling, try coasting, stick your knees out for balance; just try different techniques to see what works for you.
Don’t just hop off at gates like these, use them as a physical challenge. Stay on your bike and go super slow, turn as much as you can, hop the bike around if you can. If all else fails you can always grab a railing and hop off in defeat. As silly as these efforts can be, it’ll develop your balance and bike handling skills, so you’ll be skipping around the rocks like a trials rider on your next trail ride.
Use traffic lights and stop signs to your advantage and work on your track stands. It’s best attempted on a gentle uphill slope. Select a gear that gives you something to push against and roll to a stop, facing uphill. Let the bike roll back slightly, then push it forward with your pedals. Gently rock the bike back and forth with this action to assist with the balancing act. It usually helps to turn the bars. When there’s no uphill, you can turn the bars to point yourself up towards the crown of the road and use that to rock the bike to-and-fro. If you’re not comfortable with standstills, practise on a gentle grassy slope with flat pedals and start by simply trying to go as slow as possible whilst still pedalling. Using your brakes can also assist and give you something to balance against.
Employ all of your newly developed skills by finding improvised obstacles. Be sensible about it and don’t do anything that’s likely to damage public amenities but you’ll probably find plenty of obstacles. Hop up using your wheelie technique, time the rear wheel lift that you originally honed on the basic gutter hop, then wheelie off the end to practise your low-speed drop-off technique. Pick a number of challenges on route and try to clear them with greater finesse as you improve—it’s a sure-fire way to spice up an otherwise boring commute.