How to Jump
The ability to jump is not reserved for the young and the crazy. In fact there’s no ‘craziness’ about it—it’s a skill that can be learnt by anyone, irrespective of age.
Catching air can be fun but it’s not just about showboating at the local jump park. On the trail it be used to clear a rock garden or smooth out a momentum-killing washaway. Whatever the motivation, the same basic skill-set is required and it can be learnt.
There’s one thing that we’ll reiterate throughout this piece, as it is absolutely vital; confidence is the key! To soar gracefully through the air you need to be relaxed and to relax you need to be confident. How do you gain confidence when attempting something that can appear rather intimidating? Well it’s all about the build-up. You don’t order confidence online or pick it up at the chemist; it’s something you develop over time and it’s crucial that you start with baby-steps. Attempt to go too big too soon and you scare yourself—this will ruin your confidence and you’ll go backwards.
Before you start to play around with getting airborne, it’s important to have the basic skills in place. You should be able to ride in the ‘attack position’; that’s standing and poised centrally over the bike with bent arms and legs. You also need to be comfortable with weight transfer and be able to shift your body around fluidly on the bike (pump tracks are great for polishing these skills). If you are happy with these fundamental skills, then you’re good to go and step it up a notch.
Jumps range from gently sloping mounds of dirt through to near vertical launch ramps that’ll just about send you into orbit. As confidence building is the goal, it’s much better to start at the benign end of the scale. Look for a jump with a gentle upslope that’s roughly equal to or a bit longer than your wheelbase. Avoid jumps with a distinct lip at the top, as they can kick you skywards. The lead up should be straight and wide with nothing to distract you from the task ahead.
When looking for a safe beginners’ jump, you also need to consider the landing. If the jump is low, you mightn’t need a specific landing area; just drop back to level ground. Alternately, table-tops can be great to get started on. With a table-top you’ll have an upslope with a sizable flat portion on top, then a long and gradual downslope on the opposite side. To begin with you can land on the raised ‘table’ portion—this provides a smoother landing as you won’t drop as far.
A table-top also provides the opportunity to progress safely with the end-goal being to clear the flat top and land on the opposing downslope. Fully clearing a table-top is just like clearing a jump that has separate take-off and landing points, it’s just nowhere near as intimidating. You may encounter a natural table-top on the trail but a BMX track can be a better place to practise. If you’re lucky enough to have a big backyard, why not build your own? While you’re at it you can put in a mini pump track!
Also consider your bike setup. Whatever you ride, dropping your saddle provides greater freedom to move the bike around and you’ll be less likely to cripple yourself on the saddle when landing. Riding a dually will give you a broader safety margin on the landing but you’ll have to work harder to get the same amount of air. Hardtails are less forgiving but will teach you better technique. In the end it’s good to play around on both but ride whatever’s in your bike stable. Some feel it’s best to learn with flat pedals as it promotes better technique; fair enough I say but in the end you should use the system that you’re most comfortable with. In the end you’ll be more confident if you’re comfortable with your bike set-up.
Now you’re ready to go, so let’s break the sequence up into three parts.
Looking to Launch
Get up to speed and coast up to the jump. You should have your pedals level with your preferred foot forward (often referred to as your chocolate foot). To catch some decent air off a fairly innocuous take-off ramp, you’ll need to ‘pump’ the face of the jump. Lower your torso over the bike by bending your arms and legs—do this just prior to rolling up the slope.
As the bike rolls up the face, recoil with your legs and push against the g-forces that are driving your tyres into the dirt. This recoil should immediately follow the initial crouching move. The two movements should come together as one fluid action that boosts you skywards as you leave the lip of the jump; it’s not unlike jumping on a trampoline.
Within this simple act there are at least 1,010 variables. The more you exaggerate the squat-down, spring-back move, higher you will go. What comes with practice is a better awareness of just how high and far you’ll fly for a given amount of ‘pump’. You also learn to read the jump and gauge the optimal approach speed. On this topic its worth mentioning that more speed isn’t necessary the answer if you are coming up short on a jump. It’s better to work on your technique; relax and pump the face to get more height and distance. With experience you’ll know just what’s required to hit the desired landing mark. When you’re learning the ropes, it’s best not to worry about pinpoint accuracy when landing, which is why table-tops are ideal.
Don’t tense up as you hit the jump. Doing so will mess with the next phase and you’ll be doing a ‘dead sailor’. By the time you reach the lip of the launch-pad, you should be looking at the landing or beyond—don’t start focusing on whatever it is that you’re trying to clear. We all tend to tense up if we’re nervous, so don’t do a jump that really scares you. Find an easier jump and practise until it’s second nature, then return to the more challenging jump with renewed confidence.
Stay loose and relaxed in the air. Bend your knees to pull the bike up towards your body—this will give you added height. If you are relaxed you will remain balanced and centred over the bike in flight. Start with small jumps that don’t intimidate; this keeps the fear low and the fun factor high. As you incrementally step up to bigger jumps, you’ll be spending more time airborne with more time to tense up. The best solution is to do something while you are up there; tweak the bars to the side a little or wave to the crowd! Doing something in the air keeps your mind focused on something other than the gaping canyon beneath your wheels, and that’s a good thing.
Engage Landing Gear
If you’re jumping to the top of a table-top or landing on flat ground after launching off a small ramp, it’s best to land rear wheel first. Let your legs straighten so the rear wheel touches down, then absorb the landing with your arms and legs. The action is the same as landing rear wheel first when you launch off a drop.
As you go higher and further, you’ll need to look for a transition or down-ramp to land on. If you’re practising on a table-top, the slope on the opposing side is the down-ramp. With a double jump, the second mound forms the landing spot. In either case, the downward slope smooths the landing out and helps you regain some of the speed that was lost whilst hanging around in the air showboating.
When landing on a downslope, you no longer want to land rear wheel first, in fact this is a bad thing. Landing the back wheel first on the transition will make your front wheel slap down hard and leads to a messy landing. Aim to touch down with both wheels at the same time on the downslope or the front wheel just before the rear. In flight you had the bike tucked up towards your body with bent knees; to land you just need to straighten your legs and you’ll touchdown—with practice this will allow you to select the landing point.
As you land, absorb any impact by compressing down into the bike. No matter how much travel you’ve got, your arms and legs will always be the best suspension. Steep downslopes lead to smoother landings and greater speed but require more skill and precision to hit. Long and gradual landing slopes are easy to hit but leave you with more impact to absorb.
Jumping requires skill but when compared to riding slippery tree roots or mono-hoping over a log, jumping is a fairly easy thing to do. Learning to jump is very much a mind game and it’s very easy to psych yourself out, so take our advice and start small. Keep the confidence riding high and work at it. With practice anyone can learn to jump!