Skills Sharing - What XC can learn from DH

Downhill, cross-country, trials, gravity enduro… our sport continues to diverge into various niches. Michael Hanslip explains how dabbling in the gravity-based aspects our sport can improve your riding experience.

Skiing has a lot in common with mountain biking. Both skiers and mountain bikers rely on mountains to provide the terrain for their respective sports—often the same mountains in opposite seasons. Early on there was simply skiing, but in the past century different kinds of skiing evolved, each with its own gear and devotees.

These days, cross-country skiing is an entirely different activity to downhill skiing and there are numerous differences within the two types as well.

So too in mountain biking. Cross-country can refer to the competition side of things but more often it’s a social activity conducted amongst friends; it’s basically trail riding and it’s what the majority of Mountain Biking Australia readers do. Many cross-country riders look at the downhill side of our sport with dismay—to them it seems like a completely different sport and one for young, crazy people. Yet there is a common history, a lot of equipment crossover and we all have to ride down the hill at some point; the skill of descending is definitely shared. As recently as the mid ’90s the difference between an XC bike and a DH bike was as simple as the tyre selection. Look back even further to the origins of mountain biking in the 70s and you’ll find that the pioneers of the sport in California were riding down much more than they rode up.

Downhill racers have long honed their early season fitness with cross-country competition, and they often do really, really well at it. At this year’s National Championships, Jared Graves (world four-cross champion and DH supremo) not only got a top-10 finish in the XC, but he did so merely hours prior to winning the qualifying session for the DH. Going in the other direction, former XC-pro Paul Rowney won the Masters DH title. So let’s take a closer look at some of the cross-discipline exchange in equipment and skills, and hopefully illustrate to the die-hard XC crowd why it pays to have an open mind to every aspect of our sport.

Shared Equipment

Your typical 100mm travel cross-country bike is light and can be pedalled uphill with relative ease. On the flipside, they can also be piloted downhill with a good deal of speed. Much of their descending prowess comes thanks to a few things borrowed from the gravity-oriented side of the sport. Disc brakes are the number-one technology taken from DH. Before disc brakes, we all used V-brakes or cantilevers. If you have never tried these older brakes, consider yourself lucky—disc brakes are a very good thing.

Suspension; yep, you can thank the downhillers for that too. As little as 80mm of travel was classed as a serious DH fork in the early ’90s and XC riders were still debating whether suspension compromised your pedalling efficiency too much. Nowadays an XC dually has at least 100mm of travel at both ends and we are greatly indebted to the downhillers for the comfort and control that good suspension provides.

The current trend towards wider stuff is also coming from downhill – specifically wider bars, wider rims and wider tyres. Wider bars coupled with a shorter stem preserve bike fit while yielding better control. Not so long ago every mountain bike had 580mm-wide bars. Now the standard is around 100mm wider than this and I know plenty of guys riding XC with 710 to 740mm-wide bars. So long as you are not routinely riding through very narrow gaps, wider bars can be a real winner. I for one will never go back to sub-700mm handlebars.

For cross-country, wider rims and tyres are both helpful in their own right. Running a really wide rim gives your regular 2.1-inch tyre a new shape with a much more effective footprint. It also offers better support for the tyre sidewalls and makes them less likely to squirm and roll around—a handy thing when running XC tyres with very light and flexible casing. As a side benefit, the reduction in squirm, allows you to run lower air pressures to gain better traction and comfort. Bigger bag tyres may add weight but they can also float across soft terrain (think of a fatbike) and the gains in traction will have you shredding the rougher sections with added confidence.

Now, combine wide XC tyres with broader rims and you may be surprised by how well they roll—this isn’t imagined. With a larger air volume and better sidewall support, there is less energy-robbing distortion in the tyre casing; this lowers rolling resistance, especially when riding on the dirt.

Running a single chainring is ubiquitous in DH, but only just catching on in XC circles. I remember that Adam Craig had a single ring on his XC bike at the Worlds in 2009 (at Mt Stromlo) but he was the only one. Now we have a range of XC-oriented guides designed to keep the chain on as well as SRAM’s single-ring specific XX1 drivechain. A well-designed single-ring drivechain is less prone to chain-loss and shifting with the front derailleur has long been problematic. As long as the total gear range is sufficient for your local trails, a single-ring setup can be more efficient, reliable and durable for XC and trail riding applications.

From XC to DH

The flow of ideas has not been one way; the DH guys have borrowed from the XC side of things too. Cross-country bikes borrowed carbon frame technology from road cycling. Downhill manufacturers got experience building carbon XC bikes before taking the plunge into carbon for DH. This has proven to be a solid option for performance, durability and longevity.

Tubeless setups are pretty much the norm now in cross-country circles but it’s also starting gain a little more acceptance within the pro-downhill ranks. The main issue for the DH crew has been ‘burping’ – where the tyre bead momentarily unlocks and allows air pressure escape – but this is becoming less of an issue as tubeless tyre and rim designs improve. Tubeless systems offer the same advantages for DH as they do for XC; it’s potentially lighter, allows for lower tyre pressures for improved traction without the risk of pinch flats and it lowers rolling resistance.

Air sprung suspension is also becoming more prevalent in DH. Coil springs are arguably better for DH but air springs are so easily changed to suit the track that there is a clear advantage, especially for non-factory riders. Fox has announced an air-sprung ‘40’ DH fork for 2014 while SRAM has had their Vivid Air shock and air-sprung Boxxer World Cup fork for a few seasons now. Newcomer DVO will also be offering their air-sprung Emerald DH fork soon.

So now, after years of getting heavier with every generation, downhill bikes are actually getting lighter for a change. Carbon frames, air springs and tubeless tyres all help, but we are also seeing lighter tyres, rims, bars and other components (often thanks to the use of carbon).

Crossing Over

That covers the equipment, but what about the riding itself? Are there things that cross-country and trail riders can learn from the downhill side?

The answer to that is unequivocally yes! If you have ever ridden in one of the very popular 100km marathons, you cannot help but notice that there are a lot of entrants who have good speed on the fire trails but then slow down markedly in the singletrack. There are a lot of enthusiastic riders around who would benefit from learning how to ride their bike better. Going back to the skiing analogy, this is one area where mountain biking seems to differ. Where people are all for ski lessons, many seem resistant to the idea of taking MTB skills lessons

Gravity assisted DH riding great for skills development. When you don’t have to pedal back up the hill, you can ride for hours without getting excessively tired. As a result, you can learn a lot about cornering and braking in a short space of time. Additionally, riding a bike with fat tyres and loads of suspension travel instils a great deal of confidence. The broader margin for error means you are more likely to attempt obstacles, lines or jumps that you’d never attempt on an XC bike.

The idea that you can actually expand your skills base by riding a bike that makes the trail ‘easier’ flies in the face of regular opinion. Many feel that ‘dumbing down’ the trail with lots of suspension travel (or to a lesser extent with bigger wheels) makes riders lazy and dulls the learning curve. I’d argue that it actually works the opposite way in a lot of cases. Sure, riding a fully-rigid single speed may provide a skilled rider with a wake-up call, forcing them to concentrate more on line choice and body english. However, for an intermediate-level rider, this sort of ‘bike handicapping’ can stunt confidence, and a lack of confidence will make it harder to reach your potential.

Learn to ride a challenging or intimidating line, jump or drop with the added safety buffer of a long-travel dually. Once you’ve nailed the line smoothly and repeated it a number of times, any fear will rapidly diminish—you’ll look at the trail in a very different light. Return to your regular XC bike and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to ride the same line without the travel but with your newfound confidence on board. A track can go from impossible to routine via this straightforward process. By mixing it up and riding a range of different MTB disciplines, you’ll gain a well-rounded skillset and become a more versatile rider.

Doing a stint of downhill riding will allow you to watch and learn important skills from others. Standing during a descent is a specific habit that many need to acquire. Far too often I see people riding down technical, steep slopes whilst seated. It is almost impossible to pedal when seated on a DH bike because of the low seat height and the really slack frame geometry. The recent trend for dropper-posts on trail and XC-oriented bikes emphasises this too; you need to be standing up to negotiate descents at speed.

Riding a gravity oriented bike with laid-back frame geometry also forces you to stand up and keep your weight centred on the bike—something that’s hard to teach even after a month of tuition on an XC bike. After a day of riding DH, your fingers will ache if you are leaning back too much and away from the slope. Staying centred on the bike and keeping downwards pressure on the grips lets you eek traction and control from that front wheel – a vital skill if you want to corner with greater confidence.

Pumping the bike for speed is another essential skill. In essence, pumping is pushing the bike down and forward to milk added momentum from every little down-slope on the trail, but at the same time sucking up and absorbing every upslope to maintain your speed. The skill provides free speed in cross-country just it does in DH. In this instance it’s actually easier to learn on a short-travel XC bike or hardtail, so go to it. The best way to learn is on a purpose-built pump track; more and more of these are appearing at trailheads or you could go crazy and build your own backyard pump track! Fifteen minutes on one will leave you with a goofy big grin on your face while you collapse on the ground in utter exhaustion—it is seriously good aerobic exercise!

The main thing that the DH fraternity take from the XC crowd is the importance and development of awesome fitness. Three minutes going flat-out in a DH race is totally lung-busting and the overall fitness gained from regular XC riding is always going to help. Further to this, general trail riding helps to bolster good all-round skills, as you are more likely to be riding unfamiliar trails and tackling obstacles sight unseen (as opposed to DH which tends to be repetitive runs on a known course).

Interestingly, with the advent of ‘gravity enduro’ we are now seeing events that combine the skill and precision of downhill with the fitness and endurance of cross-country. The popularity of these events is only likely to increase.

Expand your Skills

The take-away lesson is that the lycra-clad XC clan can learn a lot from gravity-oriented riders and vice versa. Two years ago I took the plunge and bought myself a proper downhill bike—I’ve since spent nearly 400 hours on it and my skills base is far greater as a result. While this is a great idea, it is probably an unrealistic proposition for most. In addition to being a costly, a big gravity rig is likely to gather dust unless you’ve got access to a chairlift, or friends who regularly do shuttle runs. It also helps to have suitably challenging terrain close by, as riding a heavy DH rig is a little pointless on flat and flowy XC trails.

As an alternative, you could consider regular holidays to places such as Mt Buller, Thredbo, Queenstown, Whistler or the European Alps. These venues have hire bikes available with lift access to make the whole experience a breeze. It’s a good way of getting a few days on a proper DH bike but it’s probably not the sort if thing that you’ll be able to swing too often if you lead a busy life with family and work.

Another good and probably a more realistic option is to add to a long-travel trail or ‘all-mountain’ bike to your stable—something with 140 to 180mm of travel. Sure, this is also a tall order financially but these bikes are tremendously practical and could see very regular use. The modern dropper-post equipped all-mountain bike climbs with reasonable efficiency and can be ridden all day—uphill and down. When it comes to steep, technical and challenging terrain, they instil high levels of confidence and allow you to push your boundaries in a similar manner to a DH bike.

Protective clothing can be as helpful in increasing confidence as a long-travel bike, especially the full-face helmet. Wearing body armour transforms a ride-ending crash into an embarrassing incident that you laugh about shortly after. I know of several skilled riders who learn to ride hard lines whilst aboard long-travel bikes and kitted out in armour. Later, once they have the line dialled, they’ll confidently tackle the same bit of trail on their XC bike in lycra.

As much as it might seem unimportant, running a low seat height helps a lot too. One of the key skills I teach novice riders is the separation of bike and body. You to ride well, you need to be able to move fore and aft, up and down, left and right in relation to the bike, often all at once. Getting the seat out of the way increases the potential range of motion. To corner well requires leaning the bike over, but not the rider. This is much easier with the seat out of the way. Landing jumps is also much safer and easier with the seat lowered.

Finally, go wide. Wider bars increase control and force you to keep more weight on that front tyre during descents, further enhancing control and traction. Wider rims open up the tyre shape, adding stability and providing more traction without adding much (if any) weight. Wider tyres grab better on loose ground. I have had many intermediate-level skills students who were concerned about losing speed with a fat, big-knob tyre. Yes, they tend to be slower on the road, but if you ever worry about traction and speed in the singletrack or on descents, this swap should more than compensate. Eventually, once you’ve developed a well-rounded set of speed skills, you’ll be able to run ‘fast’ tyres and actually be fast.

Mutual Respect

On the industry side of mountain biking, downhill and cross-country are seldom as separate as the two seem to be out on the trails. The engineer that developed the 100mm travel XC bike will probably be designing the 200mm travel DH bike too, and it’s also likely that he or she will be employing the same suspension system in both applications. Similar things happen with the components; from pedals to hubs and from tyres to handlebars. Sometimes if we want to know what the next big thing to come to XC is, we only have to look at DH (occasionally it goes the other way too).

Investing some time on the downhill side of the sport will benefit any XC rider. If the steepest bits of your local trails find you fighting for control, consider how much easier it will seem after you spend a couple of days on much steeper tracks on a long-travel bike in armour. If you are hesitant to let the bike run through a section of tree roots, I promise you won’t even notice them after some time riding DH in the trees. Most of the terrain my students worry about is well within the boundaries for their XC bike, it is only inexperience and fear that holds them back. You need not become a downhiller to learn from them.

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