While riding mountain bikes in technically demanding conditions is by no means easy, if we take the movements of the rider’s body on the bike, along with the mechanics of the bicycle itself, and strip everything down to the most basic elements, the task (or tasks) of riding can usually be seen as quite simple.
Likewise, when riding, if we simply allow our bodies to work the way that they function best, allow our bikes to work the way that they are designed to work, and effectively manage our momentum down the trail instead of forcing things and fighting the laws of physics… Well, most of us would be riding very well!
Riding works like many things in life that at first seem complicated and overwhelming: once we break down the complications and see something at their most fundamental level, things start to make sense.
Unfortunately, a lot of riders complicate things with misinformation and subsequent bad technique. Often, learning to ride the bike properly is as much about un-learning bad habits and “getting out of your own way” as it is about acquiring new skills.
By understanding the way things work (balance) and simply allowing them to do so (with good position on the bike), we’ll be able to use one of our most important tools to its fullest potential.
In this article, we’ll get into how body position on the bike affects our sense of balance and how when we’re in proper position, we can allow this very important sense of balance to shine like a diamond. Also, we’ll see how incorrect bike positioning can render our sense of balance ineffective.
The first thing that I’d like to address is how our sense of balance actually works. Of course, my intent is to relate this information to mountain biking, not to reach the deepest depths and specifics and intricacies of human anatomy and physiology. So, if that’s an argument that you’d like to have, please save it for another time. (Preferably a time when you and I are sitting behind a couple of cold beers that you purchased.)
The first element of our balance system is made up of motor and sensory receptors known as proprioceptors. There are many types of proprioceptors, but basically, the receptors that are afferent (going to the brain) are transmitters within our muscles, joint cavities, tendon/muscle junctures, etc., that sense where our bodies are at in space. Some sense the angle of extension or flexation within our joints, some sense the amount of force or the rate of force being applied in a stretching muscle. The messages that these receptors send, when combined, and “computed,” with the other elements of our balance system by our brain and “reflex centers,” then send out messages to muscles in the body to make adjustments, counteract, readjust, etc, to make sure that the movements of the body are actually effective and controlling the movement of the body in the manner desired. This is obviously an extremely important chunk of riding the bicycle.
The next part of our balance system is the vestibular system that resides in our inner ears. This system senses movements in the forms of acceleration, deceleration, rotational movement, the force of gravity, etc., via the movement (or non-movement) of fluid and gunk in various cavities.
And the third part of balance is our vision. This makes sense because so much of effective balance depends upon determining where our bodies are at in space, and so much of vision is about determining what and where “space” actually is. The vestibular system also monitors head movement to ensure proper vision.
So, what about body position? There are many, many reasons why we need to maintain proper body position on the bike and maintaining proper balance is only one of them. We can’t go into all of them here. I like to say that body position is the “foundation” of riding. Nothing else can be built until the foundation is laid down. And just like building an actual structure, if this foundation is not built properly, you will run into problems later on.
Now here’s where things get really… simple? Yes, simple. When we break things down, the human body, from a motion standpoint, really only performs combinations of a few basic movements. All of these movements originate at our core (trunk of your body–the thing that your arms and legs connect to). In recent years, much of training for athletics has moved from throwing around super heavy weights and getting as “strong” as possible to, first and foremost, focusing on the ability to stabilize the core and effectively use strength, power, and fitness. Without a strong and balanced core from which all body movement originates, you’re dead in the water. (If Lou Ferrigno has crappy balance, he’s going to stink up the local MTB trails because even though he has incredible-hulk-power, he won’t be able to effectively apply it to handling the bike.)
So, we need to maintain a position on the bike that allows our body to maintain balance of the core. (I say, “allow” because we can’t voluntarily control our sense of balance). And this position is what I call the “athletic position of the human body” and it can be seen in the accompanying photo (you will also see this in pretty much all other sports: a tennis player waiting to return a serve, a baseball shortstop, a football linebacker, the list goes on).