In many sports, if you do things wrong, you’ll simply plateau within your skill level, and maybe suck for a while – that’s OK! So what if you’re not the star player on your beer league softball team or you spend more time looking for golf balls in the woods? No biggie; it’s just a game.
However, with sports like mountain biking, there is a pretty good chance of getting injured if you make it a habit to do things wrong. Proper technique is key to avoiding injury. Proper technique also means more control, which directly affects safety, efficiency, and speed. It’s all about the human body working optimally, in an athletic sense, with the way the bicycle was designed to work.
There are many reasons why improper techniques and bad habits develop for riders. Often, the way we do things —movement, vision, etc. — are typical movement habits that we’ve had success with in other athletic activities. Good technique is often counterintuitive to what most riders believe, as well as what is perpetuated around riding circles and the internet. In fact, even high-level riders often aren’t aware of what they are actually doing on the bike (bad advice from “good” riders is incredibly common).
But alas, the mountain biker’s deadliest sin: leaning back when things get steep and scary. If you haven’t heard that you need to “lean back” on drop-offs, steep downhills, etc., don’t worry, you will. It’s one of the oldest tips in mountain biking. Supposedly, you need to lean back so that you don’t fly over the handlebars on the steeps, right? Well, I’m here to tell you that one of the best ways to end up going over the bars is to get in the habit of leaning back when things get steep.
Here’s how it works:
When we lean back, all of your weight is over the rear wheel. This means there’s no weight on the front wheel. Because the front wheel is weightless, it will easily roll up and over obstacles, through transitions, etc. So, when we hit the transition from steep to level at the bottom of the creek bed, or the big log or rock on the steep downhill, our front wheel will roll right through or over. This works sometimes; however, this technique will catch up to you sooner or later – and probably in a bad way!
There’s a lot more to successfully navigating tricky routes besides getting the front wheel to safety. When we lean back, issues arise because of what happens to our rear wheel and our body mass. Because all of our weight is on the rear wheel, all of our force is pushing it into the ground. Because of this, the rear wheel is not going to want to roll up and over obstacles or through transitions. In fact, it will start to get “hung up,” stall or stop, when it meets an obstacle. However, because of gravity and inertia, our body mass will continue to move forward, even though the bike is now stalled. And that’s when it happens! Our weight and mass end up thrown forward onto the bars and front wheel. Now, the front wheel won’t roll over obstacles — it will stop — and we’re taking a painful trip over the bars. By leaning back, we actually ended up getting thrown forward. Classic mistake. In this situation, even if we are able to keep from going over the bars — by sheer strength, luck, whatever — we will have killed our momentum and speed, and wasted a ton of energy fighting our body mass and inertia.
Another problem we run into when we lean back is running out of range of motion (ROM) in our limbs. ROM in our limbs is the natural suspension for our core and head. Maintaining a balanced and stable core and head is essential to effective movement, balance, vision, and more – all very important elements when riding a mountain bike in nasty conditions. When we lean back and our arms and legs are straight (very little ROM), we stand a much greater chance of getting jarred and thrown off balance; any bit of movement in the bike — side to side, sliding, bouncing, falling away from us; like on a drop-off — will be directly transmitted to our core and head. This is bad because we’ve given up stability and balance, and our bodies will always need to fight to right the ship before we can be effective with any movement. In my instruction clinics, I use the example of having an imaginary glass of water on our heads as we descend; this glass of water shouldn’t spill or slosh around, it should be calm and smooth. Your glass of water will be long gone if you start leaning back.
When we lean back on the bike, our arms and legs become straight. We cannot allow for our arms to straighten if they are already straight. If we lean back before that drop-off, and then the front wheel has to drop two feet, guess what? We’re going to get pulled two feet forward and down because we had no range of motion left in our arms. Now, our weight ends up on the front wheel, right where we didn’t want it to be, just like the example above. Again, we ended up being pulled forward because we leaned back.
So, what should we do? What is good technique? Well, instead of leaning back on descents, we need to keep our weight and our “line of force” on the bottom bracket of the bike (what your cranks are connected to and rotate around). This means that we aren’t leaning at all. Now, often, even if a good rider is correctly positioned and has proper weight placement over the bottom bracket, it appears as if the rider is “leaning back” because the bike has pivoted and is pitched forward, matching the steepness of the terrain. This is a big reason why riders pass around the advice of leaning back on the steeps: because it looks like the pro rider is leaning back, even though their weight is on the bottom bracket of the bike and they are not leaning back at all. This proper weight placement and line of force allows the bike to pivot around the bottom bracket, allowing both wheels to adequately roll up and over obstacles and not get hung up. This is the way the bike was designed to work. This also means smooth momentum paths for the rider (and, of course the rider’s core and head) and efficiency, instead of being jarred off balance and wasting energy. This means safety, control, and, speed. Essentially, we will no longer be fighting our own mass and the laws of physics.