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Pushing yourself to improve is one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of mountain biking - there’s no better feeling than cleaning a new technical feature or taking your speed to the next level. With this in mind, we reached out to longtime professional mountain biker and coach Simon Lawton with Fluidride to get some mountain biking tips to help you improve your skills and have more fun out there on the trails. 

Steep descents can draw fear into the hearts and minds of mountain bikers. With the right technique, however, riding steep terrain can be one of the most fun things you can do on a mountain bike. There is, unfortunately, also a lot of misinformation out there, the old adage ‘get your butt back for a steep descent’ is a very dangerous one - follow along and we’ll tell you why, and help teach you the proper way to approach and ride steep descents. 
When riding steep trails, many riders just try to get back on the bike. While you will end up behind your saddle, the bike should move in front of you instead of you moving behind it. When a rider approaches a steep descent behind the bike, their arms are already stretched out. I call this being ‘at the end of your rope’. When the bike tips into the descent, the rider will be pulled forward on the bike by their own extended arms, and their worst fears might be confirmed. When this happens, it can be scary – and that fear typically makes riders ride even further back (flight mechanism) AND tense up (fight mechanism) the next time. It’s a vicious cycle.

When we feel fear, we either tense up, particularly in the upper body (fight), or we retreat (flight) – on a bike this means moving rearward. Both of these are potentially dangerous reactions when on steep terrain. We need to have space to let the arms extend into the descent, which the rider will be unable to do if they start too far rearward or tense up too much. So, what do we need to do?
  1. Move forward and relax. As you approach the edge of a steep descent, you should move forward to create some bend your arms - giving you the ability to extend your arms. This is controlled by your knees - I tell riders to meet the edge of the descent with their knees over their toes.
  2. As the front wheel starts to roll down the descent, you should relax your arms, and allow your bike to roll forward under you. While it might look or feel like you are way back on the bike at the steep point of the descent, you will notice you are actually staying over the bottom bracket. Your bike has essentially tipped forward underneath you.
On a short descent, or what we refer to at Fluidride as a Steep Roll, your arms will only extend one time, coming back over the bike at the base of the roll when you get to flatter ground. On longer descents, each rock, root, bump or any undulation within the descent will bring you back to a neutral position on the bike over the bottom bracket ready to move into the next portion of the hill.

How to Descend On A Mountain Bike (Step By Step):

In the image, I’m moving into a descent. My front wheel is on what I call the ‘horizon line’ which is essentially the beginning of the descent. I’m moving forward toward that horizon line with my knees, not my hips. This will create elbow bend and keep me centered over the bottom bracket (where the cranks attach to the frame).

Here, I’ve started into the descent. After moving forward toward the horizon line and getting a glimpse at the descent, I’ve moved forward a little more at the knees to give myself enough potential arm extension for the descent I’m on. From here I’ll simply relax my arms, allowing them to extend as needed.

As my bike moves down the hill, my arms start to extend. Notice that I’m still over the bottom bracket in this image, and that my arms are more extended than in the image above.

In this frame you can see that my arms are pretty stretched out. I’ve used the elbow bend I had in order to allow this to happen without running out of space. Had I not moved forward at the top of the descent, I’d be pulled forward by this portion of the hill, since I’d be out of room in my arms. Notice that my body mass is still centered over the bottom bracket which will is where I want to be as my bike meets the hole at the bottom of the first part of this descent.

In this frame you can see how the flatter portion of this descent has positioned me right over the center of my bike. This is because I set myself up properly coming into the initial portion of the hill. This descent continues on. Note that I’m essentially ‘back to neutral’ here even though I’m still on the descent. I’ll repeat the same process I’ve just completed for the upcoming portion of this descent.

Common Questions & Concerns for Mountain Biking Steep Terrain

  • I get scared when I approach steep descents. How can I get over this?
    Find a hill you are currently comfortable with, and work on braking with both brakes as you move down the hill. Work on this until you are able to take the descent quite slowly and with control. We often experience subconscious fear as a result of an underlying feeling that we aren’t actually in control. Learning to brake down steep descents will allow you to feel that you are in control, because you will be. When using both brakes I typically tell riders that the front brake gives us about 70% of our stopping power, but only needs to be squeezed about 30% as hard as the rear. We want to keep both wheels rolling while descending - which is typically referred to as brake modulation. Our brakes should be used like a dimmer switch on a light, and not an on/off switch.
  • I sometimes get pulled forward when moving into steep descents. Why is this happening?
    This happens when you are too far back going into the descent, or are too tense due to conscious or subconscious fear. You need to move forward at the knees to create elbow bend, and relax to let your arms extend into the descent.
  • Even when I make it down a steep descent it isn’t always smooth. I feel the rear wheel coming off the ground a lot. What am I doing wrong?
    This also happens frequently as a result of not moving into the descent enough with your knees, or being too tense. This is a slightly less radical version of what is happening when we feel like we are being pulled forward. If your rear wheel lifts off the ground frequently as you descend, it’s likely you need to move forward a little more to create enough arm space to keep the wheel on the ground, or relax a little more to let your arms extend naturally and keep the rear wheel on the ground.
  • I’ve heard about attack position on the internet, should I hold attack position as I approach the descent?
    At Fluidride, we teach a ‘neutral position’ we refer to as Throne Position. This is essentially a standing posture with a straight, but not necessarily upright spine (we have to move forward to meet the bars). You will notice that as I move forward toward the descent, my upper body becomes more parallel with the top of the bike, which is what riders often refer to as Attack Position. The faster I go, the more quickly I’ll move forward which will make the position look more like Attack Position. Even though I end up in Attack Position, it’s important that I’m not already in that position as I approach the descent. Moving forward creates flexion, which then allows for extension (of the arms). This is a dynamic movement, so it’s important that Attack Position is only held briefly as I move through into the descent. This will allow my arms to create extension naturally. If I approach the descent from a distance standing in Attack Position, I won’t create flexion, so I’ll have to push the bars forward in an unnatural way. This will greatly limit my natural extension of the arms and will mean that I’ll be destined to ride these descents slowly and in a non-natural way.
  • How does speed change this technique?
    If you shoot images of me going into this descent at a slow speed and a fast speed, you will see that I move more aggressively forward into the descent the faster I go. Essentially I will look like I am in Attack Position more at the entrance to the hill as I go faster. I recently interviewed a professor who has a PHD in Biomechanics and asked him why as I go faster into a descent I naturally move forward more at the entrance of the hill and why my arms extend so rapidly even without pushing the bars forward. The answer was that “flexion creates extension” so the faster I move forward at the knees, the faster my arms bend, and the faster they, therefore, are able to extend. Each movement we make on the bike affects our next move, and they should all feel natural and not like we are overthinking each movement.

Simon Lawton is the founder and owner of Seattle based Fluidride, and the creator of The Fluidride Method. Simon has been teaching riders for over 20 years. He raced pro Downhill and Enduro for 15 years. During his racing career, Simon amassed over 50 pro podium finishes at regional events, and two Medals (Silver and Bronze) at the UCI Masters World Downhill Championships. Simon created The Fluidride Method by watching the world’s best riders, and mimicking their movements on the bike to sharpen his own skills. He then created terms and vocabulary based on these movements to help transform the riding of his students. Simon has taught in a dozen countries on three continents, teaching over 1,000 riders per year in person. His teachings reach many more via his free online content and 3 feature-length films which are currently on iTunes. Simon’s latest venture, soon to be launched, is SNAPMTB, an online learning platform created to reach and benefit riders around the world.

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