Positioning for Descents

Successfully cleaning a descent, whether it’s technical or smooth, can be one of the most fun aspects of mountain biking. It’s a thrill that will always provide a triumphant feeling. Your adrenaline will be pumped and all of your skills will be fully engaged. But if you’re not in control, it can be downright scary, which is why good technique is critical for staying safe.

Your vision skills, line selection, negotiating obstacles, turns, speed, and when & how to brake are all important, but in this blog we’re going to talk about body positioning. For starters, as you’re heading downhill you’ll need to be standing on the pedals with your arms and knees a little bent to help absorb the bumps and to be ready to perform any kind of maneuver. In the mountain biking world, this position can either be called the “ready position” or the “attack position”, depending on how you want to look at it.

To get into the ready/attack position, follow these steps:

1) With the crank arms horizontally level, stand on the pedals with your weight centered and balanced squarely upon them.

2) Bend your knees and lower your behind toward the saddle, similar to a half squat. This height is limited by the height of your saddle, so if you have a dropper post you should lower it to give yourself some space while getting even further down. This will also make it easier to move your hips over the bike to shift your weight in response to changing terrain. Without a dropper post, you’ll need to unclamp your post to lower it.

Bending at the knees in itself serves two purposes:

A. It lowers your weight in relation to the ground, making it easier to stay balanced.

B. It gives your legs the ability to bend and extend to soak up the bumps and move with the trail…you’ll become a human shock absorber.

3) Slightly open your legs at the knees to allow room for the bike to move from side to side.

4) Lean your torso forward while bending your elbows. You’ll be lowering your shoulders toward the handlebars while keeping your back straight. As you do this, move your hips back enough to keep your weight centered and balanced squarely on the pedals. If you feel your weight pressing down on the handlebars, you’re too far forward. On level ground, your hips should be slightly back from the normal seated position and your elbows should be slightly less bent than a square 90 º, more like in the 95º to 110º range. This will give your arms the ability to bend and extend.

5) Your elbows should be pointed outward and should be a little lower than the top of your shoulders, as if you’re halfway through a push up. This is a strong position for both pulling and pushing. It also provides better balance and gives you the ability to quickly react to the trail.

6) Raise your head enough to easily see all the way down the trail.

The question you might now have is: How far back do I position myself on a descent? The short answer is whatever it takes to keep your weight fully driven into the pedals. This will keep even pressure on both tires. There are variables that will affect exactly where this position is over the bike. Besides the steepness of the hill, how your bike is designed is a big factor. Bikes with a greater head angle will put the tire further out in front, giving them a longer wheel base. This increased angle is referred to as a “slacker” head angle. Bikes with more slack allow you to keep your positioning further forward while remaining centered and balanced on the pedals, making them feel safer on steep descents. Downhill bikes have the slackest head angle, but come at the cost of a reduced climbing ability.

Use these positioning tips to get to the best balance point on descents:

1. The fulcrum (center balance point) of your bike is at the pedals. For the best traction, a balanced position on the pedals must be maintained, no matter what the angle of the decline is. The importance of having your weight driven into the pedals can’t be overstated. Position yourself over the pedals in a way that keeps you heavy on the feet and light on the hands.

2. Drop your heels (relative to your fore/aft body positioning). This will help to keep your weight driven into the pedals.

3. Keep your chest low for a lower center of gravity. This will greatly improve your ability to stay balanced when the trail gets sketchy.

4. As you move your weight back for the downhill, don’t allow yourself to pull on the handlebars; this means you’re too far back. Your hands should lie on the bars naturally, a practice that is essential for optimal steering and braking. Squeezing the bars tightly will cause your hands and forearms to get pumped up, achy, and less responsive.

5. Even if you’re on a super-steep hill and your behind is positioned well behind the seat as you’re stretched out over the bike, always keep some degree of bend in your elbows so that they can extend if you hit any dips in the trail. With no elbow bend, the bike could harshly yank you downward. Another thing to remember is to keep your arms lower than your shoulders. This will give you the flexibility to raise your arms when the front end rises, thereby soaking up the bumps instead of being launched into the air

Some riders will automatically put themselves behind the seat on descents, but this should never be a default position. If you’re too far back in relation to the angle of the hill, your weight will be centered on your rear tire and your arms will be pulling backwards on the handlebars. This situation will make your front tire too light, allowing it to easily pop up from a bump, lock up and slide on anything loose, or simply make it more difficult to brake and steer…any of which could set you up for a crash. In the following photographs, you can plainly see that the riders are too far back in relation to the pitch of the hill.

Although a far less common mistake, too far forward could send you over the handlebars if you ram into an obstacle. The bottom line is: when your weight is balanced on the pedals, it’ll be properly distributed over both tires and your descent will be safer. The following photograph shows a rider with his weight properly balanced on the pedals as he's heading downhill.

To get the feel of lowering your body and centering your weight on the pedals, it’s best to first try out your descending skills on hills that are not too steep or technical. As you get better and more confident, work your way to hills with increasing difficulty and bigger challenges. As with anything you’re learning to do on your mountain bike, starting out easy and working your way up is the best way to build your skill base and set yourself up with good habits that bring great safety and success on the trails.

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