Complete guide to downhill mountain biking, part 1

Become a gravity god

Anyone who has ventured out on a mountain bike has been down a hill. Riding downhill is, in the simplest terms, great fun, and thanks to our old friend gravity, it’s not essential to be super-fit to get that adrenaline high.

Of course, the next step is ‘proper’ downhilling. If you’ve ever wanted to give it a go, this is the series for you. Your tutors, multiple British champ Will Longden (Lapierre) and World Cup racer Marc Beaumont (GT), will show you some downhill technique basics that will help you progress from trail centre troll to downhill demon in no time.

As well as riding tips, they’ll tell you how to get the best from your bike and your body, and what you stand to gain by joining like-minded downhill virgins at an uplift venue near you.

In part two we’ll take a look at more advanced techniques and bike setup, and get you ready for your first race! But for now, let’s just back up a notch and get down to basics.

Body position

Getting your position on the bike right is the most fundamental thing in downhilling. Once you have this nailed, you’ll be well on your way.

Think of a cone of movement, which is basically your weight pivoting around the bottom bracket. Whether the bike is pointing up or down, leaning left or right, you should be able to draw an imaginary vertical line through your core (the area round your hips) and the bike’s bottom bracket.

Look at the picture below of me holding Marc steady on the steep hill. As he stands up tall, you can see the vertical line through Marc’s core and bottom bracket.

The angle of the hill may change but the vertical line should remain, as in the second shot – the vertical line is the same, but Marc has pivoted from the hips to hold the bars. If you follow this theory, you should always be in the right position.

As Marc goes from flat to steep drop, it looks like he’s just moved off the back of the bike, but in doing so, he’s kept that vertical line through the bottom bracket and his core and allowed the bike to move through him. This is also the case when the bike’s leaned over to one side, like in corners or cambered sections.

In the pictures below you can see this in motion:

Braking

Once you have your weight in the right position and you’re flying down the hill, it’s time to move on to the brakes.

The main difference between advanced riders and novices when it comes to braking is that a novice uses the brakes as a recovery measure, when they realise they’re going too fast, while an advanced rider uses the brakes pro-actively, to prepare the bike’s speed and direction before a corner, for example.

As Marc approaches the rocks in the picture above, he adjusts his speed and covers his brakes to set up on the right line. In the second shot, below, he can allow the bike to roll through the rocks because his speed is in check and his body position is correct.

Brake when you’re going in a straight line where possible, control your speed and consider how your body will react to heavy braking – and be ready to keep your body in the right riding position.

Braking game

Here’s a little routine you can do to test your braking prowess and improve your control:

  1. Find a gradual slope with plenty of run-off space and mark a start line.
  2. Mark a braking line 5-10m after the start line.
  3. Set off from the start line and coast to the braking line. As your front wheel gets to the line, try using just your front brake to stop you as quickly as possible, without locking the wheel up!
  4. Now do the same, using just your rear brake to stop you as quickly as possible – again, without skidding or locking up the wheel. Once you’ve done this a few times you’ll start to get an idea of which brake is most effective, how you should apply each brake to stop the wheels locking up and what your body position needs to be to assist all of the above.

Riding the roots

Roots are some of the most common obstacles on a trail. The key to riding them is to be prepared and stay confident.

When riding downhill it’s important to always look ahead. Don’t focus on what’s in front of your wheel – you need to be able to prepare your direction and speed before you reach obstacles, not as you’re hitting them.

Being relaxed and confident is vital. You also need to understand how your bike might react. As Marc approaches the roots in the shot below, he sets the bike up so he can traverse them in a straight line.

On an off-camber (sideways sloping) section of trail, you need to keep your bike heading up the slope so you’re effectively riding up the roots rather than sliding down them.

Your tyres are your best friends on rocks and roots, and they grip best on the slippery stuff when the wheels are rolling. Braking heavily on roots causes the wheel to follow the line of the root it’s on, which will send your bike sideways and out of control.

Drop-offs

The drop-off is a common feature of most downhill tracks, and it can send a shiver down a beginner's spine – especially when it looks like someone has taken the ground away and you’ve reached the end of the earth! Fear not though, Christopher Columbus has checked it out and it’s definitely round!

As with all riding, body position and confidence is important. You want your bike to stay at the same angle as the ground below. As the front wheel leaves the lip of the drop, the bike will tip forward if you sit and do nothing. So for better control, shift your core back, keep your arms straight and push down and forward with your feet.

As long as you have reasonable speed, this will keep the bike level, and as the back wheel passes the lip of the drop, the bike will fall to the ground, landing evenly on both wheels, while you absorb the force of the impact with your arms and legs.

Absorbing the landing – or obstacles – is the key to keeping you relaxed and in control. When you first try downhilling, even if you’re on a bike with lots of suspension travel, you still need use your arms and legs. Don’t just hold on tight and expect it to smash its way through everything!

Marc Beaumont's guide to cornering

Our guest tutor Marc is renowned for carrying great corner speed. So let’s take a look how he manages to go so fast and keep his momentum into the next straight.

1 The approach

A good approach is vital. Marc adjusts his speed before he hits the turn, takes his bike right to the outside edge of the track and starts to lean the bike over. He’s looking ahead to the end of the corner already, spotting his exit line. By coming in wide, Marc is making the corner less sharp and setting up the direction of the bike early on. From this point on he can accelerate.

2 The push

As he hits the middle of the turn, Marc’s body is low and his weight is transferred to the bike, mostly through his outside foot. This ensures that his centre of gravity is kept low and that his tyres grip. Marc is now pushing the bike through the turn.

3 The exit

By the time Marc reaches the exit, the work for this corner is all done, and he’s already planning the line into the next obstacle. As the bike comes out of the corner, Marc lets it drift a little wide, standing the bike back more upright, and he begins to pedal.

Bike basics

Make sure both your bike and your body are set up properly and you’ll find your downhilling easier and more enjoyable

Brake levers: Set your levers so their middle-to-ends fall beneath your first finger, giving you more leverage. It only needs one finger; the rest can hold the bars. Lever angle should be 45 degrees, so your wrists and forearms are in line when you’re in ‘attack’ position.

Suspension: Know your bike manufacturer’s baseline setting before making adjustments. Generally, go for softer low speed compression for a smooth ride over the little trail rocks, and a harder high-speed compression to take the big hits but hold up over everything else.

Tyres: Soft compound rubber grips fast in most conditions, and thick casing protects against punctures. A low pressure allows the tyre to conform to the terrain and cover more ground.

Gloves: Your hands are often the first things to hitterra firma in an emergency exit, so cover ’em up!

Elbow/knee pads: Elbows and knees have a bad habit of sticking into the ground on impact – a simple tumble can end your day. Prevent this with a little neoprene, foam and Velcro. Many pads these days are light, comfy and very effective. Elbows and knees without skin are not!

Full-face helmet: Specially designed to protect your head and face. Unlike other body parts, a broken head is usually terminal, so they’re worth every penny.

Jersey and shorts: Long sleeves will keep your arms protected from thorns and nettles, but make sure you can fit armour underneath. Shorts should sit well over knee pads, and should be made from tough fabric for inevitable ‘sit downs’.

Shoes: Whether you clip in or prefer flat pedals, proper riding shoes are important. Look for good heel and toe boxes, ankle protection on the inside and quality soles. For flat pedals, you won’t find better than FiveTen footwear.

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