Technique: Different Strokes

Gee Atherton and Will Longden go on a mission to figure out where we get our riding style from and how to get the best from yours

The basics of a good riding technique are pretty much the same, no matter what bike you have or how big you are. It’s all about transferring your weight, carrying speed and knowing when to use the brakes or not. What determines a rider’s style is how they go about getting that job done.

Take Gee Atherton and myself for example. 

We both won a few races in our prime (OK, he’s still in his!) but both have very different styles. I started racing bikes long before the mountain bike had been invented, while Gee got into racing as suspension travel went into double figures. It doesn’t take an expert to spot that we have different styles – for starters he’s 6ft tall and I’m 5ft short!

There’s an urgency to my style and a lot of body movement, while Gee’s movements are more subtle and reserved – it’s his bike that does all the moving around. A combination then of the bikes we learned to ride on, our size and therefore the way we have to set our bikes up to get the most out of these factors. So how can you get the most from your bike and your size to get that optimum riding style?

A style to suit

Most of you want good style and that can only happen with good technique. The problem comes when you decide you want to copy the style of a top rider and you’re just not built the same, or your bike set-up won’t allow it.

Basically, it all comes down to how you move the bike around underneath you and your body language. If you’re a taller rider with long arms and legs, you’ll need a lot more room underneath you for the bike to move, and you can transfer body weight with subtle movements. If you’re shorter, you’ll need to make room for the bike to move. When trying to stay low off a big jump, I often have to shift my body to one side of the bike and allow the seat to come up under my thigh. If I didn’t then the seat would hit me in the arse and I’d be over the bars for sure.

Will in action

Let’s take a step back then – why do I look the way I do when I ride? I think it goes back to riding bikes without suspension and having to use my arms and legs to absorb the bumps and help me keep traction. Maybe I haven’t evolved as bikes have evolved, or maybe I still use my body instead of allowing the suspension to take on the terrain. I don’t think this is such a bad thing though – I still ride a hardtail and race 4X, and I still think it’s bad to rely 100 per cent on the suspension and barge through things. But perhaps I just haven’t found the right balance yet.

Gee, on the other hand, has come into bikes and tried a bit of everything over a relatively short space of time, including BMX, street, dirt jumping, 4X and DH racing. He now has a rich pool of experience, and his style comes from having ridden all day, every day on a variety of bikes, whereas my style comes from riding certain types of bike for a long period over 25 years or so.

Gee in action

Bike set-up can also have a big effect on your style and although that can be a personal comfort thing, you can hamper your progress by, for example, having a novice set-up while trying to ride like a pro. The main factors – frame size, front end height, seat height and brake lever set-up – all have an impact on your technique and your style – more on that later.

Inspiration, not imitation

We all have a rider we love to watch – the way they take on corners and jumps makes you want to go out and ride just by watching them in action. For me, that was Nicolas Voullioz. I’d watch race footage a couple of weeks after the event and want to go back and try the track again, but he made it look so easy that I couldn’t believe I couldn’t do it that way myself.

Of the young riders coming through now, there are a few with great styles – Josh Bryceland looks like he’s having so much fun and Danny Hart has that aggressive, exciting streak that makes you hold your breath, yet you know he’s totally in control. On the world circuit, Sam Hill has done some amazing things on his bike this year and some that leave you scratching your head. It’s like the guy practising and the guy you see racing are two completely different people – like he flicks a switch come race time.

The most valuable lesson about riding style is not to force it or copy someone else too much. As you try different bikes and tracks and ride with different people, your riding style (and with it your technique) will improve and evolve – it’s not something you can rush. You can’t just go out one day and decide you want to look like Sam Hill when you’re on your bike and expect it to happen.

Sure, in your head you may look like him but to your friends you look like a total muppet!

Learning and improving is the best thing about riding a bike. Get the fundamentals right and that great pro style should be just around the corner.

Gee is one of the best all-round riders in the World. He specialises in DH racing but he’s also right at the top in 4X, slopestyle and freeride – and also shows his talent on the BMX bike from time to time. Gee has been British DH Champion and won a World Cup in Austria a few years back. Team MBUK/Santa Cruz rider Will is one of the old school all-rounders, and there aren’t many disciplines he hasn’t excelled at. He’s been British Champion at DH, 4X and Dual (when 4X was just two riders) and has ridden for Great Britain every year since he started racing downhill in 1983…

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