Some of the most overlooked and neglected skills sets in mountain biking are often the most important. Manuals, bunny hops, wheelies, and drop-offs are too often treated like ‘tricks for kids’ rather than critical skills that get you over obstacles and through trails more safely, smoother, faster, and with more ease. They also teach you about how your body movements equate to the bike’s interaction with the trail. And their application to the trail when under pressure, at high speeds or in a fatigued state are invaluable.
So here are some tips to get you on your way to being a smoother, faster and more accomplished mountain biker. And they are actually fun to do!
While some riders can hold a manual for hundreds of metres the application of the manual for trail riding is more subtle. The aim should be to float the front wheel while entering and going through obstacles such as rock gardens, drop-offs, ruts, roots, and other rough terrain. Try the following technique along a flat grass area, marking out a line as a starting point and seeing how far you can manual from there.
- In order to manual effectively it’s important to set the right speed, enough to coast along and hold momentum.
- Then stand up with your weight centred over your bike.
- With elbows and knees bent suddenly lean back and pull on the bars at the same time.
- At that same time push the bike away from you with your feet, almost out from under you.
- The further you want to go while holding the front up the longer you need to hold that position, leaning back and holding the balance point by working your arms and legs.
This isn’t an easy still to learn, so keep persisting. Work on your timing and staying relaxed, putting the energy into the right contact points on the bike. Even a one metre manual is worth doing many times out on the trail, as it gets you over challenging terrain more smoothly and efficiently.
Avoid bunny hopping by using your feet when they’re clipped into your pedals. This isn’t only dangerous, but very limited and relies on using speed, precise timing and extra energy to get over an obstacle. It’s worth committing to learning to bunny hop properly. Try the following technique along a flat grass area, hopping over a small stick or line.
- Stand up on level pedals and roll along in a relaxed stance.
- Start with a good solid manual, then spring up off the back wheel, and push the handlebars away from you as you jump. Twisting your hands over with your grips will help lift the rear wheel up and continue a fluid motion.
- This action draws the letter ‘S’ in the air with your upper body, starting at the bottom of the ‘S’.
- Ensure your movements are hesitant or sluggish. It needs to be ‘snappy’.
Once you master the bunny hop you’ll realise how handy it becomes on the trail, for smoothness, speed and for getting you out of trouble when obstacles pop up suddenly.
Sometimes you’ll come across rock ledges, large logs or other obstacles that you need to pop over, but can’t just rely on speed or simply bashing through. The aim should be to get up and over obstacles smoothly and with minimal energy, maintaining speed, and not stalling too much. Try the following technique going up a normal street gutter, then work your way up to larger off-road obstacles on steeper inclines.
- As you approach the obstacle maintain momentum, stay relaxed and shift your weight forward for a moment.
- After moving forward, use that range to move back, putting weight on your saddle, while leaning back on the bike.
- At the same time, with one leg starting up at 1 or 2 o’clock, pedal firmly to lift the front wheel. Gear selection is important here, so ensure you’re not in such an easy gear that you don’t get any lift. But not such a hard gear that the lift is strained and delayed.
- Once the front wheel is placed on the step, lean forward and unweight your back wheel as it follows you over the obstacle. Ensure you don’t over lift the front wheel, as that will stall you and your back wheel will hit the obstacle. And use the rocking forward of your body to lift the rear wheel, rather than pulling up on your pedals.
- Apply power and ride away and regain momentum.
As you refine your technique using the wheelie method above you can then progress to using the manual technique to lift the front wheel instead of a pedal stroke. This especially comes in handy when lack of if traction or surrounding obstacles prevent you from pedalling. This method will require slightly more speed.
Try the following technique to tackle drop-offs of varying size safely and smoothly.
- Approach the drop-off standing on level pedals in the relaxed and low position.
- Ensuring your shoulders are square so your body isn’t twisted move forward slightly on approach.
- Just before the edge of the drop throw your bike forward under you, like the manual but flatter.
- As your front wheel goes over the edge push on your feet to push evenly on your pedals.
- Your backside should be behind your saddle at this point.
- As soon as you’re floating in the air regulate the level of your front and back wheels by shifting your body forward slightly. The aim is to avoid the front or rear wheels from dipping down too much.
- At slower speeds on flat ground landing with wheels level is best. But at higher speeds with a downhill landing the front wheel should land just before the rear.
- Make sure you don’t tense up at any point, as this will put your body at a bad angle in the air as well as result in a harsh landing.
- And ensure to reset your position and get back on the bike ready for the next obstacle.
Start with small drops like roadside gutters, then work your way up to larger drops at speed. Ensure you have a clear area to land on and resist the urge to slow down too much, as this will make drop-offs more difficult and more dangerous.