Many years ago I went through a stage in my mountain biking where I was crashing almost weekly. Thankfully body armor was just becoming available that helped to lessen the severity of some of the impacts. These days I only wear knee pads on rare occasions such as when I am racing, or when I’m riding a truly hairy trail and I want to push my limits. Am I riding slower now than when I used to wear body armor all the time? No way. I’m definitely faster, but the way I ride is entirely different.
When I realized that I couldn’t keep crashing weekly and have a secure future with my favorite sport, I started focusing on riding smoothly and using proper technique instead of going as fast as I possibly could. As my technique improved over the course of about a year, I found myself riding faster than I was before, but with so much control that I felt like I was riding at 85-90% of my old top speed back in the crashing days. Many years later I still ride the same way. I’ll keep my speed at about 90% of what I am capable of and try to be as smooth and technically correct as possible. I look at it this way: The only thing better than being the fastest guy on the ride…is making it look easy.
Try approaching a turn at a mellow pace and then roll all the way through the corner without touching the brakes. It feels amazing; and the guys you are riding with will be blown away at how much time you can make on them in the corners.
Another good area to work on is pumping the trail. Go into a rolling section of trail with an slightly downhill overall grade and pump your way through without pedaling at all. Do it right and you will come out of the section faster than when you went in. Meanwhile your riding partner will be pedaling hard just to keep up, even if he or she isn’t touching the brakes. Best of all, you exit the section fresh as a daisy and ready for the more demanding sections of the ride that come later. These skills can also help you to hang with a strong group at the end of a tough ride without expending any more energy than you need to.
A great side benefit of riding this way is that it makes other trail users a whole lot happier. Nothing (short of a bear or mountain lion sighting) is scarier to a hiker or equestrian than to see a mountain biker riding at the limit headed right for them. By dialing it back and working on your skills, coming to a controlled stop will be easy. You might be surprised at how often a hiker’s attitude will change from fear to nonchalance in a split second as they see you reign in your speed with authority and total confidence.
I get that people want to ride at the limit. I even do it sometimes, but really, public trails just aren’t the right place for it. Of course Art’s would love to sell more body armor, so by all means don’t let me stop you. Just think of this as another way to evaluate your riding experience and have fun out on the trail without killing yourself or someone else.