I won’t be revealing any secrets when I tell you that cycling is a very physical sport, and I don’t mean that in the Olivia Newton-John sense. I am referring to the physics of cycling, specifically, the mechanical interaction of the rider with their bike and the resulting work done as the bike/rider unit moves through space. Simple body mechanics are an integral part of cycling, and even the slightest shift of your hips or lift of your chin can change how your bike behaves. To that end, here are five tips to repeat over and over to yourself as you ride until they become second nature, and that’s when you begin to unlock your true cycling potential. These tips will work on both the road and the dirt, and provide a good base for more advanced techniques to be added later.
Keep Your Head Up—This is perhaps the most important thing to remember, whether on the road or the dirt. As in all motion sports, your body follows your head, and you will go where you are looking. When charging through a rock garden, keep your eyes on the path between the rocks, for that’s where your bike will go. Keeping your head up goes hand in hand with looking as far down the road or trail as you comfortably can—at least fifteen feet on a mountain bike and probably double that on a road bike, depending on your speed. Looking into your future like this gives your brain time to assess conditions and sort out the smoothest and easiest path through debris. Even climbing will be easier if your gaze is focussed well ahead of your front wheel, letting your eyes pull you up the trail. Looking up the road or trail also helps keep momentum up, saving energy and getting you to the top faster.
Pull Through Your Pedal Stroke—Smooth pedaling turns into smooth power transfer which translates to momentum, getting you over rough sections on the trail more efficiently and keeping your speed consistent, which saves energy no matter where or what you are riding. While it’s impossible to have a completely uniform, “circular” pedaling motion, you can get as close as possible by “pulling through” the bottom of your pedal stroke—I like to compare the motion to scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe. This is not an easy skill to master and should be practiced whenever possible, but it will result in increased efficiency, speed, and endurance.
Relax Your Upper Body—A tense torso will prevent you from reacting effectively to the terrain. Not only will a death grip on the bars or hoods waste energy, it will keep your bike stuck in the direction it’s pointed, as your muscles are locked and robbed of the fluidity necessary to make quick changes to your weight distribution. Additionally, clenched shoulders and locked elbows will ensure a stiff back by the end of your ride. Luckily, the remedy for excessive muscle constriction is easy—keep your head up, which straightens your back and relaxes your shoulders; concentrate on a smooth pedal stroke; tell yourself to relax your arms, and…
Breathe—When a stressful situation arises, such as mis-judging a corner, a disruption in the group, or when a large rock presents itself in your path, we all tend to hold our breath and tense up, greatly increasing the chances of a crash. Challenging sections of trail or debris on the road often have the same effect on our physiology, at best slowing us down, or worse, throwing us to the ground. When you feel your hands, lips, and chest clench, relax and fill your lungs, keep your eyes on where you want to go, and roll with it. Staying calm will get you out of almost any predicament you encounter on a bike.
Stay Off the Brakes— Today’s underlying theme is momentum and how to keep it. The previous four tips will help you stay calm, focussed, and relaxed, enabling you to pick the path of least resistance and concentrate on proper cycling technique, but the most-effective way to maintain your speed is to simply ignore your brakes. Nothing will rob you of speed like a handful of brake, and conversely—in gravity situations—nothing will put daylight between you and the rider behind you like maintaining speed through turns. The general rule for braking is “brake before you need to.” This means brake before the turn, as braking through the turn will kill your speed and traction while probably throwing you off-line, and don’t brake in rough or rocky sections, but in the smooth section just before the chunder—braking tends to lock up suspension and reduce traction. Remember that your front brake is where most of your stopping power comes from, and the rear brake helps with direction control (but don’t lock it up). Staying off the brakes is counter-intuitive for most of us, so help yourself out by adding “Stay off the brakes, stay off the brakes…” to your cycling mantra as you ride.