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I often find myself confronted by a steep and bumpy bit of hill on the trail, or one or two steps on the path, and end up with three possible results:

A) ride down with no trouble (usually)

B) step off the bike and walk down (often)

C) attempt to ride down and flip over my front tire when it hits the bottom/flat (only once)

I realize that this depends on conditions, technique (as in this answer), and bike (I'm tempted to blame my front shocks for my flip), but it seems like, all other things being equal, there should be a rule of thumb for this sort of thing.

So, how steep is too steep?

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I.e. when should you do the decline, and when should you decline to do it? –  Kaz Aug 21 '13 at 0:10
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Here is a related question with a bit more of insights: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/9790/… –  Jahaziel Aug 21 '13 at 20:30
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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Ultimately there is no limit to what you can ride beyond your own skill. Many people say "too steep" is a cliff, but some riders just look at that like a drop and ride it anyway.

You need to evaluate whether the places you are walking are because you lack the skill to ride them, the confidence to ride them, or improper equipment. Yes, you could theoretically ride an entire downhill track on a fully rigid, carbon XC bike, but wouldn't it be a lot easier on a 8" travel, full-suspension bike?

Looking at the steep section that flipped you over, see if you can find why you flipped. Too far forward on the bike? A big rock/root in the way? Application of too much front brake? Remedy each of these things and you might find yourself riding steeper and steeper hills.

So how do you fix it or get better?

  • Practice! Hours in the saddle is the best way to get more confidence riding these types of things. Find a smaller decline and practice shifting your weight back, feathering your brakes, and keeping your eyes scanning for obstacles.
  • Ride with someone Don't underestimate the value of riding with someone better than you. Politely ask them if they could show you how to ride some of things you're struggling with and watch them do it and have them watch you.
  • Speed is your friend I know it seems counter intuitive but like riding over rocks/roots on flat terrain, a little speed goes a long way. Again, practice this, don't just go charging over the edge of a super sketchy hill and hope for the best (although that can be really fun).

Lastly, what type of riding do you want to do? A lot of XC trails are relatively tame in regards to steep downhills because the bikes aren't really meant for that. But if you're looking to get into freeriding or downhill you'll need to get comfortable with this.

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+1 Inspiring and constructive! –  Vorac Aug 20 '13 at 14:57
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As a part time DH rider, I fully endorse this anwer, specially the "Speed is your Friend" part. One of my techniques involves mentally dividing the trail in small segments that I ride without braking (or with very little). At the bottom of every segment I look for a "control zone", a less steep part of the trail or a patch of terrain with good traction, and really apply the brakes there. (This is what I call "pulsated" braking). The point is that these segments should be short, a few meter at a time, so you don't gain more speed than you are able to control. –  Jahaziel Aug 20 '13 at 23:39
    
Thanks, an extremely helpful answer. –  Oreotrephes Aug 21 '13 at 3:46
    
Great answer. "If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right". (Henry Ford). 80% of MTB is 'head space', 15% skill, 5% the bike. Practice and riding with a better rider helps the head space more than anything else. Skills and to a lesser degree the bike make you better (smoother, faster, more consistent), but if the head is telling you you can't you will fail. –  mattnz Aug 21 '13 at 21:56
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This is the conservative answer.

I have flipped over the handlebars also. This usually happens when, at high speed and low visibility, the front wheel hits a pit/obstacle too large to overcome (larger than it's radius).

So on steep declines I hit the brakes and ride slow, moving my center of gravity back i.e. directly above the rear wheel, being wary of bumps.

One article on downhill recommends drawing an imaginary axis through your BB and your center of gravity and keeping that line stable regardless of terrain.

When a hill is too steep to ride very slowly down, then it is too steep for me (as I do not trust my brakes or my competence to go full-speed down), and I fall to the side (which is not a problem as I am riding at walking pace) and push down.

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Accepted above, but thanks for this great answer too, Vorac. The advice and the article were both very helfpul. –  Oreotrephes Aug 21 '13 at 0:25
    
I am not so familiar on this site, what does BB mean? –  Bernhard Aug 21 '13 at 21:00
    
Bottom Bracket. Where your cranks are attached to the bike. –  alex Aug 22 '13 at 0:51
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I'm sure my risk calculus is different from the OP's, but I heard a piece of advice some time before from a seasoned dirt rider around my age (mid-40's): "If you can't climb it, don't descend it."

Clearly this advice is not applicable to everyone at every time, but in practice I have found this is not bad.

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"Risk calculus" - I like that! –  Oreotrephes Aug 22 '13 at 2:14
    
After just purchasing my greatest bike so far in my life, my version of the rule would be "if your brakes can't stop you, don't descend it". –  Vorac Nov 17 '13 at 19:02
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The problem (but also beauty) of steeps is that unless you have enough experience with steeps you cannot easily judge whether you can do it or not. So the solution is to see it both from above and from below. If both views scare you then you should probably not do it and in order to gain more experience you need to:

  1. practice in steeps smaller in length
  2. practice in steeps with smaller angle
  3. watch someone at your riding level do that steep first

In all cases wear your full face helmet and, if things look really serious, a neck brace may be handy in case of an OTB (over the bars).

Ultimately, after practice and if you are really interested in that kind of riding you'll be able to hit stuff such as: http://i.imgur.com/29X0ARs.jpg

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There is no trail in the higher side of the descend, so do those guys jump it? Scary! –  Vorac Nov 17 '13 at 19:05
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