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I've ridden road and mountain bikes for years, and this is my first year riding as a part of a team (and actually doing races). I've been stuck at nearly the same level of skill when descending and would like to improve.

Sure, there are some books I can read, but some are dated, and who has time to read a whole book? (said only partially tongue in cheek)

Vague tips like, "ride with faster riders" are not needed - I ride with fast riders, and on the descents they're immediately gapping me at the first switchback.

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Do you have really good brakes? What type? –  ChrisW Jun 11 '12 at 12:47
    
The brakes are fine. Shimano M-555 hydrolic disc with 6" rotors. –  Trey Jackson Jun 11 '12 at 14:41
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Have a look here - youtube is inherently good at answering this question and many a good man have uploaded tons of tutorials. I'm on the same boat as you, bro. –  Vorac Oct 28 '13 at 13:26
    
I ride with fast riders, and on the descents they're immediately gapping me at the first switchback. Then you need to ride with slower, than them, riders. You generally need to ride with faster riders than you which you can benefit from. And those that you cannot see don't benefit you. –  cherouvim Nov 18 '13 at 11:45

5 Answers 5

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I happen to be one of those who attract new riders into the sport, and have given the basic training to many people. Here is a brief of what I try to teach them:

  • Riding position
  • Be ready to react
  • Have your bike properly tuned/fitted
  • Scan the terrain(Look forward)
  • Use a proper braking technique
  • Never get to the extremes
  • Grow progressively
  • The most important: never stop trying/practicing!

The attack position

The position that works best for me is slightly raised from your seat, knees bent, lowered torso with elbows bent. Feet at the same height with the dominant foot on front.

Ready to react: Your hands should be firmly gripping your handlebar, but not tense. One or two fingers ready to activate brakes. Choose the fingers you want on the bar based on whether you get the best grip. It is a little more important to control the handlebars than to freak-ly squeezing the brakes all the time. This is critical over rock or roots sections that shake the bike in all directions. You need to hold those bars captain!

Besides this, your elbows and knees should be slightly bent at all times, giving you chance to extend or contract them as needed, so you absorb terrain irregularities as you pass them over. It is like moving the bike around you (up/down, front/rear, right/left). This is why I do not recommend to sit way back arms fully stretched: In this position you have no freedom steer or to lower the bike while entering a hole or a "step down". An easy way of thinking is this: Your arms and legs are "your" suspension, you want to be positioned rather in the middle of its travel.

Properly tuned

You should tune your bike as best as possible. This includes brakes and suspension (if any). Your brakes should be at best performing shape. This is a whole complete subject, so I wont go deeper on this, but basically, they must have won your confidence. The levers should be placed where you can be more effective to apply the brakes. The distance between the brake lever clamp and the handlebar grip should allow you to actuate the lever with the index finger, the middle finger or both. The "reach" is how far is the lever from the grip when brakes are nor being applied. This distance should make comfortable for you to grab the lever, not too far that it is difficult, not to close your fingers get tangled with it. Also, when you apply the brakes, the lever should go down to the position where your fingers feel stronger doing so.

The suspension should be properly adjusted too. The two main adjustments are preload and rebound speed. Preload is how "stiff" is the suspension and it determines "sag" Sag is how deep the suspension travels on rider weight. A proper amount of sag allows the wheels to travel down when required. When you have too little sag your tire looses contact with the ground too easily and you loose control. Too much sag makes the suspension makes it easy to bottom down, hitting the far end of the suspension travel. This may also lead to loss of control or another failures.

The rebound speed is how fast the shock absorber returns after hitting an obstacle. too fast and the bike will feel shaky (you'll feel no confidence) and maybe it will bounce off the ground loosing traction. Too slow and it will feel like getting stuck after a bump, effectively it will not be ready for the next bump if it comes too quickly. The correct intermediate position depends on your riding style and the particular terrain characteristics.

There are other adjustments that can be made, but they vary a lot model to model, brand to brand, so the best approach is to refer to the user's manual.

Scan the terrain

Look forward, never look down to the tire. The faster you want to go, the further up the trail you must look. Scan the terrain and look for the best line. Choose areas where you have more traction, or surfaces were is better/safer to brake. Dry solid rock or compact ground are commonly good options. There is a saying that the bike will go wherever you are looking at, so, focus on your route, choose where you want to go and stay there! It is common for a rider to stare at that rock sticking out, having fear of it, and... crashing into it. Avoid that behavior, don't stare at obstacles, but trace your path around or over it, and focus in that.

Braking technique

The most important skill regarding brakes (IMHO) is knowing when NOT to apply them. Braking is instinctive, as soon as you feel danger, you'll squeeze the brakes. But there are a lot of situations where it's best not to. First of all, never squeeze the levers quick and hard: this makes you lock up your tires and loose traction. You have to be gentle. Usually you have to release your brakes when going over wet roots, slippery rocks, etc. Specially you should release your front brake just before hitting a rock or a hole, so it will be free to roll over the obstacle and thus avoid being tipped over the bars.

I recommend to use BOTH brakes at the same time. You'll find a lot of divergent opinions about this but, I've found that each brake serves a purpose. The rear brake alone can slow you down just a bit, but it tends to straighten the bike while over slippery surfaces or loose sand/gravel, a little like the rudder on a plane. The front brake can stop you down, but it tends to trow you to the front. It is vital to learn to brake without locking up the wheels, specially during a turn. If you are focused on where you are headed, it is more dangerous to over-brake than to brake a little less. It is also important not to hold the brakes all the way down, thus avoiding overheating, which can lead to brake failure.

Never get to the extremes

Never adopt extreme postures. Not to far back, not to low. I made such mistakes at my beginnings, but I had to correct those. Stretching to be too far back lessen your ability to maneuver. Using the seat too low for "improved stability" also puts your legs in an awkward position that does not let you negotiate ups and downs. While going downhill over the roughest section you should be off the saddle to avoid hitting your spine anyway.

Grow progressively

Never try too hard to get up to your buddy's riding level, do not take risks that are beyond you skills. Go a little at a time. Practice a lot. Find the way of practicing the obstacles over and over. Grow in technique before you grow in speed. Each kind of obstacle requires specific movements, as you learn them, you need to build "muscular memory" before taking it to another level, so be patient, but never stop trying/practicing. Be humble and practice even what you feel you've mastered. When you conquer an obstacle/jump/drop etc. for the first time, try to go back and do it again, and again, and again...

You may have already built skills in some of these areas, but each one of these points has way more to discuss about. I'll be happy to go deeper in any subject if I find questions directed more specifically towards any of them. My credentials: I am a cross country and downhill rider with a few podium positions at local DH races ;) .

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+1, arms and legs are the smartest suspensions. Even ankles are important to absorb rocks/roots that could make you bounce. Also, when I began to stay all the way back I thought I could descend any slope. And I could, but without braking or steering because the front wheel had no grip! So +1 for never getting to the extremes. –  bigstones Aug 2 '12 at 13:27
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+1 also "Preload" the front shocks going into corners - how much depends on terrain, but most beginner riders have weight too far back. Much better to bottom out shock in corner than lift front wheel. –  mattnz Nov 13 at 21:00

One technique to use is the "heel-drop" which helps settle your weight and center of gravity lower and in the proper position (specifically off the handlebars).

While riding with the crank arms parallel to the ground, drop your heels below the level of the pedal. This enables you to push against the pedals with your feet/legs to keep your weight back - as opposed to simply relying on your shoes being clipped in and pushing against your shoes...

I'd only heard of it recently, and now that I know what to look for, I see it used by all the downhill riders.

This is a good introduction to the technique.

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My personall suggestion is the classic 1990's book / Video "Mountain bike like a champion" by Ned Overend Or his Performance Mountain biking DVD Both have helped me more than i expected. Otherwise practice practice practice, and ride with people better than you anytime you can.

Another alternative, but the most expensive, is go to a local pro's "skills camp". Often a few days of riding, instruction, and hands on help. I hear amazing things about these kinds of camps, but have never been to one personally.

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Yes, I said ride with faster riders, but you may need to find riders willing to do the same section 10x, and show you what they did, rather than just leaving you in the dust. –  Matt Adams Jun 7 '12 at 22:14
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An alternative to "ride with stronger riders" is "ride on more technical/scary terrain", specially if you repeat it 10 times a weekend. –  heltonbiker Jun 9 '12 at 19:12

You're more experienced than I am, but personally I found this video to be helpful. The rider is a professional.

As a summary:

  • Lean the bike into the corner, but not your body.
  • Weight on the outside pedal.
  • Look towards the exit.

The clip is from a much longer video called "All Mountain Biking Basic Skills" which used to be available on YouTube, but has since been removed. Now the maker of the video has bits and pieces of it posted. I thought it was a great video; I learned a lot from it.

Here's a couple more parts: choosing your line and riding position ("heels down") as mentioned by the other responder.

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The question was getting downvotes for being link-only. Included summary of the video and upvoted your answer. I generally dislike french guys, but this one is a hero. –  Vorac Oct 28 '13 at 8:09

Even if you don't read Mastering Mountain Biking Skills (and you should, it's great, and has a section on riding switchbacks) there's a bunch of information on author Lee McCormack's site LeeLikesBikes.

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