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I have a background in road and gravel cycling. I ride a Giant Trance mountain bike at the moment, which I believe is considered a "trail" bike. It's clear to me from looking at the positions of myself on the bikes, that the mountain bike generally has me at a more "upright" position. First, I really don't know why this is the case when the main purpose of this bike is to roll over and absorb obstacles far greater than anything a road or gravel bike can.

I noticed that there's a concept of leaning back with one's hips while riding a mountain bike, especially downhill. This is often accompanied by angling the heels of the feet downwards to shift more weight to the back. I did this before when descending on road rides, especially if I needed to brake hard - I would throw my hips as far back as possible and be in the "drops".

And that's where my confusion begins - oftentimes, when I see someone else, or myself, throw weight to the back of the bike on a mountain bike, it's still in a more upright position, which to me feels less stable, than when I rode in the drops of a road/gravel bike.

So my question is, how does one actually create stability on a mountain bike? Stability meaning, all other things constant, a position which supports staying on the bike rather than flying off the bike when riding over obstacles? If we have to pick, let's say specifically while riding downhill. What is the physics equivalent of "riding in the drops" on a mountain bike?

Meaning, if I lower my dropper post significantly, and I am riding lower down on the bike (think "lowrider" style), is this a more stable position than riding the bike with the dropper post fully extended and thus, higher? To me, this lower position feels more stable.

While standing, is it generally more stable to crouch one's knees and get lower?

I ask these questions because I had a few crashes recently where I accidentally pulled the front brake too hard while going downhill, and I flew over the bars. I had never flown over the bars when road cycling or gravel biking (even when I rode the gravel bike on the exact same mountain bike trails as I fell on, and even when I once had to brake at 40mph), so I believe that it was a combination of too much front brake, plus being higher in position over the bike than I would have been e.g. on a road or gravel bike. Could this be the case?

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  • "and I flew over the bars" Move your ass backwards when going downhill and/or braking. Brace against the deceleration forces with your arms. Train it in a safe environment (e.g. on firm grass or a quiet road). Hard, straight braking is good, easy and relatively safe to train.
    – Michael
    Jan 26 at 8:16
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    "[a] position which supports staying on the bike rather than flying off the bike when riding over obstacles?" The key is to understand that there is no single static position when riding on uneven terrain. The dynamics of your body and of it center of mass is key to surviving. Staying too far back all the time will buckle you over when flying off drops; staying too far forward will lead to an OTB when braking; and so on. The suspension components should free you from the smaller chatter, but success of big movements is still defined by what your body is doing at the time. Jan 26 at 8:55
  • Answers go in answers, please, not in comments.
    – Criggie
    Jan 26 at 20:56

3 Answers 3

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Why are roadies so hunched over?!?

Let me begin by characterizing why road bikes have their riding position vs why MTBs have theirs. It's a gross generalization of course, but most riders and riding positions fall decently into the two categories.

  • Road bikes: To minimize frontal area for aerodynamic benefits and place the hips in the best position to generate power on flat roads, the road bike position is bent over forwards with the bars below the saddle. This also puts more weight on the bars, which I believe increases stability. As you said, bump absorption is a minor concern.

  • Mountain bikes: The rider is expected to ride downhill, on the flat, and uphill. The upper body is kept more upright to allow the rider to see the trail better, with less strain on the neck and back. This position also makes it easier to bend the legs in response to terrain undulations. Additionally, less weight is put on the bars to avoid flipping over the bars (as you've experienced) and generally control the fore/aft weight distribution.

Feel free to comment with why you believe MTBs should also have a road-esque hunched over position. Not trying to shame you, just understanding the logic.

Edit: @the_endian has replied to this:

to answer your question re why MTB should have hunched over position - note that my frame of reference is from my experience on mtb/dirt trails on the gravel bike (yes, I did ride actual mtb trails on it), and successfully maintaining control of said bike the whole time. It's probably a function of more powerful or even grabbier front brakes on my MTB (+ more traction as you mentioned from the tires), and my more time behind my gravel bike than anything else. Maybe MTB's shouldn't mimic gravel bike geometry, but I think it's now obvious why I felt that way. Thanks.

In a very localized context, yes, it's probably the lowered center of mass that saved you in this scenario. However, you would have been just fine on a MTB had you moved your body mass rearwards enough. As the trails get rougher and steeper, the hunched-over position of a road bike becomes a significant limitation. Your familiarity with the gravel bike certainly played a major role as well. And as a side note, it's gravel bikes that are imitating MTB geometry, not the other way around.

What is stability?

There are some technological factors that come into play (again, stereotyping):

  • Wheelbase: a longer bike will be more stable.

  • Reach: A longer body position will be more stable by stretching your body out and literally making it harder for you to move, almost locking you in position.

  • Front center / rear center balance: Essentially your fore/aft balance as dictated by where the BB is placed relative to the axles. Longer rear center (AKA chainstay length) is more stable, shorter gives you what's often referred to as a more "flickable" feel.

  • Steering geometry: Slacker head angles (lower angle number) are more "stubborn" against being knocked side to side by trail undulations AND resist your steering inputs, so you have to act more forcefully to turn. More trail "disconnects" your steering inputs from wheel turning movement, so again, you have to work harder to turn the bike, so it is more stable.

  • BB height, as I'm about to elaborate on. This doesn't mean that it's the most important factor, but rather that it leads to a significant point about how dynamic stability is achieved.

I see where you are coming from with the idea that since you ride low in the drops on a road bike to gain stability, surely the same procedure must apply on a MTB. To some extent, it does, yes. Bikes with lower bottom brackets are often seen as riding smoother or more planted than bikes with higher bottom brackets. However, having your mass up high can also work well because the bike acts like an inverted pendulum. Much like balancing a broomstick on your finger, keeping your mass high lets the (comparatively lighter) bike dance beneath you while your body "floats" over the terrain. Excessive built-in stability can also come at the expense of nimbleness, which highly experienced riders prefer because the bike is easier to jump etc.

I noticed that there's a concept of leaning back with one's hips while riding a mountain bike [...]

Yes, but...

Okay, so how do I stay on the bike?


[...] a position which supports staying on the bike rather than flying off the bike when riding over obstacles [...]

Wrong mentality!

Time to adapt to the mountain biker's way of thinking! On a road bike, emphasis is placed on finding the most ergonomic, most powerful position and holding it as best as possible. On a MTB, the opposite is the case. Your body position must be constantly changing. Hence, it's not a case of "thou shalt have thy hips rearwards when riding on a negative slope". Instead, think of body positioning as a tool or parameter you are constantly adjusting as you ride. Learning how to do this is a key aspect of "skill development"; many of the tweaks become subconscious.


At the end of the day, the key to staying on the bike is to practice on easier trails and develop the bike handling and body positioning techniques that allow this to happen. Assuming there are no major equipment issues here (like a bike that's too small, a fairly old bike with old-fashioned geometry, very weird handlebar setup, very wrong suspension setup), those two factors are the primary considerations.

There isn't really a universally accepted method of riding a MTB, but my philosophy is "high and loose". By that, I mean keeping the body high (keeping the legs fairly extended), and riding with very active arms and legs that react to changes in terrain as much as possible. You don't want to be statically holding a rearwards-heels-dropped position while letting the suspension absorb everything for you. Furthermore, the part about staying high means that you should NOT squat down as your default position, even when the dropper is down. This is to allow for more space between the bike and your groin AND promote the disconnect between what you are doing and what the bike is doing.

This relates to what I brought up in the paragraph about BB height earlier. You need to ride dynamically, with the bike moving under you. You have a mass of what, 70kg? The bike is probably less than 15kg. If you look at how your suspension works, the wheels and some suspension components move around, while the rest of the frame and your body stay level. We want to extend this relationship to the entire bike and your body: let the bike do its dancing and terrain-tracking under you, while your torso stays somewhat level. Yes, this means your arms and legs need to be moving the whole time too to allow for this "bike-body separation", as you'll often find it called.

Another thing is to pick better "lines". Even the narrowest trails have multiple possible paths to choose from, at least in terms of where exactly you choose to place your tires. You're certainly well familiar with the concept from riding on the road: avoiding potholes on descents, avoiding bad pavement, gravel, etc. Pick lines that are smoother and less steep so you have a lower risk of coming off the bike. Again, do not just resort to locking your body in a static position and hoping the suspension will save you.

Summary

  1. You have a greater mass than the bike. Let the bike do its thing underneath you. Use it and the suspension to help keep your body stable.

  2. Keep your butt up. Don't crouch down. Aim to maximize the amount of vertical space between the saddle and your groin so you have the largest amount of "real estate" to work with. If you're sitting on the saddle when it's in the dropped position, that's not good.

  3. Your body needs to be dynamic. Arms and legs should be constantly moving. Fore/aft weight balance is also dynamic according to the local terrain slope and features.

  4. You are not obligated to hit every rock on the trail. Pick the smoothest line you can!

The other stuff

[...] if I lower my dropper post significantly [...]

Why isn't it all the way down? You have it there for a reason.

[...] I accidentally pulled the front brake too hard while going downhill, and I flew over the bars.

You already know what you did wrong here. Your mountain bike may very well have stronger brakes than the road and gravel bikes. The wider, knobby, soft rubber also is likely to grip better, and the suspension helps keep the front wheel in contact with the ground better.

[...] even when I road the gravel bike on the exact same mountain bike trails as I fell on, and even when I once had to brake at 40mph [...]

If you really did flip over the bars at 40mph, I'd be writing this as part of your obituary, so let's first be thankful that you didn’t do that. You may have felt less confident braking on the gravel bike and hence applied the brakes less firmly, especially if you're very familiar with that bike and less so with the MTB.


Stability under braking isn't the only form of stability. You'll soon find that all of this becomes much more...exciting...when you get to trails that are so rough, you pretty much just lose control over the steering and the bike goes flying out from underneath you. You may also find yourself desiring more consistency and stability in the air when riding jumps. These are good problems to arrive at, and I believe you can do it!

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    There is a recent video series by Ben Carthro of Pink Bike that deals with all skills MTB. Here is a link to the body positioning chapter: youtube.com/watch?v=iVLJIuYwW_g . I find the material very well presented, Ben is a great teacher. Recommended both for newcomers and seasoned MTB:ers Jan 26 at 9:01
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    Bike-body separation is key — I tend to think of it as planning the path my head and torso are going to take, and the path my tires are going to take, and everything in between is incidental (coming from a BMX track background, not so much an MTB background, but I think this aspect of riding is similar, ignoring the pumping side of BMX). Jan 26 at 12:54
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    I'd summarise a fair bit of that as staying over the bike, not on it (though feet and hands will disagree). My own instinctive willingness to sit on my MTB holds me back. No dropper here so getting very low means adjusting the saddle before I start, but legs can be just bent enough to be shock absorbers. The OP's MTB brakes may be grabbier rather than stronger overall
    – Chris H
    Jan 26 at 13:45
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    I'm not a regular MTB rider, but the moving your bodyweight thing sounds right. I once tried to ride a tandem solo using the rear pedals and lying on the front saddle to reach the steering. Although I could turn the bars I could hardly steer due to low centre of gravity and inability to move my body. Your bodyweight does most of the steering and my guess is that this is more important in the MTB world, so a higher body position gives more control. Jan 26 at 14:59
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    @MaplePanda I liked your description, but thought a summary added emphasis to the key point. I know what you mean about torque threshold; I guess I mean that grabby brakes reach that threshold more abruptly so the user has less time to modulate, just a matter of getting used to them
    – Chris H
    Jan 26 at 20:30
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A short answer to explain a small part of your question. You touched on dropping heels as a way to move weight backwards - whilst it does indeed tend to shift your weight a little, it is not the primary goal.

What it's actually about is the way your bodyweight interacts with the bike when it encounters a braking force (either by applying the brakes, or by hitting an object like a rock or root on the trail). The pedals are a pivot point - when your feet are flat on them and you encounter a braking force, it is easy for your weight to rotate over the pedals. Your bodyweight will want to continue forward whilst the bike wants to stop and there's not much to prevent either from happening.

However when you drop your heels when you expect to encounter a large braking force, the centre of your foot is now below the pivot point and it won't pivot so easily. We still have the situation where your body wants to continue forward and the bike wants to stop, however the difference now is that your body weight will transmit a force through the pedals keeping the bike moving forward and preventing your body moving forwards.

I'd consider this a tool in the skills toolbox rather than adopting this position at all times. There is a lot to be said for the approach described by maplepanda of letting your arms and legs absorb a lot of impact rather than needing to 'brace' for the impacts all the time.

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    "I'd consider this a tool in the skills toolbox rather than adopting this position at all times" — true. You cannot e.g. efficiently pedal when heels are dropped. And when you anticipate for impact, that is when you definitely stop pedaling and assume the "attack stance" with heels and all that stuff. Same for the infamous "just lean back" ill-advice for riding steeps. Being too far back makes it hard to hold the and micro-steer the handlebar. Jan 26 at 13:26
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@MaplePanda has already explained everything perfectly. The goal of this answer is to provide another TL;DR; concise summary beside theirs.

When descending a mountain bike, the attack position(neutral position) is basically compulsory. It consists of being relaxed so the arms and legs can work as suspension(this is more important than having a 2000EUR forks) and being centered along the 3 directions in 3D space:

  • Front-rear - both wheels should generally be equally weighted. A common mistake is to weight the rear wheel significantly more in fear of over-the-bars. This is wrong as it adversely impacts steering and braking. On any slope, the points center of mass - bottom bracket - center of Earth should lie on one line.
  • Left-right - when cornering the bike should be leaned while the rider remains upright. This is in contrast to road cornering.
  • Up-down - perhaps 2/3 between sitting and so high the knees and elbows are locked. This could easily be the most important of the three. @MaplePanda and the linked video insist even higher so I'm very probably wrong in the "2/3" number.

Source(explained in only 2 minutes).

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    2/3 is probably the actual figure you're aiming for, but many riders (including myself) have a natural tendency to squat down, so it's sort of a "aim for the stars and you'll get to the moon" type deal.
    – MaplePanda
    Jun 29 at 21:09

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