America’s best downhiller reveals how he rides so fast
Aaron Gwin knows how to go incredibly fast on a mountain bike. He’s won National Championships, two World Cup series titles and nine World Cup events. He was getting ready for the international racing season when we caught up with him at the KMC Chain Winter Series in Fontana, California. We asked him if he’d be willing to share some of his speed secrets with our readers, and Aaron was more than happy to oblige.
Read Aaron’s tips and learn to ride like a top downhill racer. You’ll find that many of his tips apply to trail riding as much as downhill racing.
USE THE RIGHT TIRE PRESSURES
“My normal go-to pressure that I start with at the races is 25 psi front and 27 rear. We usually adjust accordingly after doing a few practice runs, either up or down in psi, depending on track conditions. Everyone has their own preferences, and each brand of tire may require you to run slightly more or less air to get the feel you want. Mix it up and see what works for you.”
PRE-RIDE THE COURSE
“My first runs down a track are done pretty slowly and cautiously. I take the time to stop and check out any tricky sections. I like to start forming a game plan as soon as I can for the following runs. It works well for me to memorize the main sections and get a feel for the track and then start building speed from there.”
WALK THE COURSE
“Course walking is pretty important at the big races. I don’t study lines too hard but more just try to find out the overall approach that I will take for my first practice run. I try to recognize the potential problem parts of the track that I’ll need to stop and look at again on my first practice runs.”
PRACTICE YOUR LINES
“I like practicing any tricky section of a course at least a few times. I’ll hike my bike back up so I can do it a few times in a row, back to back. I can figure out the right option and get it dialed faster that way.”
LEARN TO RIDE IN THE ROCKS
“Rock sections are always different, but it’s important to have a good line already picked out so that you know what to expect going in. As a general rule, I find it best to keep my weight as centered as possible. I try to find smoother sections in the rocks where I can compress my suspension to pull up and get lighter on the bike through the big hits or harsh square edges. Being light on your bike will really save you time and wheels in the rocks.”
RIDE IN THE RAIN
“Riding in rain, I’ve found, just takes time. You have to get out there and just get comfortable, and the best way to do that is practice.
“One of the big rules you definitely want to apply when riding in the wet is making sure you hit roots or rocks as straight on as possible. The more you can ‘square up’ to an obstacle, the less likely your wheels will want to kick out from underneath you when you hit it.
“It’s also good, just like in the rock sections, to try and unweight your bike when hitting the face of a sideways root or rock. The less force you hit the object with, the less effect it will have on your traction.”
RIDE IN DRY, HARD-PACKED CONDITIONS
“When it’s dusty and hard packed, the track is generally slipperier, so being patient entering corners is key. You can’t rush traction in the dry or you’ll just lose it.”
RIDE MORE AGGRESSIVELY IN SAND
“You can be a bit more aggressive in the sand than in hard-pack, because your tires have something to dig into. It’s good to keep your weight slightly farther back in the sand to make sure your front end doesn’t tuck under you in the turns. If you get too far back, though, your front end will want to float on top and push through the turns. Getting your weight in the right spot is key and just takes time in practice to master.”
CONTROL YOUR SPEED ON STEEP TERRAIN
“Riding steep terrain involves smooth braking and keeping your eyes further up the track so you can anticipate your braking points better. Speed control is important as well. If you’re riding a section that’s really steep, you want to make sure you enter into the top of that section at the right speed so that you won’t ultimately miss the corner at the bottom.”
PRACTICE YOUR JUMPING
“Jumping is one of those skills that just requires practice. Generally you want to keep your weight fairly centered on the bike. If someone is on a downhill bike or longer-travel, all-mountain-type bike, I always tell him to start out by learning how to bunny-hop first. You want to be able to compress the suspension in the face of a jump and then lift slightly. I say this because when learning to jump on bikes with more suspension travel, oftentimes the takeoff of the jump will be short, and if you don’t make an effort to compress and then pull up slightly on the front wheel, the bike will have a tendency to want to kick up in the rear, sending you into a nosedive. Like I said before, though, jumping is all about being comfortable and knowing what to expect, and that comes mainly through practice.”
LEAN THE BIKE IN FLAT CORNERS
“The main thing that helps with flat cornering is learning to lean the bike down without leaning your body down. When you lean your head and chest down with the bike in a flat corner, it will make the front wheel want to push out, so it’s important to keep your head and chest up. One of the best ways to practice this is by setting up six to eight cones in a paved parking lot, each one about 10-15 feet apart. You can practice going in and out of them like slalom poles. While doing this, you can start to get a feel for leaning the bike way down while keeping your head and chest as upright as possible. I also recommend keeping your outside pedal down; this weights the outside of the bike and will give you more traction. Going left to right, pedal a half crank between each cone to keep the outside foot down. Remember to keep your weight centered and eyes up!”
BE COVERED AND COMFORTABLE
“I find that every rider has different wants and needs for safety, so I usually don’t give much advice on what to wear. I think it’s best to wear as much as possible without being uncomfortable.”
LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES
“Learning from your mistakes and practicing your weaknesses is definitely the fastest way to improve. If you make a mistake or have a problem with certain techniques or obstacles, practicing those things is a must. Remember to be patient. It will be hard at first, but the more you practice, the easier it will get.”
FIND YOUR LIMITS IN PRACTICE, NOT THE RACE
“I always find that it’s best to work up to a race pace steadily in practice. I rarely do a whole run at race pace during practice because of the amount of energy that it takes, but I do make sure that I hit every section of the track individually at race pace at least a few times before my final run, just so that I know what to expect and don’t get in over my head. After that, it’s just putting all the pieces of the puzzle together for your race run.”
“Braking differs depending on the type of terrain you’re riding. One of the biggest mistakes for beginners is breaking too hard or too abruptly. It’s important to be smooth on the brakes to maintain traction and control. I always find the earlier you can brake into a corner, the earlier it allows you to get off the brakes and accelerate out. Momentum is the name of the game in gravity racing.”
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