How to Ride Down Crazy- Steep Trails – Tips From the Pros

How to Ride Down Crazy- Steep Trails

Tips From the Pros

There are few things as tricky or scary as riding down a super-steep descent. The top riders seem to handle such things with ease. Lesser mortals may get off their bikes and hike down. How do the pros make it look so easy? To find out, we called on some top pros to see what tips they could share for riding down extremely steep downhill sections of mountain bike trails, otherwise known as “steeps.”

YT’S BRETT TIPPIE

Photo by Margus Riga

Whistler pioneer Brett Tippie has no fear when it comes to riding down the steepest trails on earth.

Make sure your brakes are working well and adjusted the way you like them! Scout your in-run and out-run, and know the slipperiness factor of the slope before you ride it. It’s nice to know ahead of time if it’s wet, mossy, dusty, loose, etc.

Believe in yourself. Be brave and relaxed, and commit. Enter the line with your seat lowered and standing on your bike with the pedals and cranks flat at the right speed. If you need to start slow, start slow (not so slow that you lose your balance, though), but be mentally prepared to ride it out fast if need be.

Look ahead, exactly where you want to go, and keep breathing! I like my index finger on each brake lever. Transfer from the ready position to the attack position with legs and arms bent so that you get your weight low—and keep your elbows out so you look cool, just in case MBA is shooting you! It’s also sometimes very helpful to keep your knees wide and cowboy-style so that the bike can float around freely beneath you.

As you hit the steepest part (if it’s steep enough), you might want to shift your weight back, or stay centered and thrust the bike forward a bit. The main thing is to get low. Keep your wheels rolling! You don’t want to lock up your tires, because you have more control with a rolling tire.

Apply enough brake to slow you down, but don’t skid. If one or both of your tires do start to skid, slightly release enough pressure on the corresponding brake to let that wheel and tire keep rolling, especially the front wheel!

If your back tire starts to swap out or fishtail to one side, steer your bars slightly in that direction. If it’s bumpy or chunky enough that it starts to mentally freak you out, imagine riding the same terrain tilted flat. It makes it easier to imagine how you’d just monster-truck over it, then do it on the angle you’re actually riding.

As you exit the steepest bit of the line and hit the transition or out-run and it flattens out, center your weight on the bike. You must make sure your weight is not so far back that you loop out and/or drag your butt on the rear tire—and not so far forward that you G-force out and get driven into the stem, causing an endo.

Ride out the line and keep ripping, or stop and accept high fives from your friends! In a nutshell, dial in your gear, practice on easier pitches until you’re ready, inspect your chosen route, visualize, trust yourself, focus, commit, look ahead, execute, and then celebrate!

KHS DOWNHILL PRO LOGAN BINGGELI

Logan Binggeli is a former downhill national champion and a Red Bull Rampage medalist.

As far as tips go for descending, the first two major ones that come to mind would be bike setup (having the correct raked fork angle can really make a difference), along with absolutely perfect braking. Getting all your braking done before the apex makes a huge difference. It’s much more difficult to get your braking down on the steeper descents.

SCOTT SPORTS-MAXXIS’ GEOFF KABUSH

Canadian Geoff Kabush is a multi-time national champion, World Cup winner and three- time Olympian.

When riding a really steep section of trail or feature, there are a few key points I try to focus on. Once you enter a steep section, it can be too late to adjust speed, so make sure to get any braking done before dropping in. Traction can really be a challenge when the trail gets steeper. The easiest option is to go straight down the fall line, so try to pick an entry point and line that minimizes changes in direction. Look for shallower sections of trail with good traction before and after a steep section to set up and regain control and direction. Body position and braking bias are also key. The steeper the trail, the more you want to use your rear brake and shift your weight back over the rear tire to maintain pressure and traction. As you shift your weight back, you also want to be careful to feather and minimize your front-brake use. The last thing you want is to lock up the front wheel on the steepest sections.

YT’S AARON GWIN

By the end of 2016, Aaron Gwin had won 16 World Cup downhill races during his career and four year-end titles. He is also a seven-time national champion.

Choosing the Right Line

When I’m at the races, the key to riding any track fast is to first find my lines. Generally, I start with a track walk the day before practice begins. I don’t attempt to figure out every detail. I just want to see the general flow and make a mental checklist of which sections will need more attention once practice begins. I also look for any surprise dangers that could quickly sneak up on me during my first run; for example, a sharp, right-hand turn on the backside of a blind crest, or a big rock near the landing of a jump. To help me remember each section more accurately, I’ll take photos with my phone, and then look back through the photos a few times before practice.

Once practice begins, I usually start out with an easy, slow run. I just want to get a feel for my bike, the dirt, the general flow of the track, etc. I don’t worry about hitting the more difficult lines. I just want to make it down safe and easy at a pace where I can see everything again. After the first run I begin the process of figuring out the more technical sections. I’ll stop at each section, study the possibilities and decide on the best options for me. After deciding on a line, I’ll then push back up the trail and ride the line immediately while it’s fresh in my mind. If I mess it up, I’ll usually push back up and try it again. If you are less experienced, this pro- cess can take a few days, so don’t feel like you need to figure out every line on your second run. Although, the quicker you can dial them in, the faster you will get up to speed. Developing an eye for good lines takes time, but as with anything, you can become skilled if you put forth the effort. A good starting point is to watch the faster riders. Watch the lines they choose, and then ask yourself, why did they go there? Was it smoother, straighter, easier, harder? Obviously, you should ride within your abilities, so if the fastest line requires risk that you’re not comfortable with, then you will have to figure out the next best option. Oftentimes, though, in a technical section, the fastest line is the easiest line; most people just don’t see it.

When I watch practice sessions, especially at an amateur race, I am often amazed at how little attention goes into line selection. I’ll watch 30 guys in a row smash through the main line of braking bumps when there is a perfectly smooth line 6 inches to the right. Or, how a series of S-turns can be completely straightened out by setting up the entrance a little differently. There is literally free time just sitting there, requiring less effort, but nobody stops to actually see it. Never just trust the main line; study what is around it before deciding. That goes for every section on the track, not just the more difficult ones.

I always say that a racetrack is like a puzzle, and each section of the track is like a piece of that puzzle. During a race run, I am just simply putting all of the pieces together. I have a game plan when entering each section. I know where I want to go, and that becomes the focus from top to bottom during my run. It’s easy for your mind to wander during a race run. If you can focus it on hitting your lines and not on “this is a race run and I need to go fast,” you will see the rewards in your race results. This process of good line selection takes effort and a little time, but be patient, because you can become skilled at it!

GT’S JOEY FORESTA

Joey Foresta is a multi-time U.S. national champion in the amateur ranks. He placed second in 2016’s Pro Men’s Dual Slalom at Sea Otter when he was only 14.

When riding a steep section, there are a few things that I like to focus on. First is to figure out the right speed of entry and to try to do most of my braking before the steeps. Second is to look as far ahead as possible and have a target of where I can let loose on the brakes to maximize my exit speed. I also remind myself to stay loose with bent arms and legs.

If it’s a section that I am able to session in practice, I look for rocks or obstacles I can use as backsides to pump to generate more speed, and as ruts or holes develop, I can get light on the bike to float over them or around them. Overall, the key for me is to figure out a line where I am braking as little as possible on the steep and am able to carry as much speed as I can at the exit of it.

TROY LEE/SRAM’S TODD WELLS

Todd Wells has won 12 national championships in mountain biking. Photo by Russell Finsterwald

Riding down steep trails requires harder braking since the bike wants to accelerate more rapidly. This is tricky, because you’re already in a nose-heavy position, so it’s critical to get your weight back behind the saddle. If the trail is really steep, you’ll probably just be sliding down with your rear brake locked, essentially in a controlled skid. If the trail has good traction, you can use your front brakes to modulate your speed somewhat. But, if it’s really loose, I would try to stay off them as much as possible.

Finally, you want to spot your run-out to maximize the use of the steep hill when transitioning either to an uphill or flat section. Try to get off the brakes as soon as possible to use your momentum to carry your speed so you can go faster and recover more before you have to get back on the gas.

If the hill is muddy, you’ll essentially be ice skating down it. Lean way back. Try to steer the bike as much as you can, but make sure to stay loose. You can’t force the bike in the mud, so it’s best to try to finesse it.

CANNONDALE’S JEROME CLEMENTZ

France’s Jerome Clementz is one of the world’s foremost enduro racers.

Here are some key points to handle steep trails: Stand on your pedal and don’t sit. Your two feet should be at the same level so your body can absorb the movements and act like suspension.

Your elbows and knees should keep working, and you can use your heels to push your bike down and improve traction. Be strong on your shoulders and stomach (use your core muscle to “freeze”). It makes sense to move a bit backward, not to go over the bars, and to increase the efficiency of rear braking. But, your arms should not be straight and all your weight on the rear tire, because that would not allow you to control the front end.
Always look far ahead to improve stability, and act depending on what is coming in front of you—drops, roots, rocks, end of the steep.

Photos by Jeremie Reuiller

Try not to skid. The most efficient braking is when your wheel is rotating as slowly as possible, not when skidding on the ground. A bit of speed improves stability—as long as you can control it, of course. Trust yourself and believe that you will make it. Confidence is key to improving your skills.

GT’S HANS REY

Hans Rey is a former trials world champion and the world’s foremost mountain bike ambassador.

Riding down steep trails and chutes requires nerves and experience. Lower your seat. Personally, I prefer flat pedals, especially when it gets super technical. Don’t have your suspension set up too soft. You don’t want too much sag. Enduro racers set up their suspension stiff to better float over rough sections instead of diving into every hole.

I usually approach the sections as slowly as possible or at a controllable speed. If there is not much run-out, or if it gets really rough, you generally don’t want to be going too fast. The steeper it gets, the farther one has to lean back; however, don’t be too far back all the time—just for the steepest bit.

Generally, I have my body weight rather central most of the time, sometimes even forward. Riding the front wheel and using the front brake is an often underestimated technique. If it’s a super-technical section, don’t get intimidated by the length. Just break it up into a few yards at a time. Before you know it, you will have mastered the entire section.

Be patient. Sometimes it pays not to rush, like in slow, tight switchbacks or super-rough sections. Always formulate a plan B in your head, like what to do if this or that happens. You want to have your weight way behind your seat on steep sections to avoid flipping over the bars and so you can dismount your bike in back when things get out of control.

Photos by Carmen Freeman-Rey

Always put down the foot closer to the hillside. If you have the choice, and if things really get gnarly but you don’t want to dismount, do a classical “tripod” by dragging the hillside foot on the ground for assistance. It’s important to put your weight way back behind your seat and put your leg as far away from your bike as possible. That will give you more stability.

Also, when riding steeps, focus most on the line for your front wheel; the back wheel will follow automatically in most cases. Last but not least, once you commit, go for it. Doing it halfway or half-heartedly—or breaking the move up halfway through—hardly ever works out.

NORCO’S JILL KINTNER

Jill Kintner is an Olympic bronze medalist in BMX and a three- time world champion in mountain biking.

You want to use your rear brake more than your front brake down steep stuff, kind of like dropping an anchor. This will allow your front wheel to still be free and steering where you want to go, and the back brake will mainly slow you down. Also, when there are little G-outs or compressions, those are where you want to brake the hardest. Use your heels to brace yourself. Point and shoot for catch benches to change direction from. It’s best to keep it simple—brake intentionally, look where you want to go and pivot off support benches.

ROTWILD’S RICHIE SCHLEY

Richie Schley is one of the original free-ride pioneers, along with his pals Wade Simmons and Brett Tippie, who helped turn Whistler Bike Park into the top mountain bike park on earth. The famous Schleyer trail at the park is named after him.

Riding Super-Steep Slopes

Riding steeps is all about where you are on the bike, braking, accepting the speed you will end up going and settling into it. Riders always tell their friends to “just lean back,” but too far back takes the weight off your front wheel, which is not a good thing.

You want to get back, but keep some bend in your elbows and weight on your front tire, as that is where most of your braking comes from, especially once your rear wheel is skidding. You never want to go into a front-wheel skid. Find the front-wheel skidding point and stay just under it.

Depending on how steep and long something is, you might end up in a rear-wheel skid, but you need to keep the rear wheel straight and in control. Different surfaces will require different braking. You can drag a skid on soft dirt, but when you do it on a hard surface, you need to make sure you keep your wheel straight.

The next thing is to look ahead and know if you’ve got the run-out. Most people panic and think they are going too fast and drag a leg or lay it over when they just have to accept the speed and run it out safely. If you have the skills to do that, practice where you can do it safely, like on grass, and then take it to your local steep trails. Riding the steeps is one truly exhilarating thing that is unique to mountain biking. I love it as much as catching air!


 THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION

Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun. Start a subscription by clicking here or calling (800) 767-0345.