Riding The Rocks (From Someone Still Learning)

If you’re looking for advice from a professional and highly skilled rock-monkey to help you move from the level of extremely good at riding up and down large and awkward rocks to super-duper extremely good, then I really don’t have all that much to offer you. But, if you’re like me, and are fairly adept at riding technical trails but are looking to get better for the sake of increasing your overall enjoyment of riding trails, I have some words of advice.

There are people out there who can float up rocks like gravity doesn’t exist for them, who can get their rear wheels to hop up steps that I have difficulty walking up, who can descend vertical faces like they were horizontal, and seemingly have no fear. Tucson is filled with people like this.

Me? I’d ride over rocks when it’s convenient, with minimal consequences if I failed. And really, that policy is great for a lot of things and has gotten me through countless hours of riding bikes. But at the same time, developing new skills is part of the fun of this adventure that we call mountain biking. While I could sit here and rehash all the skills taught by people far more experienced and technically adept at true rock-crawling, I thought I’d share my top tips for getting comfortable, or just comfortable enough, on rocks.

Going Up
One of the main obstacles encountered on trails are step-ups. Tucson is full of them, including some big ones. But truth be told, any trail has spots where getting up and over a root, rock, water bar, or other impediment to forward motion is a useful skill to have. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Confidence is key when approaching a rock. It’s human to want to go on the defensive when riding up to a large object and this is often manifested in shifting weight back over the rear wheel. This is a sure way to set up for disaster, or at least necessitating putting a foot down. Instead, think of getting into more of an aggressive position: Weight centered (instead of back), arms bent (instead of straight), head up (instead of looking at the rock you’re about to plow into).

When it comes to getting your front wheel up, think of pulling your handlebar toward your hips, instead of thinking about lifting your bars straight up and over. This will naturally bring your hips towards the bars and your wheel up.

Once your front wheel is up, there’s generally a split second where you can’t pedal (unless you’re a master at pedal timing, or you just get lucky) at the risk of smacking a pedal into the rock/root/mound of dirt. If you have momentum, this dead spot isn’t a big deal. If you’re coming into a step at a steep angle and it’s everything you can do to keep forward motion, there’s going to have to be a drastic shift of body weight forward to prevent this split second of no power from turning into a stall. Have faith.

Once your bottom bracket is clear of the rock, pedal and believe that your rear wheel will continue up behind your front by virtue of it being attached via a bike frame.

The key to putting all this together? Look at something down the trail, not at your bottom bracket. Seriously.

Going Down
In the past, we were taught to get behind our seats to avoid the dreaded ‘endo’ whenever descending something steep. While this approach is the best way to avoid going over the bars in many situations, it doesn’t afford you a lot of control over the bike and leaves you in a defensive position, reacting to what the trail is throwing at you rather than actively controlling the bike.

The new school of thought has emphasized the ‘Ready Position,’ which is described in detail in a variety of books and websites. To summarize (same as going up): Bent arms, bent legs, weight centered over the bike, weight on the feet instead of the hands. Practice riding down hills with as little weight in your hands as possible, see how loose your grip can be. You’ll surprise yourself.

The Mental Game
90% of riding rocks is mental. Once the basic skills are down, it’s all about convincing yourself that what you’re attempting is actually possible. This is easier said than done.

Focused Learning
In the book “The Talent Code,” the author explores how true masters of a sport are developed. What he claims is that taking a focused approach to learning a new skill is critical for rapid skill development. While most of us ride in a way where we make an attempt on a challenging section of trail and move on even if we don’t make it up, the real way to improve skills is to go back and try, and try, and try again. Clearly, this approach doesn’t work on a group ride unless everyone is on the same page, and it’s less than ideal if you’re out for a long ride and trying to get home before dark, but it’s the fastest way to create new neural pathways.

Many people ride with a ‘Three Strikes And You’re Out’ rule when it comes to technical rides, but spending an intensely focused session on an obstacle that is just outside of your skills range can do wonders. The key is to find something that you can envision riding, but only with work. Not too easy, not too hard. A good rule of thumb is that it has to be 20% scary and 80% comfortable to optimize the chance of success without injury. Whether you get it or not, your brain will have changed and new skills will have been created through trying.

Moving On

The key to a successful rock-session ride is knowing when it’s time to move on. Fun, not frustration, is the key here, and if you find yourself getting annoyed, down on your skills, or even determining your overall self-worth based on your ability to ride a move, it’s time to keep riding. Before you know it, the rock will be a distant memory, and chances are, next time to try it, you’ll ride it and wonder why you were having such a hard time with it in the first place.

Respect your adrenal glands
Riding rocks requires a good bit of adrenaline, especially downhill ones that have a significant level of risk. Not only is it hard on your body to focus on riding rocks on a daily basis, your adrenal system will eventually run out of adrenaline and the high associated with taking risk will very quickly turn to fear.

Spotters and Pads
A great way to decrease the risk of injury is to approach difficult moves with pads and/or spotters. A lightweight set of knee and elbow pads can go a long way towards adding confidence and reducing the chance of injury.

Having a spotter available if you stall out halfway up a move will give you the extra couple of seconds to get unclipped and to get a foot in a secure position to get off safely.

It’s the journey that counts, not the destination…or something like that
Rock-focused rides can be an excellent alternative to a more traditional ride that most of us think of when we say we’re going for a ride. Don’t get me wrong, a good tech ride will leave you just as tired, in a different way, but offers a great way to add variety to a week of riding and will ultimately improve your enjoyment and confidence on the bike.

This post filed under topics: Eszter Horanyi Mountain Biking Skills

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Eszter Horanyi

Eszter Horanyi

When Eszter Horani was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com


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Mike Berg | January 31st, 2014

Thanks for a great article full of good suggestions, as well as some wonderful photos!  Now that I’m nearly 59 years old (when did that happen?), I factor in the risk versus reward aspect of attempting technically demanding sections of trails much more than when I was younger.  One thing I’ve learned over the years of mountain biking by myself and with others is when to try again (and again) and when it’s best to live to try another day.

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