Becoming one with the bike.

You can just sit on a mountain bike and steer it along the trail. It’s an enjoyable way to see the countryside. If, however, you want to improve your speed and general competence you need to become one with the bike. The bike has to be an extension of your body through which you sense the ground underneath you, allowing you to anticipate the limit of grip on the turns and stick to the bike whatever the trail throws at you. It may be that you gain this ability through long periods of practice but you can speed things up. The way to anticipate where the limit of grip lies is to go to that limit in a controlled way which can easily be replicated. Here’s one way.

Find an area with a dirt surface. It could be dusty, damp or even a little gravel strewn, it doesn’t really matter. Pick up some speed and start to turn with your inside leg extended to the side. Turn tighter until you feel the wheels starting to lose grip. Straighten up and keep doing this, turning round in both direction and get the feel for the limit. If the bike slides, especially if it’s a front wheel slide it’s likely to fall further over. Your extended foot will now tap the ground. Do it with deliberate intent and what happens is the weight pressing on the rear wheel is reduced. The rear wheel will then slide and your front wheel should regain grip! As long as you keep the front wheel pointing around the smooth arc of your turn, ie. the direction you want to go, you should stay upright. You’ve survived! I should add that you won’t always survive. Sliding to the ground sometimes is inevitable but the more you practice, the less this will happen.

After much practice you can take this newfound ability to the trails. Ride a twisty trail repeatedly, increasing the speed on each corner to find that place where you begin to slide. As you gain confidence you can even stop sticking your foot out because you’ll now be anticipating the limit of grip and riding just on the right side of it. It may take a long time and a bit of luck to reach this point but as golfer Gary Player said, that the more he practiced, the luckier he got!

In my last post I’d made a small modification to my bike to, hopefully improve it’s cornering performance. I’d been inspired by an article in Mountain Bike Rider magazine and hoped to further test the bike today on some less banked corners. When a corner has a banking or “berm” it’s more difficult to find the limit of grip and when you get there things happen more suddenly at a higher speed. Today I would ride some flatter corners to see how the bike felt. I don’t think I’ve ridden to Birkacre and Coppull mill since the Coronavirus lockdown started and I was slightly worried that the areas might be busy with families. We had some rain yesterday so it looks as if the sunniest spring on record may be drawing to a close. At least the dampness might settle down the dust which has been accumulating. This morning was dry but cloudy at only around 15 degrees Celcius. My aim today was not to time myself but to concentrate on the feel of the bike, find which wheel slid first and thus to adjust my technique to get the best from the bike.

I rode from home to find the ground with only the slightest surface damp on the first, fast downhill. At Birkacre I repeated a series of three down hill corners and soon found the limit. The front wheel was a little skittish but the back seemed to want to slide first. I reduced my rear tyre pressure from 32 to 27 psi and definitely got better grip. I reduced the front tyre pressure by a similar amount which also helped. I could now concentrate on how much weight I was applying to the handlebars to get the balance of front and rear grip just right. By leaning forwards and pressing on the bars you improve front wheel grip, it’s that simple. Ease back on the pressure by not leaning as hard on the bars and front wheel grip is sacrificed for rear wheel grip. This balance is something you learn to feel through much practice. I rode a full lap of the area which took around 7 minutes. I then rode to the small wooded area behind the former cotton mill at Coppull to ride 5 laps of a short circuit which I eulogised about last year. The twisting downhill lasts almost as long as the straighter climb back to the top.

On my first lap I was cautious because we’ve had deliberate obstruction of the trail in the past, which could be dangerous. Everything was clear and I found later that the app. Strava gave me a trophy for second fastest run ever at 52 seconds! The fastest ever time is 51 second which I surely beat as I increased my speed. Unfortunately Strava seems to have become confused as I circled round 5 times and didn’t record any of these times! At the end of the downhill section is a fearsome drop. You take off over the lip and don’t land until you’re well down the slope. The drop is immediately followed by a right hand corner on a loose surface. By lap 2 I noticed my front wheel starting to drift out as I turned so I resolved to lean down on those handlebars to increase grip. Laps 3 and 4 proved that the technique works with much more assured grip. Lap 5 saw me pushing the pace and over the drop I felt out of control. I went too fast and I knew it. It was a thrill, though.

The terrifying 10 foot drop at the end leads into an exquisite right hand corner.
From below you can see how sharp the lip is and hence why you leave the ground!

I rode back via Birkacre and Duxbury Woods to complete an excellent ride. I’d really got the feel for the bike by concentrating and improved things with the lower tyre pressures.

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