Body Positioning on the Bike: Tips & Skills from Dr. Pearson (Coach Ally! :-)
Location: Three Bears Trail, Backyard a la Boise, Idaho
Photo: Toji Sakamoto
The Foundation to Success: Body Positioning on the Bike
This is the year. You got the bike you (almost) want. You figured out the schedule. You’ve watched “How to be a Mountain Biker” by IFHT on youtube (So funny!). Now what? How do you make this the year of all years?
How you handle your bike can make or break you on a climb or descent. I'm going to break down some simple things to do while on the bike to improve your bike handling skills and technique. Once you master this, then cornering, steep climbs, long climbs, steep descents, and technical terrain become manageable and a fun challenge. However, if you find what I describe below difficult due to pain, tightness, stiffness, etc. while biking, it may be time to see a physical therapist. Luckily, your Vitam Tribe has a physical therapist who specializes in this area!
In the simplest terms, there are only two positions on the mountain bike: sitting/pedaling and ready stance.
Let's start with sitting and pedaling. The only time to sit is when you are pedaling. Keep light pressure in the hands, with neutral wrists and soft elbow. Hinging at the hips allows for a neutral spine all the way up to the neck and head. Eyes are looking forward. While pedaling, you want to be sure to engage both the push and pull on the pedal stroke. You want it to be even. Avoid excessive pushing down and try to keep the body calm (understandable when you are climbing up the last of the three bears, your legs are screaming, your heart might explode out of your rib cage, but try to keep it cool, okay). Push down with the whole foot- keep a flat foot or slightly lower heel. Try to avoid pointing your toes while pedaling. At the bottom, pull back up. This creates an even pedal stroke and offers efficient use of energy.
Next, and more importantly, the ready stance. Any time you are not pedaling, you are in this position. The ready stance is where most of the bike handling skills make their mark. When you are balanced on your bike, it is easier to negotiate bumpy terrain. If you want to see incredible bike handling skills, watch American Aaron Gwin win the 2015 World Cup Downhill Championship race without a chain. His ability to push and control the bike down this course allowed him to win first place without making a single pedal stroke!!! Incredible.
Starting from the bottom- the feet. The most important contact with the bike and driving the most control out of it. When you aren't pedaling, your heels should be dropped, regardless of clipless or flat pedals. This technique will keep your feet on the pedals (ahem, flat pedals) and allow you to drive the bike into corners or lift over obstacles. As we work our way up the body, knees and hips should be slightly bent and comfortable to allow for absorbing bumps along the way without getting bounced off. Hips should be back, so your belly is over the bottom bracket (where the pedals attach to the bike). Each mountain bike has specific geometry, so this will vary depending on the bike's style and terrain. A steeper downhill trail will require you to sit further back on the bike versus a flat trail with roots and rocks.
As we work our way up, your back should be in a neutral position- avoiding excessive rounding at the lower or mid-back. Shoulder blades pulled down and back allows you to move with the bike. As we move into the arms, shoulders down and back, you want the elbows relaxed and slightly bent, wrists in neutral. The grip on the handlebars should be light. Your hands are there to guide the bike. Your hands will function as a great indicator if your body is in the proper position. If you are pushing the handlebars like you are pushing the bike away, you are too far forward and need to shift your weight backward. If you are pulling on the bars with your fingers, you are too far back and need to shift forward. Body positioning on the bike is dynamic and constantly changing. Like I mentioned before, your hands are there to guide the bike down the line you choose, and your arms should absorb the shocks of the terrain. Head and neck should be neutral: not bent to the side, dropping down, or severely angled in any way.
There you have it, folks, body positioning on the bike. To recap, there are two positions: sitting/pedaling and ready stance. While pedaling/sitting, avoid pushing weight into your hands. In the ready stance, your position over the bike will be dynamic and changing as the trail changes. It will take practice to perfect this foundational skill. If you need help mastering it, looking to take it to the next level, or need help with pain/tightness/barriers, I am excited to work with you!
Dr. Ally Pearon, PT, DPT
Vitam's Physical Therapist and Cycling Coach