Compromises in the face of reality

We all have these visions of how things are going to be. In downhill, they don’t always go that way.

But all is not lost.


When we were new parents, we found ourselves compromising our plans quickly when confronted by real babies with real needs. For instance “they’ll never watch TV” becomes “If I set them in front of Baby Einsten, I have 23 minutes to make dinner.” I just had the same experience on my first real time on big bikes on lift-serviced trails. (I’m not going to push the metaphor any farther)

A friend and I (both long time trail riders) recently got interested in downhill. We bought big bikes and this weekend we went out for the opening day at Plattekill, one of the first places to open in the northeast. I had 2 goals for myself: 1) To be aware of light hands, heavy feet all day – no using the arms to support my weight; and 2) to have the brakes either on or off – no dragging the brakes..

For goal 1, I had the opposite problem – it was very hard for me to put any weight on my hands at all – I was pulling back on the bars all day, regardless of how steep the hill. Have you seen this in your coaching?

For goal 2, I found that terrifying. The acceleration when I let go of the brakes was breathtaking and quickly took me into the red zone. So I dragged the brakes much of the day. Given that my goal is to increase my speed safely, should I really be full on / full off? Even if I go full on every few seconds?

Thanks for your help,

Hey Jim,

Luckily, I have very few expectations where my Fatherhood Kung Fu is concerned. I just want to be a good dad. And create two billionaire/MTB world champions who are loved by all — including themselves. That isn’t too much to ask, is it? 🙂

Pulling with the hands
Yep, I see this all the time.

Most riders spend most of the time too far forward, with too much weight on their bars. When they get scared, they lean back too far, and they end up pulling on the bars.

Not that you were scared. Let’s just say you were riding defensively.

Breathtaking acceleration
Steep terrain means rapid acceleration. That’s all there is to it.

If you’re too far back, you’ll feel even more terrified; the rearward position pulls you into every drop, and it lets your unweighted front tire wander aimlessly.

That’s a recipe for stress. And once the stress response hits you, it’s over. Your body and bike become uncontrollable, and any speed seems excessive.

The above issues are related. I suggest:

– Find your feet. Too far back is almost as bad as too far forward. Learn to balance on your feet and keep your hands neutral. Always.

– Learn your new bike on tamer terrain. Riding a big bike is a different experience — it’s vague and disconnected unless you pump hard and really engage with the ground. I hope that makes sense; that’s another post.

– And make sure that bike is dialed. The more travel you have, the more dialed it must be.

– Brake as much as you need to. Spend as much time as possible rolling and flowing; it’s safer and more fun. If the trail requires you to brake hard every few seconds, so be it.

– Absolutely avoid that stress response. You might dial back your expectations as far as trails/speed are concerned. I believe firmly that it’s more fun (and better for your skills) to braaap a trail you trust than to apologize your way down a trail you fear. Plattekill is the real deal — rip the blues before you step up to black.

Dude, it sounds like you’re successfully raising kids. That makes you my hero.

Dropping in …

— Lee

7 replies
  1. tony says:

    hey Jim,
    here’s an analogy from my own recent experience:

    i just swapped my 32 for a 36 Talas RC2 (sweet fork!) on my Blur LT; that extra inch of travel up front has presented some big challenges. With the longer travel comes slacker angles. With this new slackness, I found myself hanging off the back of the bike on downhill gnar, forearms burning from “holding on”. I found that I needed to develop a more aggressive attack position…elbows higher and further out since my whole front end was taller.

    After a month of riding (couple days a week), I’m getting it all dialed and feel more confident and less sketchy. Forearms don’t ache and definitely riding the bike vs. hanging off the back of it…

    hope this helps.

  2. dan says:

    awareness is 90% of the solution, you’re on your way. it sounds like you need to start on easier terrain, something i bump into while teaching skiing.

  3. JimV says:

    Thanks for the help guys. I dig the way answers here are actionable. I can take your answers and work them. I’ll be finding my feet this weekend, no doubt. Fantastic. -Jim

  4. Eric says:

    Sounds like everyone’s first experience. Give it a few visits before you’re too hard on yourself. Downhill really is a different activity, even if you’ve been trail riding for a while.

    Also, come on down to Diablo (depending on where you’re located). I haven’t made it up to Plattekill, but every description I’ve heard makes it sound steep and serious. There’s a nice progression of trails now at Diablo to get you going with a minimum of risk.

  5. leelikesbikes says:

    Plattekill sounds like the East Coast analog to Northstar at Tahoe. Northstar is steep, loose and rocky. It took me a couple seasons to find any kind of flow.

    The key for me was learning to pump aggressively. And chasing Curtis Keene.

  6. Chris says:

    Raising kids is easy, you just have to follow this one simple rule: ask yourself “What would Britney Spears do?” and do the opposite.

  7. Nate says:

    Ok here is my two cents and I might even get ridiculed for the second one.

    For your goal 1: A trick that worked for me (but I’m kinda weird) is if I concentrated on pumping the terrain with my arms it makes you weight and unweight your bars what averages out to no weight on the bars, which automatically puts me in a good attack position.

    Goal 2 Don’t brake unless you have to. (Ok this is where I’m going to get in trouble.) I drag my brakes if its steep but no terrain, that means if your not using suspension or cornering. When it get scary thats when I start looking for the safer spots 🙂 to brake on, when I get use looking for spots to brake it almost becomes a game. You said “Even if I go full on every few seconds?” When your downhilling in a true 3 or 4 seconds a lot of things can happen so I could see braking that often.

    Oh and rule number one when DHing, if something is truly scary but you will not be able to stop before you get to it, your better off not braking and most of the time you will be super stoked when you clear that scary thing. If that doesn’t work then you will learn to look far enough ahead so you can brake before you get there won’t you?

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