Takin' Big Hits

Ever been biking flat-out on some unfamiliar trail when you suddenly encounter the "Wild Root Animals?" There are also the Trunk and Stump, close relatives of the Root. These plentiful creatures seem to like to "school" close to mountain biking trails and ski runs.(School, not herd. Yes, I've heard of school but I don't go anymore.) Having little experience with the latter of the two sports, I have met many of these floor-dwelling creatures on mountain bike rides - and I mean "met" intimately.

The first time a Root crossed the trail, it coincided with my first trip to the Highway 9 trail at Skyline. The best way to describe the trail is sheer elegance - "difficult".
Try to picture a slightly downhill section of aluminum loading ramp about 40 feet long. Now, replace the aluminum edges of the ramp with 2 to 10 inch intertwined, exposed tree roots. Next, take a 40 pound mallet and make sure the center of the ramp is as smooth as a merger between two software companies (Beat the daylights out of it). Place about 200 ramps which match the above specification on top of each other, like they were fan-folded. Put them at 60 degree angles from one another, end to end.
Getting the picture yet???
It wasn't enough that you had to deal with "Lord Gravity" and the "Blessed Mother of Accelleration", you also had to "stay within the roots" and be prepared to turn a downhill 180 with a pantload in tow.
Now you may think that I was going to tell you I crashed - no. If you crash there, I believe you would be very dead. If you did not die, I am sure you will have wished you did.
Believe it or not, I made it to the bottom - with my wife!!!!!
You see, this was Day 2. Day 2 is the day after you get your first new mountain bike - you may remember this. Day 2 is that day where you have your new bike, perhaps some new gear, and with your new helmet you feel like you could climb up the side of Everest without breaking a sweat. You are not thinking of things like, "if the ride is downhill for 8 miles, how the hell are we going to get back?"
We were also not aware that you could get rigor mortis without being dead. But after going downhill with the brakes on, and taking the same amount of time it takes the FDA to approve a new drug, you have a bad case of "hands which will not move."
It took a few minutes to recover from all of our symptoms of Day 2. Thank goodness we had water with us. We didn't know it at the time, but without the water we truly would have been in poop creek without a propulsion device.
I knew the ride back was going to be a bear, but I had no idea of the magnitude of the task. It also never occurred to me that I had only seen two people going UP the trail as I was coming down - until I started pedaling.
The first 50-or-so feet went really well. It was the first Root I hit that started all the problems.
Granted I had the same lung capacity as a luna moth, I was still mentally convinced I could make this trail. I lunged the tire over the Root and pedaled on. Boom, I hit the next Root. Corrected and back on the seat, I forged on - again I hit a Root.
After about 15 minutes I realized I had gone about 40 feet and managed to get off my bike about 8 times. My superior abilities of deduction were telling me that something was wrong.
It probably took about 2 hours for us to get to the top of the trail, and we ended up walking most of it.
Reflecting on the event with my wife, I knew our inability to lift the front tire was what had slowed our ascent to a minor crawl. It became clear to me that I would need to know how to take hits, big hits. Now, before you go out to get some dry ice and an acrylic filtering device, there are better ways to take big hits with your mountain bike. When you are trying to pedal over an obstacle you have to deal with the "Dean of Inertia". The Dean is rather strict about what can, and cannot happen to you based upon the amount of inertia you carry. In fact, the more you ride your MTB, you will learn that the more inertia you carry with you the better. The Dean has some simple rules you need to follow to prevent stopping prematurely, or stuffing your front tire onto some immoveable object.

Yes, you have to practice this.

You see, the Dean carries a big stick. When you make a mistake, the Dean is right there to whack you on the body part that most fits the crime. If you want to avoid contact with the Dean, you must learn ways to carry more inertia with you.
Some people go out and buy all kinds of cool gear, or fancy jerseys with lots of pockets. Other people go out and get a suspension fork for their mountain bike thinking that this will allow them to clean any obstacle at any speed. This will do nothing for you in the real world, and you can expect the sting of the Dean when you try your feats of momentum without the proper amount of inertia in tow.
When you hit an obstacle with your front tire you start a process of energy-transference which is akin to the old toy with the five suspended metal balls. If you recall, you can swing one of the metal balls and it will hit into the rest of the balls and cause the ball on the opposite end to start swinging also. The result is that the balls on opposite ends take up the energy and pass it back and forth until it is all spent.
When I was hitting the roots on the trail, I did not have sufficient inertia to push the bike over the obstacle. The front tire would contact the Root, and without the proper inertia, the tire had nowhere to go. The energy of bumping into the Root was then transferred from the front tire of the bike, down the length of the bike, and into the rear of the bike. The unwanted result was that the rear tire was "lofted" off of the trail and into the air - even if only for a few millimeters. By the time the energy reaches the rear of the bike you have lost some of the initial energy you had, and you have caused the front tire to completely stop rotating. Once the energy makes its way back towards the front of the bike you better have your feet on the ground, or you may go over the bars.

Sound familiar?? If not, think of a case where you were riding and you did something to cause the front tire to get stuffed into something. You know you have to put your feet down, or you are going to fly off the bike like a stuntman in a Chick Norris film.
>From the point of view of the Dean of Inertia, you did not carry enough inertia to clear the obstacle. The problem with the Dean is that he has no understanding of broken bones. There are obstacles you can clear if you have enough speed, but you may die about 10 feet past the obstacle if you try.
You can trick the Dean if you know how. There are no rules that you have to be on the ground to clear an obstacle. In fact, the less of you and the bike which is on the ground, the less inertia you need to get over something, and the more forgiving the Dean can be. Instead of hitting Root's, one could lift the front tire over the Root as it is approached. By doing this, you need less inertia and you run a much lower risk of stopping abruptly and unexpectedly.

Doing a Wheelie:

This is actually the easier of the tricks needed to foil the Dean. The trick to a wheelie is your pedal position. You need to know where you are on the pedal stroke to determine the height and duration of your wheelie. Start with your standard 5 inch sidewalk curb. See if you can find a curb with grass on the other side of it - this makes run-ins with the Dean much easier as you learn to wheelie.
Approach the curb at a speed which is a bit higher than you think is necessary (Trust me). As you approach the curb, stop pedaling and get your stronger leg just past the top of a pedal stroke. About 1 wheel diameter (26 inches) before you hit the curb, press down hard with your pedal and thrust the bars back and up into your face. (Note: do not let the bars hit your face) As you press on the pedal and pull on the bars, lean back a little bit. This takes some practice, but you will be able to get the front wheel off the ground high enough to clear the curb if you prctice a few times.
Unfortunately, you still have the rear tire to deal with.
About the time you realize you are successful at getting the front tire to clear the curb, you may be abruptly stopped when the rear tire hits the curb. This is where you have to foil the Dean of Inertia. Somewhere between clearing the curb with the front and hitting the curb with the rear, you need to shift your weight forward - perhaps even pedal if you want to make it easier. If you do this right, the rim will hit the curb with a thud, but it will keep rolling up and over the edge of the curb and you will still be rolling!! Sound amazing? It isn't! A wheelie is a great survival tool. You can use a small wheelie to get your front tire over a Root or a bigger wheelie to get onto something for a climb.
As with anything you try the first time, there is a bit of excess enthusiasm involved. So, in case you are wondering, you will not need the extra 2 feet of air you may get while you are learning to do a wheelie. Conservation of energy will make the wheelie easier - only go as high as you need to. Low-altitude wheelies are also more indicative of safe landings.
Before moving on, you need to know about your front suspension fork (if you have one that is). If you have a front fork, you will need to actually practice harder than if you had a rigid fork. In the case of a front fork, you need to only get the front wheel high enough to kiss the curb as you hit it, thus making a smooth transition. If you think this is easy, it is not. The reason is simple though. You do not want to compress your fork on the sidewalk if you can avoid it, and yet you are hammering it up the curb like a tractor going over school bus. (hey, I didn't do it!)

Let's look at our fork work in macro-vision.

If you violently jerk up on the bars to start your wheelie, you are going to rapidly extend the front suspension to its limits. This is called "topping out." You will be extending the fork as you leave the earth, but you want to do this in an even, upward thrust. This will keep the fork from using all of its extended travel when you leave the ground. This will help you and the fork land the front tire better!
After you have left the ground, your fork is in a state of "rippling" from the launch from the terra firma. It was extended when you started the wheelie, and now it has reached the full length of its travel and is beginning to rebound towards compressing itself back down again. All of a sudden, you put the tire on the curb with the grace of a jackhammer. The fork starts to compress, the fork bottoms out, the fork flexes to one side a bit, the tire deforms....It is an ugly sight! If you can loft the tire right onto the curb as you approach it, then the tire will not hit so hard, the fork will not compress to the limits, and you will land smoother with more of your inertia intact. This, in turn, will confuse the "Dean of Inertia" into letting you pass. It is Sheer elegance!

Bunny-hops:

These are not recommended. You cannot jump yet. Come back to this after you jump a bit.

Jumping:

It seems strange to me that this is called "jumping". It should be called "landing" because if you do not land right it can turn a beautiful body into something that looks like it followed a corpse through a keg of nails. One thing you never stop learning about are jumps. Just when you think you can catch air on the slightest irregularity in the trail and land with the grace of a Harrier jet, you will screw up some simple air-opportunity and end up on your butt looking like the Harrier landed on your face! There is no wisdom about jumping to impart other than the landing. One can speculate about how to react to the incline of the 'launching ramp', but the secret in the jump is the landing.
At first, you will want to practice jumping to land on both tires and maintain control of the bike. You will also want to practice pedaling out of, and braking after a jump. This sounds completely silly, but if you cannot land you cannot jump well. The amount of "air" you catch will grow in time. Do not be in a hurry to get 4 feet in the air - the landings are a real pantload and mistakes are met with swift repercussions. Using the same curb (make sure someone else has not read this and is practicing in the same place), practice going off the curb. When you go off, try to do a mini-wheelie to keep the front end level. If you do this right, you will land on both wheels at the same time on the same line you took when you left the curb. If you pull too hard you will probably feel your rear tire hit first, and if you do not pull hard enough, you will feel the front tire hit the street first (sometimes followed by rock entering your nostrils).
Make sure you have this down well. You need to be able to come at the curb from the sidewalk at any safe angle and leave the curb smoothly while landing on both tires at the same time. You should then still have control of the bike so that you can pedal on, or you can stop if needed. As you get better, see if you can land with a bit less intensity. You will find that you can land much softer than you could when you first start practicing.
The next variation on this is to see how far you can "fly" before you hit the street. If you are not landing real hard, you are ready to see how far you can go. Find some soft, innocuous object like a piece of a garden hose, an old glove, or something which is soft but has a "unique" side/look to it.
Place the object on the street about 15 inches from the curb. Now try to go off the curb, clear the object, and still land smoothly. For those of you who are forked, concentration on smooth take-offs and landings is most critical here also. Just like with the wheelie, if you are muscling the bike or hammering on the fork, you will have a real hard landing, and in this case, you may not be able to stay on after a botched landing.
Since the object has that "unique" side, it will tend to move or roll over if you hit it. If you clear the object, it will not move. As you get better, keep moving the object farther from the curb until you get about 5 to 7 times the distance of the curb's height.
You will know if you move it too far. You will not be able to land with any control (lofting it) or you will never clear the mark.

Bunny-hops revisited:

You jumped ahead didn't you!
If you really practiced wheelies and jumping, you are about 75% of the way to being a bunny-hoppin' fool.
If you did not practice wheelies and jumps well, this will be frustrating and time-consuming.
To be clear, it is assumed that you can wheelie up a curb without crashing or stopping, and it is assumed that you can do this smoothly. It is also assumed that you can jump twice as far as a curb is high and land smoothly.
If you have a fork, you must be able to land without bottoming out. If you find this is hard, you may want to dial the preload or damping to a higher setting. Personally, I hate suspension changes as they can make something you previously learned hard to do again. Ok, now that you have signed your own mental disclaimer, let's go hop something. How about a 2X4?
Take a section of 2X4 and lay it down in your practice area (street, driveway, roof, whatever). The idea is to start with a wheelie and try to get over the board without hitting your tires on it. Start your approach to the board with enough speed to keep you moving after you clear the board. Just as you are about 1 wheel diameter from the board, start your wheelie. As soon as your wheelie is high enough to clear the board, pretend you are jumping off the curb by pressing down a bit on the bars and rolling your wrists forward.
This is hard, so plan on spending a few hours practicing.
Unknown to you, you learned how to load the tires for a jump when you were trying to clear the curb. If you think about it, you have to put weight on the rear tire just as you want to leave the curb and then "spring" up to get the tire to leave the curb and land smoothly on the street. The concept here is the same, but you have to use your wrists to adjust the altitude of the wheels a bit more.
Let's try the hop again.
Start towards the board. Just before you get to it, load the tires up with the weight of your body by crouching down just before you do your wheelie. Start the wheelie by bouncing up from the slight crouch you are in, and as the front wheel leaves the ground, pull up on the bars a little and start to roll your wrists forward slightly. This will cause the rear tire to meet the altitude of the front tire. You are now in the air. If you did this right, you will clear the board with no problems. If you are having problems, try for a bit, but then take a break and go work on wheelies and jumping some more.
Bunny-hops have the side effect of being hard to master and easy to perform incorrectly. Do not spend a ton of time working on bunny-hops as you will usually get into the rut of learning bad habits. Once you learn the basics, you will find that time on a trail will help you the most. Also, it takes some strength to get a good bunny-hop. Do not be discouraged if you cannot bunny-hop the first month after you get your bike or start training. It can take a few months to master as you build muscles and coordination. For now, if you can jump and wheelie, you can survive on the majority of your chosen trails.
One other last note about hopping on trails - it can hurt when you do it wrong. If you are approaching an obstacle and you are not sure you can hop it, don't! Unless you are sure you can clean some object in your path, do not even try. Confidence will help you more than the need for speed. There is nothing wrong with stopping your bike, getting off, and walking around some insurmountable object instead of slamming into some tree or rock becuse you misjudged your abilities.
If you always err on the side of caution, you will usually be able to get home with you and the bike in one relative piece. This is generally referred to as "winning".

So the next time you see one of those brutal little trail creatures obstructing what could be a perfect line, take to the air and pass the rodent like a bowl of Mongolian BBQ. Keep yourself aware of the rules governing the "Dean of Inertia" though, or something will knock the air out of you!

Flyin Al


Got a question for Flyin' Al?


If you have any fishing or mountain biking questions for Flyin' Al, you can send an email to: aeb@adobe.com



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