TAKE CONTROL, with Wavecel is a six-part series of articles by one of South Africa’s most experienced skills instructors, Sean Badenhorst. The articles will help you understand key elements of mountain biking better so that you can improve your control when riding. Improved control leads to fewer falls, higher speeds and greater confidence. Part 2 deals with controlling your momentum.

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There are three basic rules to achieving mountain biking control – Intended Direction, Controlled Momentum and Managed Centre of Gravity. Yes, there are others, but if you combine these three primary rules repeatedly every time you ride, they become intuitive and you become a more relaxed, in-control rider. We’ll focus on each in a different part of this series so that we break it down completely to give you the best shot at understanding not only what to do, but why.

There’s a mountain biking cliché: ‘Momentum is your friend’. It’s not wrong. If you have momentum you have stability and balance. But the saying really should be: ‘Controlled momentum is your friend’.

If you don’t have momentum on a mountain bike you’re highly vulnerable to falling over. Even some momentum gives you stability and allows you to stay upright. The gyroscopic effect on your wheels when you gain momentum allows them to stay upright and gives you the ability to control your bike. During a mountain bike ride you are constantly controlling your momentum – either pedalling to get up a slope or braking occasionally to manage the momentum that gravity gives you for free on a descent.

On downhills

Since gravity already delivers always-on momentum assistance on downhills, you simply need to control it. You do this mostly with your brakes, but also by choosing appropriate lines (which comes from looking up/ahead) and managing your body position and centre of gravity (we’ll cover this in Part 3). If you started rolling down a descent without touching your brakes, you’re likely to move so fast that you’re out of control and will crash. That’s why we talk about controlled momentum and not just momentum.

Braking on descents

This is a good time to mention brakes. Don’t shy away from your front brake. It’s very powerful and, if you use it with the right amount of force at the right time, it delivers incredible control on descents. Obviously use your front brake in conjunction with your rear brake to even out the braking forces and achieve optimal control. Because the brakes create friction and some resistance to your bike and you rolling freely down the slope, you’ll need to lean back a little (or a lot) depending on the gradient. As soon as you release your brakes though, there’s no resistance, so you need to move your weight more to the centre of the bike.

If you’re currently nervous on descents and brake too much, try this:

Find an uncomplicated, straightish descent that’s of moderate gradient (minus 5-10%). Roll down and let your brakes go with 25% of the descent remaining. Repeat until you feel confident. Then release your brakes with 50% of the descent remaining. Repeat until you feel confident. If it’s a descent that’s appropriate/safe, repeat at 75% remaining and then eventually use no brakes for the entire descent. This teaches you how to harness gravity, trust physics, look ahead, find a controlled position on the bike and, ultimately, relax on a descent.

On uphills

Gravity is constant and is heavily in our favour on downhills. But on uphills we need to battle against gravity to maintain a controlled level of desired momentum. That’s why it’s important to master gear shifting. Too hard a gear on a climb and you’ll lose momentum. Because you’re looking up/ahead (see Part 1) you are aware of what’s coming and are shifting your gears accordingly to maintain controlled momentum to the summit of the slope or climb.

Mountain bike gears, especially the modern 1x drivetrains, are incredibly durable and able to handle planned-shifts, pressure-shifts and even panic-shifts. A planned-shift is self-explanatory. A pressure-shift is needed when you’re on the incline and searching for a more appropriate/lighter gear to scale it with. And a panic-shift is usually seen when an inexperienced rider finds himself/herself grinding almost to a halt and then desperately shifting to find a gear, ANY gear, that’s pedallable!

There’s a classic scenario that most can relate to: You’re on a climb that’s steep or technical – or both – and you’re struggling to turn your drivetrain because you didn’t shift or you simply aren’t strong enough to keep pedalling. You start to wobble, then you look down and then you either stop or fall over. Why? Because you lost your momentum! Even some momentum should get you up a climb, so don’t give up! Shift to an easier gear and look up/ahead. These two actions will usually get you up the climb. It may not be fast, or smooth, or composed, but you will likely retain some momentum and reach the top.

To improve your control, start doing this – on every ride:

  • Look 10 metres ahead for every 10kph you’re moving (approximately)
  • Become more proactive than reactive to upcoming ascents or descents
  • Start shifting gears before you start a steep climb
  • Shift gears on a steep climb
  • Start using your front brake (with your rear brake) on descents, but lean back a bit
  • Practice descending confidence once a week

In Part 3 of our TAKE CONTROL with Wavecel series, we’ll cover Managed Centre of Gravity.

Wavecel is collapsible cellular structure that lines the inside of the helmet and is exclusive to Bontrager. Wavecel reduces rotational acceleration on impact and has been shown to be more effective than traditional foam helmets at protecting your head from certain types of bicycle falls. More details and video here.

Paid partnership with Bontrager Wavecel