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 3 deals with managing your centre of gravity.

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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.

When you’re standing next to your mountain bike, there are two stationary objects. The heavy one (you) and the light one (your bike). When you get on your bike, you are placing the heavy object on top of the light object. If you weigh 84kg and your bike weighs 12kg, you are placing an object seven times heavier on top of your bike. Sit on our saddle, grab your handlebars and clip into your pedals and you have one object that’s now very, very top heavy.

When sitting on your saddle, your centre of gravity is at your chest, quite a long way from the ground. This makes you unstable as you roll along and vulnerable from a physics perspective. When you feel unstable and vulnerable, you go slower and you’re also at great risk of falling.

The good news is that it’s easy to change this. Simply take your weight off your saddle and transfer it to your pedals. This small adjustment takes your centre of gravity from chest high to just above your ankles – close to the ground. That’s quite a drop and it takes you from being top-heavy and unstable to bottom-heavy and stable. This allows you to gain more control and feel more confident.

When should you take your weight off the saddle?

Notice how on a climb (top image), Vlad Dascalu sits on his saddle to pedal. His centre of gravity is chest high, but he’s focussed on maintaining momentum and looking ahead (first two rules of Control). Then, on a descent or technical section such as this rock garden, he’s moved his weight off his saddle and down to his pedals, which takes his centre of gravity to just above his ankles, giving him much greater stability and control. | Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool 

This is quite simple – any time you don’t need to pedal to gain momentum, you should have no weight on your saddle and all your weight on your pedals – usually on a descent or a flattish section which you have been able to carry momentum into.

This requires sitting less and standing more, which many people take some time getting used to. It’s more demanding on our body to stand more, but if you do it every ride, you become appropriately conditioned to it. If you are out of your saddle with your weight on your pedals on a tight, twisty singletrack trail with some rises and rolldowns, you will be smoother than faster than if you sit on your saddle a lot. Of course this should also include you following our Intended Direction instructions as well as our Controlled Momentum advice.

Have a look at any competent mountain biker. When they’re on a descent or even just rolling along a twisty section of trail, they’re on their pedals and far from their saddle. When they’re on a climb or anywhere else they need to pedal, they’re seated. It’s not practical to pedal out of the saddle, other than brief bursts, on a mountain bike, so sitting to pedal is the most efficient and comfortable position, but get ready to stand as soon as you start getting freewheel momentum.

Of course this is where you can benefit substantially from having a dropper seatpost. A saddle gets in the way a lot of the time when you’re standing and manoeuvring the bike. Being able to drop it down and out of the way makes you a more stable in-control rider. Here’s a more detailed article on the relevance of a dropper seatpost.

Notice that by dropping her saddle right down, Jolanda Neff has plenty of room to move her body over/forward/sideways on descents, which gives her a high level of control. And  because she has all her weight low down on her pedals, she has a low centre of gravity, which offers optimal control. | Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool  

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
  • Stand as often as you can – especially on descents while freewheeling
  • Focus on getting your weight on your pedals and off your saddle

If you missed the first two parts of this series, here’s where you can find them:

Part 1: Intended Direction

Part 2: Controlled Momentum

In Part 4 of our TAKE CONTROL with Wavecel Series, we’ll cover Cornering With Control.

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