Skilful balance is fundamental to riding a bike – it’s the first thing you must learn, and refining it often yields rapid improvements in your trail skills.
Signs of poor balance on a bike include:
* Less confident on slow technical trails than fast smooth ones
* Trying to ride north shore ‘skinnies’ quickly to avoid toppling over
* Struggling on technical climbs, where obstacles can’t be overcome with momentum
* Avoiding anything ‘trials riding’ related
Great mountain bikers often appear to be riding intuitively with ‘natural’ or ‘innate’ ability. Their balance skills are highly refined, and the result is they can do a lot of complex decision making subconsciously, allowing them to remain relaxed, and ride faster with less to consciously think about.
So it is possible to improve your balance? – Absolutely. Balance is simply a learned skill that can be acquired by anyone who chooses to practice it, at any age in their life. Hooray!
The Inner Workings: Keeping upright
Your brain has three sources of feedback to let it know how upright and stable you are:
Inner Ear: Full of fluid – pretty reliable, unless you spin round and round too fast –unlikely on your bike.
Sight: This provides information about balance, but you also rely on it to judge speed, line choice and trail hazards. If you over-task it with a fast, rocky, slippery trail, your performance will be reduced when you least need it!
Physical Contact: subconscious feedback through your soft tissue – on a bike most of this originates through your feet, as they bear most of your weight.
Many riders rely heavily on their eyes for balance input, where elite bikers get the same information through the physical contact with their feet, leaving their eyes with fewer tasks to juggle when the trail goes mental. Improve your contact balance – improve your riding!
The DIY Balance Test
1. Stand on one leg with your arms held out to the sides for about 30 seconds
2. Tune in to the constant tiny movements and muscle tension shifts in your foot
3. Now close your eyes and repeat the exercise
4. Monitor the change in your ankle movements and foot tension – is your lower calf tiring? any major wobbles? Do you feel an urge to open your eyes?
If there’s a significant difference between your eyes open and eyes closed balance, time spent practising eyes-closed tasks will benefit your riding:
Balance Better – Ride Better
Whether it’s cleaning your teeth, eating a sandwich or queuing in the post office on one leg with eyes shut, constant practice will get you funny looks but great bike handling skills.
Cycle-specific practice is even better – turn the dead time spent waiting for mates on the trail into mini balance sessions: Focus on your track stands, trials skills, seek out those low speed technical challenges, or find a road-biking mate and take a spin on their rollers.
Great balance means less crashes, a more fluid riding style and it gives you a clearer head on the most technical climbs and descents – what’s not to like?
John Kettle has been riding and racing mountain bikes for 25 years and coaching sport for 10. He’s Co-Director of Trailhum – http://trailhum.com providing mountain bike coaching and guiding in the English Lake District.
Our resident mount biking expert Rob jarman also has this advice on maintaining balance:
“If you don’t have confidence you don’t have balance. A confident rider is relaxed, loose and light. Whilst a scared rider is tight, rigid and top heavy. To balance well on the trail you need to be able to move around on the bike and flow with the trail, not against it.”
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