Clive Forth's A-Z of mountain biking: D for drops - Bike Magic

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Clive Forth’s A-Z of mountain biking: D for drops


Words: Clive Forth
Pictures courtesy of: Frazer Waller

Welcome to the A-Z of skills and technique, a bi-weekly look into the language around skills tuition with some useful riding tips thrown in for good measure. Today we have arrived at the letter D, closely linked to the opening A for Anxiety many riders ‘get the fear’ when it comes to drop-offs.

Clive taking a drop whilst riding with Bike Verbier. This skill is essential for big mountain trail riding.

drop |dräp|

verb ( drops, dropping dropped ) [ with obj. ]

1 let or make (something) fall vertically: informal take (a drug, esp. LSD) orally: he dropped a lot of acid in the Sixties.

2 [ no obj. ] fall vertically: the spoon dropped with a clatter from her hand.

• (of a person) allow oneself to fall; let oneself down without jumping: they escaped by climbing out of the window and dropping to the ground.

6 put or leave in a particular place without ceremony or formality: 

I want to touch on and highlight the phrase above, “let oneself down without jumping”:

This is a key phrase to hold onto. If you watch a World Cup DH rider take a drop you will notice they stay low over the bike as they approach the drop then extend the limbs to get the bike down fast (lowering the bike and then themselves down) before using those extended limbs to absorb the impact from landing.

You will see minimal or no upwards movement, even if the lip to the drop is pointing upwards (more of a jump style lip) they will absorb this by allowing the bike to rise up into the body, when we lower ourselves before a drop we do not bottom out.

There is always room for the limbs to bring the bike up into the body and drive the bike down to earth.

But no two drops are the same and you may need to use a different technique, from launching off and lowering bike and body to the trail below to simply walking down the section of trail.

Various factors including how much entry and exit room you have to the severity of the surface and gradient make it near impossible to prescribe a cure for all drop offs.

I have coined the phrases below to help break down drop technique:

Rolling Drop – “Press Drop”

Fly-off – “Punch Drop”

Leap off – Wheelie Drop

Rolling Drop – “Push Drop” 

When we simply roll down a drop there is a tendency for the front wheel to go light, when the front wheel meets the trail below a momentary ‘stall’ happens and your body is compressed into the bars, your arms take the load and keep your torso from impacting the stem/bars.

If we look at the speed we take the drop relative to the height we fall we can further dissect the physics. At slow speeds on low drops this ‘stalling’ process is less evident, free fall is much smaller, on minute drops almost non-existent.

As speed increases so will hang time from the front wheel (unless we deploy the press drop), on minute drops again the stall is less evident but still present, the less savoury scenario and number one cause for failure and fractures starts to unfold as we increase the height that the front wheel is dropping.

And a more Scottish scene on Clive’s local trails.

Even if we decrease the speed to absolute minimum to reduce front wheel hang time, the load from the additional drop height goes up and the arms have to work much harder to stop the torso compressing into the stem/bar and sending you out the front.

Take note: This is a darned good reason not to “get ya weight back” and “hang your arse off the back of the saddle”. THIS IS A BIG NO-GO. I have to point out it’s a trick of the shade, an illusionary effect of a still image. If you hang off the back you extend your arms, your torso (weight) is further back and arms extended.

In this instance you no longer have the ability to lower the bike down!

Viewed from a still image taken from the side you can see something close to this posture in the mid point of the drop, the image however does not show the posture on entry or split seconds after as you start your exit. The common mistake and miss interpretation is to approach and adopt this stance before the drop or mid point to the drop. We are never static, always allow the weight of the bike to move freely below you, it’s the bike that should be considered as the weight and not the rider.

In pictures it appears that you have moved back but this is simply not the case, what has happened is the rider has moved the bike forward away from them (using a dipper wrist, pushing from the back of the palm).

Having a little more fun as the drop technique gets perfected.

If you move backwards then you make the front light (think manual) and end up hanging from the bar by your fingers in a monkey grip fashion. This action is the start of a manual, manual hop (bunny hop) and certain jumps. The movement initiates ‘lift’ in the front end and is associated with “jumping” not dropping as per our dictionary reference above.

If you pull up and ‘tug’ on the handlebar you have once again lifted away from the trail in a different direction to the intended direction of travel.

This energy inefficient technique also means the hands come closer in and up towards the torso/shoulders, so when you then go to extend the arms in an attempt to put the bike back down you only lower it to the same height it started or thereabouts. (The weight of you and your steed combined with leverage points here means this ‘weight/bike’ actually falls away and pulls you down in the process.)

By pivoting at the hips, lowering the torso you will bend the elbows, you then have the ability to press the bike down and away from you.

So how do we take rolling drops safely and speedily?

The answer is in the press drop, the aim of the game is to get that front wheel down as soon as possible (press it into the trail below in a controlled fashion), you need the front wheel for braking and steering, now if you had lots of room on the entry and exit to the drop you may just fly off it but in this scenario the first building block is to roll it safely.

Start slow and feel the drop: feel through the tyres contact patch the edge, feel the load on the landing and keep them limbs loose to help absorb the landing in both the arms and legs, you will be learning to feel the traction from tyre and braking forces as the wheels roll over the lip. The BIG ONE here is learning to feel the load as the front wheel impacts the trail below and use your natural suspension to absorb this energy and keep yourself centred on the bike.

Develop muscle memory to respond instinctively

You will also feel the contact patch or rear tyre as it rolls over the lip and associated braking forces as the wheel goes light then impacts the trail below, you need to constantly change pressures on the brakes to avoid locking the wheels.

Key points:
  • Look before you take the drop, can you roll down it with the Press Drop or will your chainrings hit? 
  • Start small and slow, build the pace on small drops before increasing the height
  • As you increase the height of the drop lower the speed back down, then gradually build the pace
  • Roll towards the drop stood tall and proud above the bike looking ahead, spot the trail feature and your line
  • Adjust you speed as you approach and lower into the bike staying centred
  • As the front wheel rolls over the edge extend your arms to lower the bike to the trail below
  • You will need to decrease brake pressure as the front wheel momentarily gets some hang time
  • As the front wheel contacts use those outreached arms to then absorb the landing and prevent the torso coming into the front centre of the bike
  • As the rear goes over the lip use your thighs to press the back of the bike down
  • Decrease rear brake to avoid locking the wheel and compensate with more front brake
  • Remember to keep looking ahead!

Once you have built confidence rolling down the drops braking in a controlled fashion start over again on the small drop and just roll down it slowly with no brakes.

Build the pace and press the wheels down as you roll over the lip/edge.

You will find that as the speed goes up you start to get a little hang time from the front wheel and can no longer press down fast enough relative to your trail speed, THIS IS THE SWEET SPOT AND UPPER LIMIT OF SPEED VS HEIGHT.

This leads you into the next technique and the repeated practice will have given you that muscle memory to respond instinctively on faster Punch Drops.

Fly-off – “Punch Drop”

Using the same approach, go back to a small drop, consider the key techniques of vision, body position and speed control, ride in around the same pace as your fastest run on the Press Drop.

This time from your lower centred position use a flick of the wrist and ‘punch’ the bike out in front of you as the front wheel floats off the lip/edge of the drop. The tricky part now on small drops is to use the fingers to pull yourself back into the centre of the bike as both bike and you fall towards the trail below, it all happens very fast on small drops and if you can sequence these explosive dynamic movements on small drops with very limited hang time you will float down larger drops with ease.

  • You need to be back in the middle of the bike in order to move the bike and absorb the landing
  • Extend the limbs in free fall to help with absorbing the landing
  • Remember to keep looking ahead and ride out clean.
  • Build the height up as confidence increases and hey presto your dropping better than ever

Leap off – Wheelie Drop

This advanced technique is rarely deployed on the trail and more frequently seen being used by trials riders.

Where limited entry and exit prevail and the drop is to sever to simply roll and press down you can pop a wheelie over the lip/edge and free fall down into a tight precise landing zone, it is essential to have mastered the wheelie so we will cover more on this when we reach W later in the series.

Also in the D category…
  • Death grip: The act of clinging onto the bar for dear life, the body posture of the passenger not the pilot. Relax your grip and your whole body will relax.
  • Downhills: Do I really need to expand on this? Hand up if you love this part.
  • Dragging the brakes: This builds heat and makes brakes less effective, it also reduces the tyres ability to grip the trail.
  • Drift: Sliding sideways, skid drifts are initiated by using the rear brake and locking a wheel, the ultimate technique is the inertia drift. The inertia drift requires excessive speed and is a technique used to slow the bike by sliding over braking.

Stay tuned for more ramblings next week in The Opposite Pedal and I’ll see you back here  (or out on the trails) in two weeks for E and endos.

Clive Forth. – Transition Bikes.

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