Written By Coach Elaine Bothe from the Ryan Leech Connection Team
“Should I or shouldn’t I?” Enjoying challenges, building skills progressively and assessing risks are part of what makes mountain biking so fun. But how do you decide if a feature on an unfamiliar trail is within your skills or comfort zone? This article isn’t going to teach you dropping and jump skills (we’ll save those for other sections on this website). We will help you build your own assessment tools and how to decide whether to try a feature or save it for another day!
Is it rollable? Many small drops and jumps are rollable, which makes a trail more enjoyable to riders with a variety skills. When I’m checking out a new feature, I’ll walk it, look at it from the top and from the bottom first. I look for odd shapes that might catch a pedal, loose dirt or rocks or anything unpredictable. Then I’ll actually walk my bike down it to see if my chain ring or bottom bracket will catch. Keep in mind you’ll have less clearance as your bike’s shock compresses!
What if it’s not rollable and you don’t know how to drop or jump? No shame in walking or riding around if that’s an option. Walk it if your bike is going to bottom out, or if you’re not confident in your drop or jumping technique, don’t know how fast you should be going, or are unsure of the terrain for any reason. Hang around to watch other riders, and take notes. You’ll learn plenty by getting used to looking at features even if you choose to not ride it.
What is the difference between a drop and a jump? A drop is when the trail falls away at a ledge of some sort, such as a buried root or rock. A jump is a trail feature that goes upward, and includes tabletops as well as more natural terrain. As your trail speed pick up, developing strong dropping and jumping technique will allow you to continue your momentum without slowing down to safely roll the feature.
For drops, use your own body as a reference point to the height. This will be handier than carrying a tape measure with you. As you gain confidence with your speed and technique on each progressive drop, measure how high it is on your leg. Is it as tall as your ankle bone, knee, hip, waist or shoulder? When you’re out on the trail and you find a feature you’re considering dropping, rolling or walking, measure it!
For gaps, which are really just tabletops with the middle part missing, pace off the distance from take-off point to the transition or landing zone. If you’re clearing 6-pace tabletops, a 4-pace gap with similar dirt may be within your skills. If the gap is 6 paces and the hole is closer to the landing than the takeoff, you’d probably want to ride around that one until you’re comfortable with a 7 or 8-pace tabletop!
Also consider the approach and landing. Is the natural trail rougher or smoother compared to where you practice? Rougher means you might need to work a little harder to keep your speed appropriate. Smoother means check your speed, because it’s easy to go too fast.
Is the gap approach and landing steeper or shallower than what you’re used to? Are they even with each other or is one side taller? If you don’t know how to adjust your technique for these variations, or have any doubt, feel free to ride around it.
ALWAYS check out the landings before riding any new feature! Have fun and be safe out there. Extra armor and a full face helmet might make you feel more comfortable trying something new. Work up to features step by step. As with anything, when your technique is feeling less than coordinated, seek coaching.
Elaine hitting the Big Bad Wolf Drop photo credit: Chris McFarland, others: Elaine Bothe. Tabletop pacing technique courtesy of Fluidride’s Simon Lawton.