Drag Acts And Singlespeeds

February 3, 2017

Mountain Bike Coach, Ian Bailey gives you some tips on how to get some easy free speed from your bike riding. While it’s as simple as ‘brake less and pedal more’ you’ll find that there a few essential tips that help you on your way… 

It’s a bold claim but as a professional mountain bike coach I’m often tasked with helping riders improve their speed. Usually it comes as a by-product of better technique as they master necessary movements and their brain computes them into the realm we call unconscious competence. Sometimes though it’s a very deliberate act, particularly with the XC heads and Enduro lovers that are looking to edge up the results sheets. In many cases, they’re already very fit and extremely adept at squeezing effort out of their bodies. They think that they’ve plateaued and have little possibility of making any further big advances until I step in with a couple of simple exercises.

Don’t pull it, shout it.

1) Drop the Drag Act

I’m a control freak. This manifests itself in all sorts of weird ways in everyday life, both beneficial and intensely irritating. On a bike, it results in me permanently needing the subconscious crutch of being on the brakes. Through years of coaching I’ve come to realise that I’m far from alone in this respect, 99% of the people I work with also constantly drag their brakes without even realising and so I use a quick test to demonstrate and work towards eradicating it.

1) Pick a downhill trail that you’re familiar with and time yourself riding it as fast as you can. Don’t initially go for something too techy but it needs a few corners and tricky bits.

2) Ride the same trail again but every time you’re about to brake say the word ‘brake’ to yourself. Consider whether you actually need to decelerate for the feature or could you get through at current speed.

3) Repeat point two until you feel that you’ve stopped all non-essential braking.

4) Do another timed run with no gear changes, no pedalling and as little braking as possible.

I’ve done this numerous times with some startling results. As with many of my sessions it evolved on the spot and I had no idea of what the outcome would be but it truly has blown me away. Initially I picked it up on my watch but then my clients sent me Strava data to back it up showing some huge time improvements. Here’s the key finding;

Riders are consistently faster when they stop trying to shift and pedal and instead focus on flow and not braking.

After a few goes I’ll often ride in front and act as a carrot to entice more speed from my riders. They’ll usually stay close on the straights but then the gaps widen greatly on the bends as they reach unnecessarily for the anchors. The fundamentals of good cornering are another issue and if you want to improve that vital skill then I’d suggest some coaching (obviously!) but this exercise is about learning when, and how hard to brake.

Dragging brakes is totally unnecessary and with practice you can kick the habit. If you’re anything like me or my students, then you’ll be amazed and a little terrified how rapidly you’ll subsequently pick up speed even on fairly shallow gradients. Maintaining that speed is then all about staying relaxed, looking well ahead and when you do brake, do it late and decisively then release. Once you’re at the optimum speed for the obstacle lay off and let it roll!

Do it because it works, not because it’s cool, M’kay?

2) Simplify with the Singlespeed

Gears make us lazy and slow us down! They also obviously speed us up at times and allow us to conquer trails we couldn’t without them but bear with me here.  I’ve been using a singlespeed for a few years now, particularly in the Winter when the bulk training loads are done and when I can’t be arsed cleaning mechs and cassettes. I tend to stick to the same training session, a double lap of a local 19km trail centre loop at full pace and I use the time as a test piece. I also use this session in the Summer sometimes when the 1×10 is back on the same bike; here’s where the weirdness begins.

I’m consistently (in fact almost always) faster on the singlespeed than with gears!

The loop itself is pretty undulating with climbs best described as punchy rather than prolonged so it does lend itself better to one gear than many trails do but even with that consideration there’s no way that not being able to match gears to terrain should make a bike faster.

So how does that work?

A wise man once said that riding a singlespeed is like being in the wrong gear all the time and I couldn’t agree more. I run a relatively easy to pedal 30-16 combination which makes the uphill slightly more palatable but essentially means that there’s no point pedalling once I hit about 15mph. Equally, although that gear is relatively low, it’s still harder than the gear you’d generally choose to accelerate out of a corner and so if I’m not careful the ride becomes a chorus of manically spinning legs and grunty quad searing efforts. Very quickly, in order to counteract this, singlespeed riders begin to develop an inherent smoothness.Once on the downs, with no benefit to pedalling we instead turn to pumping, assisting gravity and morphology to generate speed through body English not leg power. This has the added benefit of constantly levelled cranks, avoiding the pitfalls of snagging rotating pedals on sniper rocks and roots. Coming into corners we brake late and pump through, carrying speed and using technique to avoid that vein-bulging repetition of re-acceleration.

Being in the right gear takes a lot more conscious input than you’d ever imagine. How often are you tearing towards a corner through the chop of braking bumps while simultaneously trying to align your gears to allow you to pedal out effectively? Performing these functions denies you the time or brain space to get properly set up for the corner and so ultimately you fail to get around it as well as your capabilities would otherwise allow. This sounds daft but when I ride singlespeed I feel like I’ve got oodles of time as I approach corners and techy features unencumbered by the need to shift. What’s more, once you get over that unavoidable period of still trying to use the now removed shifter you’ll permanently have both hands gripping the bars properly generating more confidence and control.

So, you flow better, generate speed without pedalling, have more time to focus on technique, railing corners and floating through the tech. Still doubting my assertions? Try it and then let me know.

Going singlespeed doesn’t have to cost money, just choose the most suitable gear and then wrap some electrical tape around your shifter to deny you access. Then go and hit some trails and through necessity you’ll find yourself pumping, flowing and not dragging the brakes in order to save your poor legs from destruction.  By next Spring you’ll be fitter, faster and smoother, ready to go with the gears again but armed with a bigger arsenal of trail skills.

Good luck!

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